The Australian Open has run uninterrupted under a number of guises since 1905. (Reuters: Hannah McKay)
For years now, Australian businesses and governments have been told to prepare for the “Asian century”.
- The Australian Open has been called the “grand slam of the Asia Pacific”
- Some observers don’t believe the AO is representative of its regional neighbours
- Others have suggested that a fifth grand slam should be held in Asia
In 2013, the Gillard government issued the Australia in the Asian Century white paper, which set out 25 objectives for the country to capitalise on the region’s increasing political, economic, cultural, and military strength.
But a decade earlier, Tennis Australia had already recognised the need to pivot to the region, rebranding the Australian Open (AO) as “the grand slam of the Asia Pacific” in 2003.
For the bulk of its history, the AO has generally not been associated with the broader region since debuting in 1905.
Prior to tennis’s open era, Australia produced many of the game’s greats — people like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, and Margaret Court.
Ken Rosewall, left, won 23 tennis majors including eight grand slam singles titles. (Flickr: State Library of Victoria)
Since the 1960s, numerous American and European players have dominated at the Australian Open, but things started to change after the year 2000.
Increasingly, players and fans from the Asia Pacific — particularly those from East Asia — are on the rise, which presents existential concerns for the Australian Open billing itself as the region’s sole “grand slam of the Asia Pacific”.
So how long will the AO be able to continue to claim its place as the region’s only grand slam?
AO eyes lucrative Chinese market
In 2011, China’s Li Na became the first Asian tennis player to win a grand slam title. (Reuters: Kim Kyung-Hoon)
In 2011, China’s Li Na became the first Asian tennis player to win a grand slam title: the 2011 French Open. She later took the AO in 2014.
In 2008, Li called for the AO to be permanently relocated to Shanghai — citing concerns over extreme heat and distance from China — but in 2014, she revised her position, saying the AO “felt closest” to the Chinese.
AO tournament director Craig Tiley estimated in 2018 that China had some 330 million tennis fans, “220 million” of whom were AO fans.
@AustralianOpen tweet: Let’s take a moment to admire this floating @RodLaverArena in Shanghai, taking over Columbia Circle’s swimming pool
The sheer scale of the Chinese market has not been lost on tennis organisers around the globe, many of whom have boosted their engagement with Chinese fans through broadcast rights, tourism partnerships, and online marketing campaigns.
Tennis Australia has opened offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong, tasking staff with plugging the AO into lucrative Chinese and Hong Kong markets through ‘pop-up slams’ and other AO-related events.
In Melbourne, the slam has also been the beneficiary of major Chinese sponsorship. Its deal with alcohol manufacturer Luzhou Laojiao was billed as the tournament’s “largest Chinese sponsorship deal” in its history.
This, along with “the support of strong business, media, travel and Government partnerships”, allows the AO to “cement itself as the Grand Slam of the Asia Pacific”, according to the tournament’s bosses.
“There has never been a more important time for us to promote the event and deepen our ties and relationships throughout the [Asia Pacific],” Mr Tiley said in 2018.
‘The Australian Open is incredibly white’
Ramon Spaaij, a sport sociologist at Victoria University, told the ABC he didn’t associate the Asia Pacific region with the AO.
“One of the things you’ll notice is that the Australian Open is incredibly white, as are all mega sporting events,” Professor Spaaij said.
“The claim of it representing the Asia Pacific only works because of the geographic distribution of the grand slams.”
@pluckyloser tweet: “Petition for the Grand Slam of the Asia-Pacific to get some commentators from the Asia-Pacific”
He added that when looking at the tournament’s slogan, it didn’t seem to really have any value.
“It’s of course a good marketing slogan — that’s first and foremost what it is,” he said.
Over the years, however, the AO has followed its rhetoric with action when engaging with the broader region.
The Pacific has been a major beneficiary of the AO’s support, with Tennis Australia running a number of programs training players at the junior and professional levels.
PNG’s Abigail Tere-Apisah was the first woman from the Pacific Islands to win a professional singles tournament. (Facebook: Abigail Tere-Apisah)
This includes the Australian Open Pacific Pathway Program — an initiative designed to train the next generation of Pacific players.
“We have been very fortunate with our dealings with Tennis Australia,” Barbara Stubbings, from the Papua New Guinea Tennis Association, told the ABC.
She said the organisation and International Tennis Federation had helped guide PNG Tennis in addition to financial and non-financial support of professional players such as Abigail Tere-Apisah, who is one of the Pacific Islands’ highest-ranked players.
@ITF_Tennis tweet: An International Player Grand Slam® Grant of $25,000 will be awarded to 24-year-old Abigail Tere-Apisah http://po.st/GrandSlamGrants
“It’s been the little things [like helping out with visas] that have helped guide us down the path of getting Abby onto the professional circuit,” Ms Stubbings said.
And the assistance has worked: Tere-Apisah became the first woman from the region to win a professional singles title in 2018.
When asked if she associated the AO with the Asia Pacific region, Ms Stubbings said she “absolutely did”.
“It’s the grand slam that’s held in this region, so you do feel an affinity to Melbourne Park and to the players who come down and support it.”
But not everyone is convinced.
Jin Baochun, the founder of a local tennis club in China, is in Melbourne for the AO for the first time.
He said the tournament didn’t represent the Asia Pacific.
Chinese tennis club founder Jin Baochun wants more development of the game at home. (ABC News: Kai Feng)
“Wouldn’t it be better to host it in an Asian country?” Mr Jin said.
“There are more people there and it would have a bigger impact on people for the sake of promoting tennis in the region.”
While it is true that a future slam in Asia could draw in record audience numbers, the AO has consistently been the highest-attended grand slam in recent years.
The Australian Open has recorded the largest attendance figures out of the four slams in recent years.
Additionally, professional tournaments drawing in big-name players in Asia haven’t come close to matching the AO’s attendance figures.
The 2019 Shanghai Tennis Masters, which attracted Rodger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray drew in 150,000 spectators.
At a post-match interview, Murray said he would “like” to see bigger crowds in time.
Professor Spaaij said a potential future Asian grand slam could attract high attendance numbers, just like the rise of soccer in Japan, China and South Korea.
A fifth grand slam in Asia?
Professor Spaaij said the shifting geopolitical and economic paradigms in Asia meant the AO couldn’t rest on its laurels.
“Australia obviously has a strong tennis culture that resonates globally,” Professor Spaaij said.
He said while Australia produced tennis’s “symbols and heroes”, the “crowded” sports marketplace meant Melbourne and other major sporting capitals were vulnerable to losing their place.
He cited the examples of Saudi Arabia and Qatar which had both invested large sums of money to host prestigious global sporting events, including soccer’s World Cup and annual big-name exhibition tennis matches.
There had also been talks of adding a fifth slam, but this might be fraught with political sensitivities, Ms Stubbings said.
“Someone’s going to be upset regardless of where it is … but I have an open-minded view,” she said.
“You’d have to look at the numbers seriously [to see] whether it would warrant a fifth slam.
“But from what you hear about the players, they all seem to be struggling with what they’ve got on the calendar at the moment.”
For Wang Qiang — China’s top-ranked tennis player who beat Serena Williams at Melbourne Park on Friday — the emergence of newer sporting powers doesn’t necessarily mean Melbourne’s grand slam should be taken away.
@AustralianOpen tweet: The moment of a LIFETIME! Qiang Wang puts on an absolute masterclass in the match of the tournament to shock Serena Williams 6-4 6-7(2) 7-5 and advance to a first career #AusOpen round of 16. #AO2020
Speaking at Melbourne Park, she told the ABC she was satisfied with the AO’s facilities and the slam’s atmosphere.
But she’s open to the addition of a fifth grand slam in Asia, adding she “would love to see one in China”.
The Australian Open has been contacted for comment.