Melbourne's Open door to China as tennis becomes an Asian hit

CATCHING a tennis ball on the rebound from the net post? No problem. Crossing Melbourne's streets and getting your tram-legs in working order? Now that requires a bit more concentration.

For the first time, ballkids from China are in town for the Australian Open. And they're on a steep learning curve.

''They don't really look when they cross the roads, they just cross,'' ballkids team leader Daniel Whykes said. ''Culturally it's very different. They're used to the traffic giving way to them.''

The lucky six - selected from more than 80 applicants from a Chinese tennis in schools program - are having their first trip overseas.

They are also ambassadors for the sport, which is in its relative infancy in China. Sponsored by the China Open, the trip Down Under is part of a wider program to develop the sport in Asia.

While the bulk of international tennis fans at the Australian Open hailed from New Zealand, America and Britain last year, Tennis Australia says Asia is the largest growth market. Since 2006, the number of visitors arriving from the region has grown by more than 400 per cent, albeit off a low base.

With the Open marketed as ''the grand slam of the Asia-Pacific'' since 2003, Tennis Australia has a deliberate strategy to raise its profile in neighbouring countries.

Last year the winners' trophies toured China, where a wildcard tournament to gain entry to this year's tournament was also held. Tennis Australia is considering moving the wildcard tournament to other Asian countries.

Of the 380 ballkids presenting for duty at the Open this year, 20 come from Korea, along with six from China, for the first time.

The major sponsor, Kia Motors, which took over from Ford in 2002, is South Korean. This week the car company extended its sponsorship for a further five years in a deal estimated to be worth $50 million.

Other Asian-based sponsors on board include Maxxis (Taiwan), Fuji Xerox (Japan) and Toshiba (Japan), and analysts say it is only a matter of time before a Chinese sponsor gets involved.

The chief goal of the tournament's Asia-Pacific campaign is to increase the number of visitors travelling from Asia by 200 per cent by 2016. Last year 3072 Japanese and 2592 Chinese came to Melbourne for the Open. China, with its growing middle class, is the great hope.

''This is a significant event to promote Victoria and Australia as a tourist

destination around the world,'' a Tennis Australia spokeswoman said. ''[It] links directly with Tourism Victoria and Tourism Australia's objectives of attracting premium Chinese tourists.''

It is a view shared by the state government, which in September launched a tourism campaign in Shanghai to promote major events, including the Australian Open.

The executive chairman of the Association of Tennis Professionals tour, Brad Drewett, has said that Asia - China in particular - is the key to the growth of global tennis.

He says if China can produce a male grand slam champion in the league of Li Na - current world number seven, winner of the women's French Open in 2011 and runner-up at the Australian Open the same year - it would take the game to a whole new level in the country.

Victoria University sport business professor Hans Westerbeek said Tennis Australia had to reach out into the Asia-Pacific region to ensure it remained competitive.

His views are echoed by analyst Steve Allen from Fusion Strategy, who advised Kia before it signed on as major sponsor.

''The Australian Open needs to do all of this in order to protect the fact that it is a grand slam event,'' Mr Allen said. ''If it doesn't engage with Asia and it doesn't win the hearts and minds of Asia they will try to gazump it.''

He said the event appealed to Asian audiences because it was perceived as clean, healthy and gender-balanced.

It had the added benefit of taking place in a convenient time zone, so Asian television audiences did not have to wake up at the crack of dawn to watch the action.

Tennis Australia's Asia-Pacific business development manager, Dean Brostek, said the region's traditional sports such as table tennis and badminton made tennis a natural extension. There are rival international sports, including basketball and football, but Mr Brostek is adamant they present no threat.

''Space for football is tough because it requires big fields,'' he said. ''The footprint for a tennis court is not that big, and it actually fits quite nicely into apartment living because you can put them in basements and on rooftops.''

He dismissed claims that the push into the region was spurred by concerns Melbourne would lose the event.

''It's not about losing the grand slam. It's about ensuring that we capitalise on the significant growth opportunities that exist,'' he said.

As the first player from China and Asia to win a grand slam title, Li Na has apparently done wonders for Victoria's tourism industry.

Almost 18 million Chinese television viewers tuned in to the 2011 Australian Open women's final to watch their home-grown hero, making it the highest-rating singles match by a broadcaster in any market.

Indeed, for those who couldn't be here, last year's Open drew 349 million television viewers worldwide. More than half were based in Asia and, of those, a third lived in China.

Technology is also playing a growing part in increasing the global reach - both sporting and marketing - of the sport and its host city.

According to the tournament's technology partner, IBM, last year's Australian Open website generated almost 15 million unique users, with almost 50 million site visits in total. Just over 35 per cent of all website visits in 2012 were from mobile devices. There were also more than 690,000 downloads and updates of the Australian Open iPhone app in 2012.

According to Tennis Australia figures, the Australian Open gave the Victorian economy a $239 million boost last year. Overall, organisers estimate 163,000 interstate visitors and a further 96,000 international travellers came to town for the tennis.

While the international visitors are the big spenders - splashing out an average $2100 during their stay - interstate visitors aren't exactly penny-pinching, spending roughly $1100 while in town.

This story Melbourne's Open door to China as tennis becomes an Asian hit first appeared on The Age.