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Asian ambition: China, Li Na and the world's most watched tennis match

By Gary Morley, CNN
  • Li Na is the first Asian tennis player to reach the final of a grand slam tournament
  • China will screen the Australian Open women's final free to air on the state network
  • Li is up against Belgium's former world No. 1 Kim Clijsters in Melbourne on Saturday
  • WTA president hopes she can emulate the success of China's basketball star Yao Ming

(CNN) -- Could this be the most-watched tennis match of all-time?

When China's Li Na seeks to make history by becoming the first Asian player to win a grand slam singles title on Saturday, she will have an enormous weight of expectation behind her.

With a population of 1.3 billion, and a potential of some 330 million households able to view the Australian Open women's final on the state network, the 28-year-old is likely to have unprecedented support as she takes on Kim Clijsters.

"To maximize the size of the television audience, having Li Na in the final is perfect. China is an absolutely critical market for tennis globally," Kevin Alavy, a director of global sport research and evaluation consultancy firm Futures Sport + Entertainment, told CNN.

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"Having her in the final can have a transformative effect on the global viewing story. We wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be the most-watched tennis match of all time."

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When Yao Ming became the first Chinese basketball player to ply his trade in the NBA, it sparked a boom for his sport in Asia, and tennis chiefs hope that Li's Melbourne success might have a similar effect.

"This could be the beginning of a tidal wave that will set off such excitement in China, where every youngster -- boy or girl -- will want to pick up a tennis racket and try to copy this new star," David Shoemaker, president of the women's ruling body the WTA, told CNN.

Li, who turns 29 next month, is at the forefront of a new wave of Chinese tennis players.

Last year she and Zheng Jie both made the semifinals at the Australian Open, which was the first time two players from their country had done so in one of the sport's four major tournaments.

Chinese star Li Na faces Clijsters in Australian Open final

This year she has gone one better, and will attempt to become the first Asian player -- male or female -- to win a grand slam title since the professional Open era began in 1968.

Whether or not Li can beat former world No. 1 Clijsters -- a three-time major champion -- Shoemaker is confident that her achievements have set the ball rolling for tennis in the continent.

The Beijing government was very determined to grow the sport, and to create a legacy at the Olympic tennis facility being created
--WTA president David Shoemaker
  • Tennis
  • Li Na
  • China
  • Asia
  • WTA Tour Inc.

"There's going to be a good, steady stream of talented young players coming out of this region, and not just China -- all over Asia, I think. It's really inspiring," he said.

"We've seen it with other sports in China -- Yao Ming made it to the NBA and became a superstar. That catapulted basketball, and every young Chinese boy wanted to shoot hoops. We could be experiencing the next Yao Ming here."

Shoemaker spent two years in China after setting up the WTA's Asia Pacific office in Beijing in 2008, and has experienced first-hand the rapid growth of tennis there.

He points to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, when Li Ting and Sun Tiantian scored a shock gold medal in the women's doubles, as the time when the Chinese government first started to take the sport seriously.

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Then in 2006, Yan Zi and Zheng Jie won the women's doubles titles at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon.

"Doubles is seen in Asia in a slightly different way to perhaps in Europe and the Americas," Shoemaker said. "It is very much seen as a team sport, and in China a lot of emphasis is put on team sports.

"The ability of a doubles partnership to work successfully in tandem is regarded in equal prestige."

But worldwide respect in tennis is gained through success as an individual, and Zheng made a breakthrough when she reached the semifinals of the 2008 Wimbledon Championships ahead of her home Beijing Olympics later that year.

Unlike most countries, where there is a bias towards watching men play, in China the opposite is true
--Futures Sport's Kevin Alavy

"In a very few, short years after that 2004 Olympic gold medal, they got to the point where they had four singles players in the top 50 in the world," Shoemaker said.

"The Beijing government was very determined to grow the sport, particularly in Beijing, and to create a legacy for the Olympic tennis facility that was being built. So that really fit in very well with our vision. We realized pretty loud and clear as early as 2006 that China was the new frontier for women's tennis."

One of the WTA's main goals was to make sure that tennis was accessible for the Chinese public, and it made a long-term agreement with the government that its top 20 tournaments would be televised by the state network each year.

"There's 330 million households," Shoemaker said. "For us it was key that any young, old or middle-aged Chinese person could turn on a TV set and get a nice steady dose of women's tennis."

Alavy believes that a big chunk of that potential audience will tune in, perhaps even threatening to reach the one-billion mark.

"The scheduling of the match is ideal. Unlike Roland Garros and Wimbledon, it's in prime-time at night in Australia, and for China as well," he said.

There is a long and rich history in India, so we are keeping our eye on it as we think it's an important market for growth as well
--David Shoemaker

"Unlike most countries, where there is a bias towards watching men play, in China the opposite is true. There has been consistently greater success for Chinese female players, and there is an especially strong focus on watching local heroes."

Shoemaker expects women's tennis to continue its growth in Asia, having already established a strong foothold in Japan with two events currently held there. Thailand, South Korea and Malaysia now host tournaments, while there are three in China including the $4.5 million flagship event in Beijing.

Tokyo was the first Asian city to host a WTA event in 1973, and Hong Kong was the first non-Japanese territory to do so in 1980. Singapore was added five years later, then Indonesia in the 1990s before Beijing's arrival midway through that decade.

This year, as with 2010, the WTA tour will visit eight Asian venues outside of the sub-continent.

India, with a population over a billion, is also a key market. On Saturday, the country's two most successful players, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, will play the American Bryan brothers Mike and Bob as they seek the only men's grand slam doubles title to elude them so far.

"We experienced a real boom there when Sania Mirza became a superstar worldwide a few years ago," Shoemaker said.

"There is a long and rich history in India, so we are keeping our eye on it as we think it's an important market for growth as well."

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