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 may have been in Beijing.
“I can hear a lot of Chinese fans, yeah,” she said after losing to Azarenka in three sets 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 has stepped up its efforts to court increasingly affluent and tennis-mad fans in China.
With Li making the women’s final for the second time in three years, this has been 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 drew 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 for last year’s tournament, which attracted 115 million viewers – without Li or any 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 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 spot into the main draw. The first man qualified in October and played this year.