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Dawn of the Asian century of tennis

Dawn of the Asian century of tennis
January 27, 2013

Li Na's ascent reflects the rise of a cashed-up Chinese middle-class with the same eagerness to make their presence felt on the tennis court as in world politics, writes Tracee Hutchison.

When China's pin-up tennis queen Li Na won her first Grand Slam title at the French Open in 2011, over 200 million people in her homeland tuned in to watch it on TV.

In rough ballpark figures, that's close to one in ten of China's population - and ten times Australia's.

With Li Na progressing to her second Australian Open final, and with a friendly time difference, expect at least that number to tune in again, all watching the woman who made the great leap forward to become the first Chinese woman to land a Top 10 ranking and simultaneously opened up the potential of the sport to a generation of Chinese boys and girls to follow in her footsteps.

Since Li's Parisian triumph, tens of millions of Chinese kids have picked up tennis rackets: that's a best guesstimate from Chinese tennis officials from the China Open currently in Australia as guests of the Australian Open. With state-sponsored tennis academies springing up all over China and a bourgeoning partnership with Tennis Australia to grow and develop the game, it's clear that tennis is now big business in China.

Lucrative prize money and associated sponsorship opportunities - not to mention the glamorous image that appeals to a rapidly growing Chinese middle class - has meant tennis has become as important to China's national sports strategy as the Olympics.

Sports journalist Sun Xiaochen from the China Daily is one of about 30 Chinese journalists in Melbourne covering this year's Open. He says the Chinese media numbers are down a little on last year, when close to 40 Chinese journalists flocked to Melbourne after Li Na's splash in the finals the year before. But the picture he paints of a sport that has spread like wildfire in China is matched by the phenomenal traffic it generates on the Chinese version of Twitter, Sina Weibo.

At last check, Li Na had over 14 million followers on her personal Sina Weibo account - a number that will likely bounce with her progress into the final of this Slam. But, anecdotally, Weibo has also made minor celebrities out of Australian-based Chinese broadcasters.

My ABC radio colleague, the Head of Radio Australia's China Service Jason Fang, picked up tens of thousands of followers in a matter of days on a newly established Weibo account last year - when he starting posting updates from the Australian Open. After years in broadcasting in Australia and China, he was utterly astonished at the response.

And the Weibo traffic is mirrored in the growing number of Chinese tennis fans - nationals and locals - beating a path to Melbourne Park in January. Prime courtside seating for the Australian Open has enormous cache for the cashed-up middle class Chinese who see the Australian Open as a premier destination event.

And while 30-year old Li Na is the superstar attraction, the numbers of Asian-based players is on the rise. This year 21-year-old Wu Di (coincidentally from Li's home town Wuhan and proof perfect of her influence) became the first Chinese-mainland man to make his debut in this Slam. The number of juniors from China, Taiwan and South Korea is also a pretty big indicator of things to come.

But perhaps the quaintest and cutest was the group of Chinese ballkids who won their way to Melbourne Park for ball-retrieving duties, via a competition organised by the China Open. For these young teens it was the trip of a lifetime - and a window to the world of possibility the professional tennis circuit offers.

Yes, they are all fans of Li. But they love Roger just as much. And therein lies the real story of what the aura of tennis is creating with the next generation of Chinese players.

In many respects, Li Na is something of an unlikely Chinese heroine. A precociously tattooed woman who, when asked what attracted her to tennis after she dispensed of then world number 1 Caroline Wozniacki in a semi final at the Australian Open in 2011, famously answered "the prize money". (Not before she had cheekily outed her husband as a ferocious snorer who'd kept her awake all night). It wasn't what anyone watching - courtside or on telly - expected.

In one short interview, Li Na revealed the new face of China. The one facing West. And the one the Australian Government has been so keen to court with its White Paper and rhetoric on the economic opportunities of the so-called Asian Century.

But there is a very different pivot going on in the Asia-Pacific. And it's got one foot on the baseline and the other at the net. It is simply a matter of time before Li Na's name makes way for a new generation of Asian players, who are eyeing off her future for themselves.

To heck with the complex geopolitics, strategic gateways and fiscal fragility of the Asia-Pacific; what we have is the dawning of the Asian Century ... of tennis.

Tracee Hutchison broadcasts throughout Australia, Asia and the Pacific for Radio Australia and ABC News Radio.

Click here to read her original article.


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