HASTINGS DIRECT QUITS AS LADIES' TENNIS SPONSOR

INSURANCE company Hastings Direct has ended its four-year sponsorship of Eastbourne's prestigious international ladies' tennis tournament.

The Lawn Tennis Association has given an assurance that the event will go ahead this year with or without a major sponsor.

Hastings Direct has underpinned the tournament with annual sponsorship of 350,000 helping bring greats such as Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne to Devonshire Park each June.

The Lawn Tennis Association has vowed this year's event will go ahead regardless but the news has left a question mark over the tournament's longer term future in the town, with rumours that it could be moved to London.

The chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association, Roger Draper, is believed to favour centering pre-Wimbledon tournaments on London.

However, the LTA has a long term commitment to the Devonshire Park International tennis centre, in which it is a major investor.

And Matt Edwards, Sussex tennis manager for the Lawn Tennis Association, said, "I think it would be crazy to move the tournament away from Eastbourne. The last few years has seen the very top players in Eastbourne and I see no reason to change that."

"The Hastings Direct sponsorship was due to terminate and we are now actively seeking a new sponsor.

"I certainly have not heard anything about combining the tournament with the Stella (Artois at Queens Club London).

"The players like being away from the pressures of London before Wimbledon."

LTA press officer Rhian Evans said, "The event is not dependent on a new sponsor and it will go ahead regardless of whether one is secured. Negotiations are continuing but before one is finalised we want to make sure that any commitment is in the best interest of the sponsor and ourselves."

Insurance Australia Group (IAG) took over Hastings Direct in October, when bosses promised no job losses and no change to community support.

Clare Day, marketing manager at the Bexhill-based company, said supporting the event cost the company around 500,000 a year when advertising and promotional material was included.

"We have supported the event for four years. It took up a tremendous amount of our resources, it's not just about money.

"It takes up a lot of our time internally because when we support something we don't just play with it, we put all our corporate efforts behind it.

"We want to look at other opportunities for sponsorship in the local area."

Road safety campaigns and support for community events are on the cards.

Tournament Director Gavin Fletcher was not available for comment.