Wuhan: Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova will headline the inaugural Wuhan Open this week after Chinese icon and hometown hero Li Na announced her shock retirement on the eve of the tournament.
The pair are among the star-studded line-up for the $2.4 million event, which has been established on the back of the success of China's two-time Grand Slam winner. (Saddened by Li Na's exit, says Martina Hingis | 'I have no regrets')
The shadow of the tennis trailblazer has loomed large over the WTA Premier tournament since she stunned the sport by announcing her retirement through injury on Friday, but competition is certain to be intense with 19 of the top 20 players attending.
World number one Williams is among eight players who received byes in the first round, but could have a tricky encounter with Alize Cornet at the next stage.
Cornet has already beaten Williams twice this year, handing the American power-hitter her earliest defeat at Wimbledon for nine years in June, and also winning at Dubai in February.
The French player arrives in Wuhan in high spirits after reaching the final at the Guangzhou Open on Saturday, but must overcome Switzerland's Romina Oprandi in the first round to set up a clash with Williams.
Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard could also face a tough start to the tournament, as the sixth seed could meet Peng Shuai, who will be the fans' favourite due her status as the newly-crowned top player in China.
Peng became the third Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam semi-final earlier this month, but her heroics at the US Open were ended when she retired due to cramp and heatstroke against Caroline Wozniacki.
- Tussle for Singapore finale -
Second seed Simona Halep goes to Wuhan having already booked her place in the season finale, next month's WTA Championships in Singapore, which will feature the top eight women's players.
The Romanian has been in scintillating form since starting the year ranked 11th and arriving in Wuhan as world number two.
Sharapova, who defeated Halep at the French Open final in May to claim her fifth Grand Slam title, has also qualified for Singapore.
The Russian fourth seed was one of the first players to arrive in Wuhan and has been a regular fixture on the training courts.
Third seed Czech Petra Kvitova and fifth seed Agnieszka Radwanska will be looking to pick up points in Wuhan to help take them to Singapore.
Radwanska -- who will make the season finale if she reaches the final in Wuhan -- will play her opening match against Venus Williams if the American defeats France's Caroline Garcia in the first round.
The Wuhan Open is taking place in China's central Hubei province at the Optics Valley International Tennis Center, which is still under construction.
The main matches will be played at a 5,000 seat court, before a huge 15,000 capacity stadium nearby is completed for next year's tournament.
The complex is also set to have an "exhibition room" showcasing the career of Li, local media reported.
"Had it not been for Li," China's state-run news agency Xinhua said, "sports authorities in her hometown would have never imagined hosting a top-level event."
The 32-year-old, who is expected to come to Wuhan on Tuesday to meet her fans, said in the statement announcing her retirement that "never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that some of the best female athletes in the world could play tennis in Wuhan, in my backyard."
"Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams -- with 30 Grand Slam singles titles among them -- are coming to my home town to play tennis for the fans of China," she wrote.
The first round of the tournament begins Sunday and will reach its climax on September 27.