REUTERS - The Australian Open will hold a regional wildcard playoff for entry to the 2013 version of the year's first tennis grand slam in Nanjing in China in October, organisers announced on Monday.
The male and female winners of the playoff, which will take place at China's National Tennis Academy from October 15-21, will gain entry to the main draw of the Melbourne Park tournament, which brands itself the "Grand Slam of the Asia-Pacific".
The Asia-Pacific wildcards were previously decided by nomination, a spokeswoman for Tennis Australia said, and are part of the 16 up for grabs for the Australian Open, eight each for entry to the men's and women's draws.
Two of the eight are allocated in a reciprocal arrangement with the French and U.S. Opens, one goes to the winner of a playoff restricted to Australian players, while the other four are awarded at the discretion of organisers.
The playoff, which will not be open to Australian players, was announced by the Premier of Victoria Ted Baillieu at a news conference in Beijing on Monday, also attended by China's 2011 French Open champion Li Na.
The Australian Open has moved increasingly to identify itself as a pan-regional tournament as Asia, and China in particular, has become a bigger player in the sport.
The China Open, which now boasts a joint $8.3 million WTA/ATP event at the tennis centre built for the 2008 Olympics, has made no secret of its ambition to eventually become a grand slam tournament.
Asia is also an important market both for attracting visitors to Melbourne to watch the tournament and for television audiences to bolster the value of media rights.
"There has been a 400 percent increase in visitation to the Australian Open from the Asia-Pacific region over the past eight years," Tennis Australia's CEO Steve Wood said in news release.
"More than half the Australian Open's global media value is now generated from the Asia-Pacific region and new broadcast deals include access to an additional 65 million homes," he added.
"And when Li Na made her historic run to the final in 2011 we achieved the highest ever broadcast exposure throughout Asia ... with 135 million tuning in across the region."
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney, editing by Peter Rutherford