Published: June 17, 2011
EASTBOURNE, England - First came the Russians. Now, women's tennis is preparing for a Chinese boom after Li Na's historic win at the French Open.
Anna Kournikova's success in the late 1990s inspired a succession of Russians to follow in her footsteps, and according to the WTA tour's chief marketing officer Andrew Walker, Li Na's win could have a similar effect in China.
"It's the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential of the China market for women's tennis," said Walker. "No question, it will inspire in China many young girls to pick up a racket who might not otherwise have done so.
"I think we're all very optimistic that it'll have a domino effect in terms of continuing the growth of the women's game in China at a much faster speed."
There are two Chinese players in the top 50 of the women's game compared to 11 Russians, but the rankings could have a very different look in 10 years' time.
The 29-year-old Li became the first player from China to win a Grand Slam singles title when she beat Francesca Schiavone in the French Open earlier this month.
The match was watched by 116 million people in her home country, making it the most-watched sporting event in China this year and the most-watched tennis match ever in the country.
Li is already one of the biggest sports stars in China, on a level with basketball player Yao Ming, and the WTA knows her success could have a wide-reaching impact on the game globally.
"No question, it's great news in terms of growing the game not only at the grassroot level, but in terms of attracting investment from Chinese brands as well as multinational brands into women's tennis," Walker said.
The WTA already has two tournaments based in China. More could follow, according to Walker.
Li hasn't yet experienced the impact of her win in person. She stayed in Europe after winning Roland Garros, and said she turned off her phone and didn't look at the Internet because "people (were) a little bit crazy about the winner."
Following her first-round win at Eastbourne on Tuesday, she joked that she might never go back if she wins Wimbledon, which begins Monday.
"For me when I think about Wimbledon, it's bigger than the other three Grand Slams. I really want to do well," she said. "I hope I can do that (win Wimbledon). If I win at Wimbledon, I will stay in Europe rather than go back to Shanghai!"
Li's success wasn't a bolt from the blue. China invested heavily in tennis, like other sports, before it hosted the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and it was rewarded with a bronze medal in the women's doubles for Zheng Jie and Yan Zi.
Li pulled out of China's government-run sports training system in 2008, preferring to take control of her career, but the image of the tattooed star lifting the French Open trophy is expected to be the defining image that inspires a new generation of tennis players in China.
The WTA hopes it will also improve the game as a whole.
"I think if you look at the stars in the women's game historically, it's been quite cyclical in terms of the country they've come from," Walker said. "Part of the reason for that is what I believe will be the Li Na phenomenon, that one player inspires others.
"We've got a lot of great athletes competing against one another, that drives progress for those individuals and helps them to reach another level. We're all very encouraged that this victory by Li Na will take it to another level."