Li Na hailed as driving force of women's tennis
WTA chief points to China star's massive impact as they seek to expand further in Asia
Reuters in Singapore
Women's Tennis Association chief Stacey Allaster hailed Li Na's rise as a key factor behind the growth of women's tennis in Asia as the next generation of Chinese players follow in the grand slam winner's footsteps.
Li's 2011 French Open victory made her the first Asian to win a grand slam singles title and spiked interest in China, a country always a prioritised growth market for sports bodies.
Zhang Shuai became the fifth Chinese woman to win a WTA title at the Guangzhou Open on Saturday.
"The athlete that will make the greatest impact on the growth of women's tennis in this decade," Allaster said of Li yesterday. "You can have a strategy with multi-thronged pillars but you need the stars and Li is obviously our star here in Asia.
"She is obviously taking all those pillars of the business strategy and dialling them up because women's tennis is getting noticed and she is inspiring the ones that are right behind her. 'If Li can do it, I can do it' - confidence breeds success."
Allaster said a huge chunk of their fans were coming from China, where the WTA will have eight events next year, up from two in 2008. The former tournament director, who assumed the role of CEO and chairman of the WTA in July 2009, said role models were key.
"Whether we like it or not the glass ceiling still exists and there are barriers to success for different people around the world," she said. "The one thing about women's tennis … it is a platform for athletes to be role models to show others in society that they can make it.
"There are 10 Americans in the top 100 and I think five or six of them are under the age of 21. That is the Serena and Venus [Williams] impact of the last decade."
There are three Chinese players in the top 51 and 10 in the 300 after the rankings were updated on Monday following Zhang's win as she jumped from 112 to 74.
Zhang, along with Peng Shuai, Zheng Jie and Yan Zi, opted to follow in Li's footsteps and breakaway from China's state-run training system in order to have greater control of her career.
"Those decisions are 100 percent the athletes' and we have had no dialogue with them," said Allaster. "I think for all our athletes, whatever nation they come from, we want to give them a pathway to success, education is a key part of it.
The WTA have eyes on Singapore and Southeast Asia as the next market for growth after China.
Singapore will host the WTA's end of season championships for five years from 2014 and the organisation are in the process of setting up an office in the city-state to help with their plans.