Li Na serves Australia a tourism Grand Slam

Only recently Melbourne stood to lose the Asia Pacific Grand Slam to Shanghai, but Li Na's imminent appearance in the women's final is about to vindicate the $400 million invested to keep the event in Australia – big time.

The fact that China’s Li Na will play off in the Australian Open women’s final will achieve TV ratings of unprecedented proportions in China. It will be the biggest Asian tourism promotion Australia has achieved to date.

Yet if it were not for the vision of tennis officials and a state government, the 2013 Asia Pacific Grand Slam could so easily have been shifted from Melbourne to Shanghai.

It's an Australian story we rarely tell because it’s not often that Australia makes a conscious decision to be the best in the world and also be the leader in the Asian Pacific region.

That’s what we did with The Australian Open in Melbourne and the bulk of funding came from a state government (with both major parties supporting) rather than the Commonwealth – a trend we are going to see become more and more important.

Li Na reached the Australian open final in 2011, but was not nearly as well known two years ago.

In 2012, to increase knowledge of the Australian Open in China last year, a duplicate of the trophies went on tour around China and Tennis Australia has a three-year China broadcast deal with CCTV and Shanghai TV, which has sub-licensing rights to other Chinese regional channels.

Tennis is the third most viewed sport in China after soccer and basketball.

About four years ago, global tennis players were pressing for the Australian Open at Melbourne Park to be dropped as a Grand Slam event. The facilities were sub standard and the prize money was too low. It was too far to come. China wanted the event.

Tennis Australia and the Victorian Government decided a Grand Slam event was too valuable to lose and since then close to $400 million has been spent on Melbourne Park including a dramatic improvement in player facilities, which matched what the players said they wanted.

The prize money is now the largest of any Grand Slam event rising to around $30 million with big increases to those who exit the tournament early. If Li Na wins she will receive $2.43 million.

The response from the players has been overwhelming and The New York Times featured the dramatic turnaround in player attitude towards Melbourne and Australia.

The pressure is now on the US to improve its facilities. That initial investment of $400 million –and probably double that is planned over the next half decade – will make Melbourne Park clearly the best tennis facility in the world.

Tennis Australia chief, Steve Wood, has been quoted as saying that the Melbourne Park development has cemented the future of the Australian Open in Melbourne until 2036.

That’s a huge pay back. These days, Tennis Australia also controls most of the lead up tournaments to the Australian open.

Meanwhile, on the local front the TV rights negotiations are under way and it will yield an increased bounty because Ten could be a player (Can a masterchef menu help Ten rise again, January 18.)

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