Li Na poses with trophy after winning 2014 Australian Open.
Li Na, the first Asian, male or female, to win a Grand Slam, was the catalyst that sparked an increased interest in tennis among Asians. Now the growth of tennis in Asia has taken on a life of its own.
Fueled by Li's success and a booming Chinese economy, Asia's influence on professional tennis looms large and grows bigger every day.
When Li won the 2014 Australian Open, her second Grand Slam, it was called her home slam. Aware of Asia's encroachment on their territory, Australian Open officials rebranded their tournament as the Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific. Last year was the first time they held a Asia-Pacific wildcard playoff. Held in China, the playoff was open to all players from the Asian-Pacific region, except Australians.
Was the move merely to capitalize on the growing interest in tennis in China? Or are Australian officials a little worried about the China Open competing as possible fifth Slam?
The tennis facilities in Beijing, the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics, are already considered Grand Slam caliber.
Right now, China is where the money is. The WTA and ATP are just following the money.
The WTA will hold 16 events in the Asia-Pacific region this year, including five in China. Beginning this year, the WTA championships will be held in Singapore for the next five years. It's the first time the event will be held in an Asian city.
WTA chief executive Stacey Allaster has made Asia a focus for expansion. She told Reuters that "Together with the continued success and growth of the China Open and the launch of the year-end WTA Championships in Singapore in 2014, the WTA's Asia growth strategy is in full force."
Allaster credits Li with the surge in interest in China. She stated in the Wall Street Journal that “Li is the most influential player this decade for the growth of women’s tennis."
The late Brad Drewett, who headed the ATP's International Group, once told ESPN that "China is the largest growth economy in the world, so it's a great platform here for men's professional tennis...It's been incredible the growth of tennis the last years in China."
This year China becomes the first country, besides the United States, to host ATP World Tour 250, 500 and Masters 1000 events.
Players voted the Shanghai Rolex Masters as the ATP Masters 1000 Tournament of the Year in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Although China leads the way, it's certainly not the only Asian country where tennis is growing. Led by Kei Nishikori, Japan won its Davis Cup first round tie with Canada 3-1. Japan advances to the quarterfinal round in the World Group for the first time. Japan will host the Czech Republic in Tokyo, April 4-6.
Nishikori, ranked 16, is the highest-ranking Asian male on tour. Nishikori, once ranked as high as No. 11, has had some success, but Li remains the only Asian mega-star in tennis. Japan's Kimiko Date-Krumm, the oldest woman on tour, has become somewhat of a novelty.
Li is a future Hall of Famer who rivals Maria Sharapova when it comes to endorsement deals. When the WTA rankings come out Monday, Li will be ranked No. 2. Her global status has made tennis the it sport in China.
According to research conducted from the ATP's Shanghai Rolex Masters, tennis is the seventh most popular participation sport in China. However, it's the No. 1 "aspiration sport."
Similar to how tennis was once viewed in the U.S., it has become a status symbol in China. Michael Luevano, tournament director of the Shanghai Rolex Masters, told The Guardian: "Young professionals, if they play a sport, are going to choose an upwardly mobile sport like tennis."