By Patrick Johnston
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - WTA chief Stacey Allaster hailed Li Na's rise as a key factor behind the growth of women's tennis in Asia as the next generation of Chinese players follow in the grand slam winner's footsteps and make their mark on the game.
Li's 2011 French Open victory made her the first Asian to win a grand slam singles title and spiked interest in the world's most populous country, one that is always a prioritized growth market for sports bodies.
Zhang Shuai became the fifth Chinese women to win a WTA title when the wildcard triumphed at the Guangzhou Open on Saturday and Allaster hailed the world number five Li for her continued efforts in building the sport.
"The athlete that will make the greatest impact on the growth of women's tennis in this decade," the Canadian told Reuters of Li in an interview in Singapore on Tuesday.
"You can have a strategy with multi-thronged pillars but you need the stars and Li is obviously our star here in Asia.
"She is obviously taking all those pillars of the business strategy and dialing them up because women's tennis is getting noticed and she is inspiring the ones that are right behind her. 'If Li can do it, I can do it' confidence breeds success."
China's appetite for tennis seems only growing, with Allaster saying a huge chunk of their fans were coming from the country where the WTA will have eight events next year, up from two in 2008, as other sports continue to struggle to make an impact.
The former tournament director, who assumed the role of CEO and chairman of the WTA in July 2009, said role models were key.
"Whether we like it or not the glass ceiling still exists and there are barriers to success for different people around the world," she said, citing women's tennis pioneer Billie Jean King as hers.
"The one thing about women's tennis it is a platform for athletes to be role models to show others in society that they can make it.
"I just look at what is happening in the United States right now, there are 10 Americans in the top 100 and I think five or six of them are under the age of 21. That is the Serena and Venus (Williams) impact of the last decade," Allaster said.
There are three Chinese players in the top 51 and 10 in the 300 after the rankings were update on Monday following Zhang's win as she jumped from 112 to 74 following the 24-year-old's first WTA title.
Zhang, along with Peng Shuai, Zheng Jie and Yan Zi, opted to follow in Li's footsteps and breakaway from China's state-run training system in order to have a greater control of her career.
Allaster said the WTA had no part in the decision but said the organization had a history of strong women.
"Those decisions are 100 percent of the athletes and we have had no dialogue with them. I think for all our athletes, whatever nation they come from, we want to give them a pathway to success, education is a key part of it," she said.
"I think 1973, the history of the WTA was about women's empowerment, strong confident women being successful on their own, so that is who we are and always have been and any day I see one of our athletes be successful on or off the court I tip my hat to them."
Backed by the confidence of success in China, the WTA have eyes on Singapore and Southeast Asia as the next market for growth as their tournament portfolio in Asia-Pacific continues to increase.
Singapore will host the WTA's end of season championships for five years from 2014 and the organization are in the process of setting up an office in the wealthy citystate to help with their plans.
Allaster was cautious about predicting a repeat success of their China venture in a market known for corruption in sports, but said Li Na had meant anything was possible.
"Everyone has to be patient, sport development doesn't happen overnight. Li Na didn't happen overnight.
"We went to China before Li Na had made it, we committed to China in building the foundation of our strategy and in many respects we are doing the same here in Southeast Asia.
"Li came along a lot sooner that we had thought, and I never would have thought we would have a Chinese player with a grand slam in 2011 after we opened an office in 2008."
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)