WTA thrilled to be part of China's tennis growth

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, August 7, 2018
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Micky Lawler, president of the WTA.

As China surges in the world's tennis spotlight inspired by the legacy of the country's two-time Grand Slam winner Li Na, the leader of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) said it was "tremendously exciting" for the sport to be involved in China's growth.

Micky Lawler, president of the WTA since 2015, has set her vision beyond the future with the decision to sign China's Shenzhen as the 10-year host of the season-ending WTA Finals starting in 2019. Shenzhen prevailed over a number of candidate cities including Manchester and the current host Singapore.

"The area (Shenzhen) is very interesting from any perspective," Lawler said. She was taken aback by the city's massive infrastructure and the fact that every industry has headquarters there; a place she said will develop into the world's biggest metropolis.

Shenzhen is one of China's first cities to benefit from the country's economic reform and opening-up in the late 1970s, developing from a fishing village into the most economically and technologically dynamic city nationwide.

In January, the WTA announced that it will take over from Singapore, which will see its five-year contract expire this year, on the back of Shenzhen's promise to build a new 12,000-seat downtown venue and double the prize money to a record $14 million. This marks the most significant deal with the 45-year governing body, which aims to bring the sport to a new level.

"It is not all about money," Lawler said, adding that the decision to move to Shenzhen had a lot to do with the ongoing growth of China's women's tennis, even without Li Na playing, and the country's emerging tennis market, which boasts a busy calendar of both WTA and ATP events of the sport's Asian Swing. From September to next January, tournaments including the Premier 5 Wuhan Open, Premier Mandatory China Open, ATP 1000 Shanghai Rolex Masters and WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai will be held back-to-back in China.

"If you look back at the history of what adding the events has done to the Asian Swing, you will see we have increased the TV and social media audience, fan engagement... China Open went from 29,000 attendees in 2007 to now 400,000 and that is explosive," said Lawler, who has been at the center of the growth of professional tennis, on the sides of both genders, for over three decades, driving business across athlete representation, events, international expansion, governance and sponsorship.

"We do have a plan to grow attendance worldwide; to tell the truth, China is the easiest. We are very fortunate to have such a big footprint in China."

In 2017, the WTA established its digital streaming partnership with China's top online video content platform iQIYI. For the next 10 years, Chinese fans will get access to never-before-seen women's tennis content online.

On the other hand, Lawler, who was honored by Sports Business Journal as the 2012 "Game Changer: Women in Sports Business" award winner, said women's players are worth the money Shenzhen offers.

"The satisfaction our team receives comes from the growth that the players themselves have driven, because they are super-professional and hardworking to allow us to push the envelope and change the rules to make it better for fans," she said, adding that only top players were making enough revenue to survive when she started working in the women's game.

Novak Djokovic, the former world No 1 with 13 Grand Slams championships and 5ATP Finals titles who now serves as president of the ATP Tour player council, said it's a fair payout, explaining "the women fight for what they deserve".

"I think, just by observing the whole situation, it is logical to invest a lot of money to bring the best players there. A lot of Chinese female players are breaking into the top 100 in the world, after Li Na opened those doors. Women's tennis is more popular than men's in China because of the success they've had with Li and other female players."

As of July 30, China had three female players ranked in the top 100, with Zhang Shuai as 32nd, Wang Qiang 53rd and Peng Shuai 81st. Peng has won three majors' doubles, including one WTA Finals championship. Their predecessor Li Na was ranked second at the peak of her career.

Lawler, whose association has been tapping the Chinese tennis market for 10 years, said China will create the next champion. "She won't have to be Li Na as there is only one Li Na. That is the beauty of the sport."

The partnership with Shenzhen-based real estate developer Gemdale Cororation was, according to Lawler, the option for future proofing the WTA, as it understands the sport is not only about the professional side but also the added value in the grassroots and community.

Gemdale has built more than 5,000 tennis estates nationwide during its 22-year history of investment in tennis, and sponsored the year-opening Shenzhen Open. The Grand Gemdale tennis fund was established in 2010 to tap young talents from the grassroots level, especially from underdeveloped areas nationwide.

China currently hosts seven WTA events, including the Premier Mandatory China Open, only next to the four majors. "Each tournament is part of our family and that is what we aspire to work together to maximize the sport's impact globally."

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