Rising stars Li Na and Zheng Jie are helping to turn Chinese tennis into the sport’s top priority, both on the court and in the boardroom.
After making history by reaching the women’s semifinals at the Australian Open in January, Li, 28, and Zheng, 26, were seeded at the French Open, which started this week in Paris. Li, seeded 11th, defeated France’s Stephanie Cohen-Aloro 6-2, 6-2 today to move to the third round. The second-round match of Zheng, the 25th seed, against Russia’s Anastasia Pivovarova was postponed because of rain.
Their success helped push tennis from an all-but-ignored sport to the front pages of China’s newspapers. The country accelerated plans to get more fans to pick up a racket, which started with China winning the bid to host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The nation’s tennis market may be primed to reach $4 billion annually, according to Tom Cannon, a professor and sports finance expert at the University of Liverpool Management School in England.
“China is our priority market,” Stacey Allaster, chief executive officer of the WTA Tour, said in a telephone interview from her office in St. Petersburg, Florida. “If we can get 8 or 9 percent of 1.2 billion people playing tennis in China, then we’re looking at a market opportunity of 100 million people.”
The WTA Tour, which runs the main women’s pro tennis circuit, estimates that 14 million people in China regularly play tennis, up from 1 million when the sport returned to the Olympics in 1988. The current participation figure is three times as many as in France and about half the 27 million players in the U.S., which has an $8.1 billion market for the sport.
“There are no obvious constraints to the development of tennis in China,” Cannon, who travels to China about three times a year, said in an interview.
The growth in Asia is also boosting the coffers of the WTA and men’s ATP World Tour, which stage two of their biggest events in China.
Li was the first Chinese player to break into the top 10 of the women’s game, shortly after she and Zheng became the initial two Chinese women to make the semifinals in singles of the same major, at the Australian Open in the beginning of the season.
China’s Li Ting and Sun Tian Tian won the women’s doubles gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. In 2006, Zheng and Yan Zi became the country’s first Grand Slam champions, taking the women’s doubles titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Zheng and Yan got a bronze medal in the women’s doubles. China now has three women inside the top 50.
“Lots of the girls are now choosing to play tennis, and coming to the tennis courts,” Zheng said in an interview in Rome earlier this month.
The lone Chinese man in the top 400 of the ATP World Tour is Zeng Shao-Xuan, at No. 370.
Li’s odds of winning the French Open are 66-1 at U.K. bookmaker Ladbrokes. That means a successful $1 bet on her will bring in $66 plus the original wager. Zheng is 100-1, while the favorite, Belgium’s Justine Henin, is 7-4 at Ladbrokes.
Chinese fans wearing Roland Garros caps waved flags three days ago when Li moved to the second round with a victory on Court Suzanne Lenglen.
Li and Zheng’s success in Melbourne was hailed on the front pages of five major Chinese newspapers, and thousands of people greeted the players when they returned home.
Tennis is now the third-most popular sport on television in China, behind European soccer and basketball, the WTA Tour estimates. The tour has a four-year deal with state-owned broadcaster China Central Television to show women’s tennis in 335 million households.
The women’s tour last year upgraded the China Open in Beijing to become the only combined event with the men’s tour in Asia. Played at the flower-shaped Beijing Olympic Tennis Center with combined prize money of $6.6 million and a main stadium that holds 10,000 spectators, the China Open is now one of the WTA’s top four tournaments.
Sponsors want to tap into this popularity, Brad Drewett, international director at the ATP World Tour who has been involved with developing the sport in China since 1998, said in a telephone interview from Melbourne.
“There is big demand from domestic and international sponsors to be involved with our two Chinese events,” Drewett said.
The ATP’s other flagship tournament in Asia is the $3.24 million Shanghai Masters, which is owned by the city and held in the $230 million Qi Zhong Tennis Center, the most expensive site on the men’s tour.
Luxury watchmaker Rolex Group this year signed up as title sponsor of the Shanghai Masters, while Dutch brewer Heineken NV and General Motors Co.’s Cadillac car brand also sponsor the tournament.
China is also a key market for mobile phone maker Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications Ltd., which in March renewed its sponsorship of the women’s tour by two years.
“What is exciting for us is the emergence of the women Chinese players,” Aldo Liguori, corporate vice president and head of global communications at Sony Ericsson, said in a telephone interview from London. “These ladies are getting very well known in China.”
China has 30,000 tennis courts, according to the WTA Tour. The Chinese government is aiming to increase that by 15 percent every year. There weren’t a lot of courts to play on when Li and Zheng were children.
“I remember there were only two courts, and I remember playing on it with 25 kids,” said Zheng, who grew up in Cheng Du, southwest China, and started playing when she was 6 years old.
Demand still outstrips supply, Li said.
“In Beijing, if you want to play tennis now, you have to book the court three to five days before,” she said. “Because otherwise, it’s full.”