WTA chief lauds Li win after growth push

By Mark Meadows

PARIS (Reuters) - Li Na's triumph in the French Open final is great for women's tennis and follows a push to develop the sport in China which officials now want to replicate in India, WTA tour chief executive Stacey Allaster said.

"It's incredibly special and exciting, I'm thrilled for her. It's great for the sport overall," Allaster told Reuters in an interview at Roland Garros.

"She is a great ambassador, great athlete, great personality, a national hero in China already and the western world is beginning to get to know her and enjoying her as she has great talent on the court and is good fun off the court."

The women's tour hopes more Chinese will take up the game following Li's breakthrough.

"Having the WTA office in Beijing is incredibly important, we are planting the seeds, we've got a good foundation, good athletes, a great athlete development system with the Chinese Tennis Association," Allaster added.

"We now have one of our top four events in China, the Beijing Open which is important so we have that celebration.

"These past couple of weeks we've had our Chinese tennis festivals, we are out in the market putting rackets in people's hands because we've got to educate this market."

Another market full of opportunity for tennis is India.

"We probably have a third of events in North America, a third in Europe, a third in Asia-Pacific. We've got a good balance, we'd like more in South America, more in India," she said. "We have to see how you'd fit those into the calendar in a healthy way for the athletes."

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Li's win and the fact the top three seeds in Paris went out early has led to commentators criticizing the standard of women's tennis in the absence of the injured Williams sisters and the retirement of Justine Henin.

Allaster said the open nature of the women's game made it attractive even if there are no big rivalries like in the men's.

"The standard is much higher. On any given day anyone in the top 40 can win, we don't have these 40 minute 6-0 and 6-0 first round matches any more. They are much more competitive, there is much more parity," she said.

"We have a lot of gravitas," the Canadian added, saying the return to form of French Open semi-finalist Maria Sharapova was important for the brand while she also wished the Williams duo a speedy recovery in time for August and September's U.S. Open.

"The depth we have in the game right now, we are monetizing it and the business is growing," she said. "Maria's back, she's playing well, she's hungry.

"Any time we can have Venus or Serena on the court it's fantastic for fans. It would be fantastic to have them as part of the mix, as part of the story. They are being very prudent with their bodies. Hopefully we will see them very soon."

Without the Williams', tennis is fighting for airplay in the U.S. with American men also not threatening in big events.

"Our events in North America continue to be successful, they are growing. The USTA is laser-focused on its quick start programme for under 10s and they know they've got to get more kids in the pipeline," she said.

Men's number one Rafa Nadal recently demanded a new rankings approach but Allaster is not totally convinced.

"Rankings have a long history and prompt lots of debate. The system we have is the best one that many great minds have been able to draft," she ventured.

"On balance, it always recalibrates. It is not too often that you have the anomaly where you have a world number one who has not won a grand slam.

"We are always monitoring the rankings and I'm always someone who is open to receiving input from the fans, I do think we have to be fan-centric."

(Editing by Martyn Herman)