The Australian Open may add a lead-up event in Asia as early as next year as the Grand Slam tournament looks to increase its engagement with the region, Tennis Australia’s commercial director said.
The Melbourne-based governing body currently operates three tournaments each January before the tennis season’s first major. The Brisbane and Sydney Internationals feature both men and women, while women only play the Hobart International.
“We’ve got our lead-in period at the moment and we’re looking at how we might bolster that and take it into Asia as well,” Tennis Australia’s Steve Ayles said in an interview. “You’d have Australian Open Series events in Asia. It could be in time for the next Open.”
Staging a lead-up tournament in Asia would give players another chance to experience conditions similar to those at Melbourne Park during the two-week Grand Slam, Ayles said. He declined to say which locations were under consideration.
Top men’s players including No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have begun their seasons in the Middle East in recent years, sometimes delaying their arrival into Melbourne until the week before the Australian Open.
“It’s hard to compete with those sorts of tournaments but in terms of preparation that’s the one massive advantage we have,” Ayles said at the Sydney International. “Wherever we hold a lead-in event, it will have the same surface, the same bounce, the same balls. It will be a similar time zone.”
The Australian Open, whose major sponsor is South Korean carmaker Kia Motors Corp., bills itself as the “Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific.” Ticket sales through tour operators in Asia are 30 percent up on 2011, Ayles said.
Organizers took the singles champion trophies on an overseas tour for the first time in October with stops in Shanghai, Beijing and Wuhan, the home town of Li Na, who became the first Chinese winner of a Grand Slam title in June at the French Open. Li was the runner-up in Melbourne last year to Belgium’s Kim Clijsters.
Of the 307.6 million television viewers that watched the 2011 tournament, about 60 percent were located within the Asia-Pacific region, according to figures provided by Tennis Australia.
Any Australian Open Series expansion into Asia would be done in conjunction with local tennis authorities, Ayles said.
“Whatever country we end up doing events in, we would work with them,” he said.
The year’s first major starts Jan. 16 at Melbourne Park.