Rising Asian stars boost the Australian Open on and off the court
When 21-year-old Hyeon Chung from South Korea defeated former world number one Novak Djokovic last night in straight sets in the fourth round of the Australian Open, millions of people were watching around Asia.
- The popularity of tennis has ballooned across the Asia-Pacific region
- This year 20 per cent of Australian Open players were from the region
- About 40 per cent of the TV viewership this year has been from Asia alone
Rebranded the Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific, the Australian Open is attracting an increasing number of tennis players from across the region.
This year a record 111 players at the Australian Open are from the Asia Pacific region — 20 per cent of the total number of players competing.
"Several years ago, it used to be only five per cent," Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley told the ABC.
"There's no question the strength of tennis in the Pac-Asia region has changed."
Originating from Europe and long-considered a Western sport, tennis has now found its biggest growth market in Asia this century.
In 2011, China's Li Na became the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam singles title when she won the French Open.
Three years later, Li won her second Grand Slam singles championship at the Australian Open, with over 100 million people watching in China.
Champion sparks passion
The so-called "Li Na effect" skyrocketed interest in tennis and has become a catalyst for the growing profile of the sport in China and across Asia.
"After Li Na has won the great tournament championship, everyone knows tennis [in China]," Chinese tennis player Zhang Shuai said after being knocked out of the tournament in the second-round.
"Tennis is much more popular [in China] than before. She did a great job."
After Li's retirement in 2014, the fever for winning Grand Slams has cooled somewhat, but interest in the sport has not dropped off. Instead, Tennis Australia says the sport has seen a period of sustainable growth.
"In the last couple of years, [we're] really watching tennis interest grow," said Ben Slack, Tennis Australia's head of international business.
"Especially in a country like China, even going back two years ago, participation and interest in the sport was very much at the lead level," he said.
Mr Slack said only high-level players were being encouraged to pursue careers in tennis, but that is no longer the case.
"If you weren't [a lead level player], maybe you are wasting your time, taking away from study or education. But we've really seen in the last couple of years that mindset changing, in China in particular."
Younger players make their mark
While Li has retired and Asia's top-ranking singles player Kei Nishikori was absent from this year's tournament due to injury, a pack of young players are following in their footsteps at the Grand Slam.
Among them are South Korea's Hyeon Chung and Japan's Naomi Osaka — who along with the more established Su-Wei Hsieh of Taiwan — all managed to defeat high-seeded opponents.
In India — which has produced a few of the world's best doubles players — tennis is also growing strong.
"Coming from India, cricket definitely is the number one sport. But tennis is growing as well," said Indian doubles tennis player Divij Sharan.
"We've had some tennis legends in the recent. Sania Mirza has done very well. Leander and Mahesh playing doubles for many years.
"The popularity is there and a lot of kids are picking up tennis as a sport. We have a good future in tennis."
Sharan said a better understanding of tennis has developed in India over recent years, and the increased flow of money into the sport has also helped.
"When I was growing up, there were a lot of players who would drop back from playing the sport because education was very important and sport was never really a serious profession," he said.
"Things have changed. There's a lot of money in sports now. Tennis has picked up. I'm sure in the coming years we'll have someone from Asia [at the top in singles]."
Popularity in Asia a tourism boon
The performance of Asian players on the court has also attracted audiences.
Tourists and fans from all over Asia have attended the tournament to cheer on their heroes. Among them are Seiju and Yuya from Japan.
"It's our first time coming to Australia from Japan to watch the game. So we are excited," Seiju says.
"Although Kei Nishikori is not playing this year, we are coming to support other Japanese players such as Yoshihito Nishioka and Naomi Osaka."
Millions more around the region watch their local heroes and matches through television broadcasts and video sites.
While the tournament is broadcast to over 200 countries around the globe, eight out of the 20 on-site broadcasters of this year's Australian Open are from Asia, including five from China and two from Japan.
"We have more free-to-air broadcasters than we ever had," Mr Slack said.
"If you look at the TV viewership across the globe, only one fifth of it sits in Australia, 80 per cent of it is offshore … about 40 per cent is coming from Asia alone, that's not including Australia."
Asia's 'most relevant' tournament
Zhang Bendou, a veteran tennis writer for China's largest sports magazine Titan Sports, said the Australian Open has been the most popular Gland Slam in China.
"We've got a lot of hard-core tennis fans in China who not only follow Chinese players but also Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Sharapova," he said.
"The Australian Open is a very popular event among tennis fans in China. It's the most relevant to Asia and the time difference is the best. It's the most successful in China."
The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced last Thursday that it has signed a 10-year deal to move its WTA Finals tournament to Shenzhen, a dynamic city in China south, starting from next year.
The deal will also see the total prize money on offer double to a whopping US$14 million ($17.5 million).
Mr Zhang said this is evidence of the growing importance of Asia within the tennis world.
"Over the history of WTA finals, it was held in a series of American cities including Los Angeles and New York, then moving to Munich and Madrid," he said.
"In 2008, it was held in Doha, then moved to Istanbul and later Singapore. Now it's coming to China.
"You can see the axis of the world tennis shifting from the US to Europe, then from West Asia to East Asia," Mr Zhang said.