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Chinese interest key to Aussie Open future

CBSSports.com wire reports
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MELBOURNE, Australia -- When Li Na saw all the Chinese flags and heard the cheers of "Jia You," or "Let's Go" in Mandarin, during her Australian Open final against Victoria Azarenka, she thought she might have been in Beijing.

"I can hear a lot of Chinese fans, yeah," she said after losing to Azarenka in three sets on Saturday night. "I was, oh, looks like China Open."

Li was joking, but Australian Open organizers would be pleased to hear the comparison. The tournament has long billed itself as the Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific, and in recent years, it has stepped up its efforts to market the tournament and court increasingly affluent and tennis-mad fans in China, specifically.

With Li making the women's final for the second time in three years, this has been remarkably easy to do.

Attracting TV viewers was the first priority. When Li, China's top player, reached her first Grand Slam final at Melbourne Park in 2011, losing to Kim Clijsters, the tournament garnered 120 million viewers in China.

Seeing numbers like these, Tennis Australia signed a three-year deal with China Central Television and the Shanghai Media Group to broadcast the tournament throughout China, with a guaranteed minimum number of hours of coverage.

The deal was in place in time for last year's tournament, which attracted 115 million viewers -- without Li or any other Chinese player doing well.

"It'll be very interesting to see what this year's number is," said Steve Ayles, Tennis Australia's commercial director. "We're certainly awaiting that with some anticipation."

The tournament has also tried to build up its brand in China by taking the Australian Open trophy on a tour of the country, creating a Mandarin version of the Australian Open website and setting up an Australian Open account on China's version of Twitter, Sina weibo.

Organizers also set up a tournament for aspiring players from the Asia-Pacific region to compete for a wild card into the main draw of the Australian Open.

The first edition of the playoff was held in China in October and the wild cards went to two players from China -- Zhang Yuxuan, who competed in the women's draw, and Wu Di, who became the first man from mainland China to play in the men's draw.

More tour operators in China are offering package tours to Melbourne, as well. Ayles said these tennis-themed trips increased by 82 percent this year, compared to last.

"What it means is when a Chinese player plays particularly well, because we have this all in place, it just heightens level of awareness of the Australian Open," Ayles said. "Right across the board, when we have a player like Li Na play well and get to a final, obviously it helps underpin our strategy in China."

Part of the reason for an outreach program like this is sheer protectionism. Several years ago, Tennis Australia feared it could lose its Grand Slam to a booming Asian city like Shanghai, eager to increase its profile on the global stage.

China already hosts major men's and women's tournaments in Shanghai and Beijing and has built state-of-the-art facilities in both cities, such as 15,000-seat stadiums with retractable roofs -- something the U.S. Open and French Open currently lack.

Under pressure to improve its own infrastructure at Melbourne Park, Tennis Australia and the government of Victoria state, where Melbourne is located, have spent close to $400 million in recent years to dramatically upgrade player facilities and expand and build a roof above Margaret Court Arena, which will make the Australian Open the only Grand Slam with three retractable roofs.

Prize money was also increased by $4.2 million this year -- making the Australian Open the richest Grand Slam -- and players were even given $1,000 travel stipends.

Organizers believe that promoting the Aussie Open as a regional slam -- not just an Australian tournament -- is just another part of ensuring its long-term survival.

"Obviously if your business model is underpinned on 22 million people, it's quite a challenge for you," Ayles said, referring to the population of Australia.

"There's no question being part of a bigger region, that's where the opportunities for growth comes," he added. "This is not two-to-five-year strategy, its 20, 40 year strategy."

Li, who has charmed the crowds in Melbourne this year with her humorous post-match interviews, has not only played some of her best tennis on the courts here, she's one of the tournament's biggest fans.

"I really have to say this is my favorite Grand Slam," she said last week. "I just feel every year when I come back, you can see all your friends. If you come to the practice desk, you can see the same people every year."

Tournament organizers will also be pleased to hear that even though she'll be 31 years old, she's hoping for another crack at the trophy in 2014.

"I know I'm not young," Li told the crowd during Saturday's trophy presentation, "but I still have to say very looking forward for next year."

Copyright 2014 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.
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