WTA Taking on the Men in China
Updated: Jun 4, 2019
Men’s tennis traditionally dominates the sport, with Novak Djokovic leading the world rankings and becoming #1 in China. However, China has become a key market for the WTA in recent years with their growth spearheaded by Li Na’s success. With the Wuhan Open starting last Sunday, how is the WTA set up for the rest of the China tour.
Melissa Pine, WTA Asia Vice President, believes that bringing the sport and tournaments to China is key to their development. This year the WTA has 8 tournaments in China, finishing with the China Open, the WTA’s crown jewel event. Developing a China tour with competitive events is something that football, the NBA and other global sports have yet been able to achieve, positioning the WTA as a strong local player.
There was a record Chinese TV audience of 134 million who watched Li’s victory in the 2011 French Open, highlighting the strong demand for tennis in China. Having partnered with local broadcasting networks, including CCTV5, the WTA China events will be available for these fans to watch on their time zone, featuring the biggest woman tennis stars.
For the WTA, the China Open is the last premier mandatory event of the season, meaning that the top ranked female players have to attend. Pine believes this is extremely important for inspiring the next generation, ‘People can actually see them, touch them, get close to them, which encourages people to pick up a tennis racquet and play the sport.’ However, this isn’t to say that they wouldn’t make the journey to the Far East anyway with many of the WTA stars getting involved in Chinese traditions during the tour.
Li Na, one of the most popular athletes in China, has almost 23 million followers on Weibo, just 1 million less than LeBron James has on Twitter. As the spokeswoman of her home-town Wuhan Open, Li Na plays an increasingly important role in promoting the local tournaments and developing future stars. Meanwhile, the WTA has more women online in China than their male counterparts, with several of their top ranked male stars missing out.
The real question now is Who is the next Li Na? There are six Chinese players currently ranked in the world’s top 125, promising but not yet good enough. Their Rising Stars program will certainly help grow this, with Zheng Saisai at last year’s for the WTA Finals, but there is still plenty more to be done to find someone capable of filling Li Na’s shoes.
Tennis is in a very healthy position in China, with a number of local events and high-profile stars attending to connect with the Chinese audiences. The infrastructure is here, but like many other sports, the young generation are without a Chinese role model to look up to. When the WTA unearth her, the sport will be ready to take off.