The woman behind tennis' explosion

Updated: 2011-10-08 08:07

By Sun Xiaochen (China Daily)

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The woman behind tennis' explosion

WTA head has watched sport skyrocket the past two years under her leadership

BEIJING - Not in her wildest dreams did Stacey Allaster imagine she'd make it this far.

Allaster, who began her career 40 years ago as a ball girl at a local club, is chairman and CEO of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA).

"Being the head of WTA is a great honor for me - I am privileged," Allaster said. "I love this job. It's a great feeling waking up each day. My goal is really to keep WTA as the best sport in the world."

The Canadian is in Beijing this week as part of the China Open.

Under Allaster's helm since 2009, WTA has enjoyed landmark success competitively and commercially, launching new events in untapped markets like Malaysia and Egypt, improving its financial standing and expanding its fan base worldwide.

WTA's sponsorship revenues have increased 60 percent since the end of 2010, as the organization has secured six new commercial partners while lifting global TV viewership by 28 percent.

According to a recently released Forbes list, seven of the 10 highest-paid female athletes are WTA stars.

Players ranked in the top 10 hail from nine different countries, triggering a widespread passion for the sport worldwide.

Allaster was named by Forbes as one of the most powerful women in sports.

The Toronto native shook off her individual effort, stressing the importance of the players.

"To have industry recognition is great, but what matters most to me is whether I can return a smashing success to those who entrusted their business to me.

"I give all the credit to the athletes and to our tournaments. Each day, they are delivering and proving to the sponsors that women's tennis is a good return for the investment," Allaster said.

As the first Asian Grand Slam champion, China's Li Na perfectly illustrates Allaster's "players-matter" philosophy.

Li's French Open victory, witnessed by 160 million Chinese TV viewers, opened a new era in tennis' development in China.

Numerous children were inspired to hone their skills in tennis clinics, and fans jammed local events like the China Open.

Li has joined basketball's Yao Ming and hurdler Liu Xiang as the nation's sports icons.

"We are incredibly lucky. We have invested a lot of effort to promote the sport and waited for magic to happen," Allaster said. "Li Na came along in time to capture the hearts and minds of all of the people here. To do the job that usually takes us years or decades, she just did it in such a short period. We couldn't ask for anything more exciting."

In a fast growing market, a premier event is more important than a premier player.

Boasting the combined power of local stars and world-class venues, this year's China Open was supposed to benefit the sport's profile significantly.

It hasn't worked out as hoped.

The mandatory tournament was shattered by Li's first-round exit and the withdrawals of several stars, including Russian sensation Maria Sharapova, Belgian veteran Kim Clijsters and American sisters Venus and Serena Williams.

It's been a letdown for all concerned.

"No doubt, we are all disappointed to see so many big names not here," Allaster said. "Fans would love to see those athletes, but it's really bad luck. All the players who bailed out had some troubles outside their control. We hope to have better fortune next year."

Defending US Open champion Samantha Stosur and Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova were also knocked out early, thinning the field further.

After an exhausting season, Allaster said the year-end schedule can be a difficult test for elite players.

"Even after we made improvements (to cut the calendar), there's no denying it's long," said Allaster.

Always busy as the sport's worldwide hostess, Allaster is also a mother of two.

Allaster said she appreciates her supportive husband, who gave up his own career to take care of the family.

"Behind every strong woman, there is a good man," she said.

China Daily