Over the last month, the Western media has questioned tennis’ logic of looking East by highlighting the sight of empty stands during matches. But the Association of Tennis Professionals’ (ATP’s) “Asian swing" shows no signs of slowing down: Attendance at these tournaments has more than doubled in the last 10 years.

From 200,000 spectators in 2004, ATP’s Asian tournaments now attract crowds ranging from 400,000 to 500,000. This, even though just one more tournament has been added to the schedule and the biggest stadium, Shanghai, has a maximum capacity of 15,000.

With the men’s game lacking a home-grown champion—like Li Na on the women’s side—till Kei Nishikori’s arrival on the scene this September, they have relied on their “top 4" in general, and Roger Federer in particular, to keep the turnstiles working.

“The growth of tennis in Asia is due to a combination of factors: favourable weeks for tournaments in the ATP calendar, a proper consecutive swing of Asian tournaments which makes it easier for top players to come and play. Roger Federer’s popularity and commitment to the region has also been a great help," says Alison Lee, executive vice-president of ATP’s International Group, which oversees the association’s business affairs in Australia, Asia, West Asia, Russia and Africa.

China’s Li Na. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP
China’s Li Na. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP

When the Tennis Masters Cup returned to Shanghai for the second time in 2005, ATP brought in Federer—ranked world No.1 then—to take the game to the masses. He made a special trip to Shanghai in August that year, outside his regular playing schedule, to inaugurate the Qi Zhong Stadium and returned for the Tennis Masters in November. Federer, 33, has missed only one year (2011) in Shanghai since and capped his love affair with the city earlier this month by winning his first Masters 1000 title there.

“We have certainly benefited from the golden era of men’s tennis and Federer especially being so consistent for so long. Some of Roger’s sponsors, like Rolex and Moët & Chandon, are ATP sponsors and are also present at the Shanghai Masters and China Open in Beijing. Would these sponsors take on Shanghai and Beijing without Roger? I would say so as they are important markets but Roger is a great person to connect everything," says Lee.

Mahesh Bhupathi’s International Premier Tennis League, set to launch in November, has recognized the region’s potential and the importance of a glitzy international line-up to increase sales. “Sport in general is driven by stars," says the Indian doubles player-cum-businessman, who has witnessed the growing interest in tennis in Asia from close quarters. “In a continent like Asia, opportunities to watch the world’s best tennis players have definitely encouraged people to start following the sport."

Recognizing the increasing importance of the Asian market—especially after China’s successful hosting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics—and the increase in the number of players coming through, the ATP restructured its tournament schedule in 2009. While Chennai, Doha, Qatar, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, remain isolated events on the calendar, the five tournaments in Asia were given a boost by clustering them over a period of three weeks at the back-end of the season.

The ATP, however, is not looking to add any more tour events in Asia just yet, for it only has a limited number of licences to grant. “For the ATP, it’s about creating the right balance between protecting the more traditional and historic markets of Europe and North America, while at the same time seizing the right opportunities for growth in new territories," says Lee.

The ATP is instead looking at Challenger events to build support from the ground up. These are second-rung tournaments, below the ATP 250s, in terms of prize money and ranking points. The number of Challengers in Asia has gone up from 16 to 31 in five years. India had no Challenger events last year; this year, it hosted five. China is scheduled to host seven in 2015.

Sunder Iyer, Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association secretary and long-time administrator, who conducted a successful $50,000 (around 30 lakh) Challenger in Pune from 18-25 October, believes ATP’s proactive support is now making it financially viable to host these events. “It was the ATP who approached us for the Pune Challenger," says Iyer. “A lot of players were going to be in Asia for the $125,000 Challenger in Tashkent (Uzbekistan), but there was no action for the next few weeks. That’s why the Pune and Indore (a week earlier) Challenger was proposed. They told us they will help us with the initial set-up and also gave a grant of $25,000."

Holding Challengers, hospitality included, costs about 65 lakh and ATP’s contribution can reduce the financial burden considerably. Events like these not only help in building the necessary sponsor and spectator base but, more importantly, also give Asian players more opportunity to move up the rankings ladder.

Because that’s where the future will lie.

Asia now has 14 players in the top 200, compared to 11 at the same time in 2013. The ATP is hoping that native talent like Nishikori, who made a massive splash in the Asian market on entering the finals of the US Open in September, will add wind to their sales.

Why Asia matters

Facts and figures indicate tennis is becoming a favoured sport in the continent:

u Attendance from Asian tournaments in 2004 was 200,000; in a decade, it has more than doubled, to 400,000-500,000

u The Asian swing of five tournaments (Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur and Shenzhen) makes up nearly 10% of the total ATP tournament prize money pool (62 tournaments). In 2014, the total prize money for these five tournaments was $9,425,940, or around 57 crore, (average increase of 5% year-on-year since 2010)

u The Shanghai Masters has been voted by the playing group as the best ATP World Tour Masters 1000.

Source: AP