ROME (AP) - Even without Roger Federer and Serena Williams, the Italian Open is setting records for crowd attendance.
And it’s not just Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova or the attractive courts lined by neo-classical statues and characteristic umbrella pine trees drawing fans to the Foro Italico.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Italian Tennis Federation’s TV channel, SuperTennis.
The channel, which operates 24 hours per day broadcasting tournaments worldwide year-round to Italian households, is the country’s most-watched non-soccer sports channel.
“Simply by broadcasting tennis all year round, it offers huge promotion for the tournament,” said federation board member Giancarlo Baccini, who was in charge when the channel was launched in 2008.
It’s also the only tennis channel wholly owned and operated by a national federation.
“Nobody else has it,” federation president Angelo Binaghi. “We’re a step ahead of everyone else.”
Available for free throughout Italy and streamed on the channel’s website, SuperTennis has a higher average viewership than Eurosport in Italy - with a total audience approaching one million.
Since SuperTennis’ launch a decade ago, paid attendance at the Italian Open has more than doubled - from 99,000 in 2008 to 224,000 last year with ticket sales now totaling more than 12 million euros ($14 million).
While this year’s attendance figures are still being calculated, the numbers are likely to go up.
The picturesque Pietrangeli court was filled with more than 3,000 fans for qualifying matches this year. Fans even pay to attend pre-qualifying - a country-wide tournament before the tournament featuring only Italian players with the winners earning wild cards to the main event or qualifying.
“It’s the best crowd I (have) ever seen,” top-ranked Simona Halep said. “Doesn’t matter the hour, doesn’t matter the day. They are here. And the fact that you get so close to them, you feel all the energy. And you feel like every time it’s packed.”
It wasn’t always that way.
When Binaghi was first elected at the start of the millennium, the Italian Open attracted more fans for its after-hours disco than the tennis.
“The tournament wasn’t just struggling. It was losing a lot of money,” Baccini said. “There was a point when we were asking ourselves if it was sustainable to keep it going.”
It was at that point when Binaghi suggested starting a TV channel to boost interest.
Now, the tournament values itself at 120-130 million euros.
“If we were to sell it that would be the lowest number we would start taking bids at,” Baccini said.
The advent of SuperTennis also coincided with a golden era for Italian women.
In the channel’s first full year, 2009, Italy won its second Fed Cup. More titles followed in 2006 and 2009.
The key members of those teams - Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta, Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani - also achieved individual success.
At the 2010 French Open, Schiavone became the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam singles title then was a finalist again a year later. In 2012, Errani was the runner-up at the French Open. Then Pennetta beat Vinci in an all-Italian U.S. Open final in 2015.
In addition, Errani and Vinci teamed to win a career Grand Slam in doubles.
“If we didn’t have the channel, nobody would have seen our girls’ exploits,” Binaghi said. “Because there was no women’s tennis on TV in Italy. And we show much more women’s tennis than men’s tennis.”
SuperTennis holds the rights to all WTA events, men’s 500 and 250 level tournaments, Davis Cup, Fed Cup and the Next Gen ATP Finals - a season-ending tournament for the world’s top under-21 players that will be in Milan for the second time in November. The only big tournaments it doesn’t have rights for are the men’s Masters 1000 tournaments and the four Grand Slams, which are held by Sky or Eurosport.
“It’s really probably one of the best TV (channels) out there for tennis,” said Croatian player Marin Cilic, who reached the semifinals this weekend in Rome. “Compare it maybe to Tennis Channel in the U.S.”
However, while the United States Tennis Asssociation used to have a small investment in Tennis Channel, it no longer does, according to USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier.
So what’s next for Italian tennis and the Italian Open?
First up, a long-delayed retractable roof for the 10,500-seat stadium. Then - if the ATP tour approves it - an expanded draw of 96 players (compared to the current 64) which could turn the event into a sort of “mini-slam.”
“The channel has advanced the development of the entire tennis movement here,” Binaghi said. “It gives us continuity throughout the year.”
AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington contributed.
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