Maria Sharapova and Li Na are competing in the richest event on the women’s tennis tour this week in Istanbul as Turkey tries to boost its so-far unsuccessful campaign to host the Olympic Games.
Former Wimbledon champion Sharapova of Russia and French Open winner Li of China are part of an eight-woman field that also includes U.S. Open winner Sam Stosur of Australia competing for the WTA Championships title. The season-ending event, held in Turkey’s biggest city for the next three years, has close to $5 million in prize money. Doha hosted the tournament between 2008 and 2010.
Turkey has attracted global sports events such as the 2005 Champions League soccer final and invested in building new stadiums and infrastructure in an attempt to land the Olympic Games. After bids to host the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics all failed, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in August announced Istanbul’s bid for the 2020 Summer Games, saying it is “extremely important for our country and people.”
Hosting the top event on the women’s tour “can only be a significant building block in anything that they try to do to raise the profile of Istanbul and Turkey as a possible venue for the Olympics,” Alan Seymour, a professor of sports marketing at the U.K.’s University of Northampton, said in an interview.
Istanbul will be competing with former Olympic hosts Rome and Tokyo, as well as Doha, Madrid and Baku in Azerbaijan for the 2020 Games. The International Olympic Committee will select the host city in 2013.
“Turkey is a huge market with enormous potential,” WTA Tour Chief Executive Officer and Chairman Stacey Allaster said. The country “has done a great job of hosting some of the biggest sporting events. Turkey may very well have the resources, the facilities, and all of the potential to become an Olympic host nation.”
Turkey’s gross domestic product expanded 8.3 percent in the quarter that ended in June, the highest rate among the 30 largest European countries and almost three times Germany’s growth rate of 2.8 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The Turkish government has paid the women’s tour $36 million in cash up front to stage the year-end event until 2013, Allaster said in an interview in January.
Since 1994, Istanbul has built 14 Olympic venues, including the 75,000-seat Istanbul Ataturk Olympic Stadium and the multipurpose Sinan Erdem Dome, site of last year’s World Basketball Championships and the venue for the WTA Championships, a round-robin tournament featuring the top eight singles players and four doubles teams.
“Turkey is reading the situation very well because potentially it could become very significant in sporting terms,” said Simon Chadwick, a sports business professor at the Coventry University Business School in England.
“The Turkish are very passionate about sports, they’ve proved that they can put together the infrastructure,” Chadwick added. “The political system and the politicians have an appetite for sport and the public have an appetite for sport. Geographically, it fulfills this strategic role as a bridge between Asia and Europe. So Turkey potentially is very, very powerful.”
Tennis is a relatively small sport in Turkey, where soccer is the national pastime. The country, which has a population of 78 million people with an average age of 29, only has 12,000 registered tennis players, according to the Turkish Tennis Federation. Still, more than 10,000 spectators filled the venue on the opening day yesterday. The tournament runs to Oct. 30.
“The WTA’s strategy has been to rotate our year-end championships to different key markets in order to showcase the best of women’s tennis around the world and spur increased interest and investment in the sport,” Allaster said.
French bank BNP Paribas SA and its Turkish partner Turk Ekonomi Bankasi AS are title sponsors of the event and the WTA has also signed Swiss luxury watch brand Rolex Group as an endorser.
Media coverage in Turkey of the tournament “will help people get interested and start playing,” said Ayda Uluc, president of the Turkish Tennis Federation.
The second-ranked Sharapova, who lost her opening match yesterday to Stosur 6-1, 7-5, agreed.
“This is a big step forward,” Sharapova, who won her lone WTA Championships title in 2004 when she beat Serena Williams in Los Angeles, said in a pre-tournament press conference.
Turkey doesn’t have any players in the top 100 on either the men’s ATP World Tour or the women’s tour. Its best player is Marsel Ilhan, who is ranked 106th on the ATP.
“This is one of the biggest tournaments for us, and for it to be brought to Istanbul in one of the fastest-growing cities in the world is a big achievement, not just for us as tennis players but for the country itself, for the young girls and boys that are growing up that have watched the sport on TV that haven’t had the opportunity to watch this type of tennis,” Sharapova said.