Melbourne's smash hit

Forget bling and bikinis. Two tennis heroes from another era are serving up a tourism ace, writes Robert Upe.

Norm and Daphne are two old-fashioned types from Melbourne Park that might be doing more for Australian tourism than bikini-clad Lara Bingle could ever manage in her ill-fated advertisements for Tourism Australia.

In the ads, part of a $180-million campaign launched in 2006, Bingle steps out of the surf and asks potential tourists, "So where the bloody hell are you?"

The answer could be that they are at the Australian Open Tennis Championships, which last year achieved a record attendance of 686,006 people - many of them from interstate and overseas - and attracted a worldwide television audience of 349 million. The biggest event in the world every January is credited with delivering an economic boost of $239 million to Victoria annually and creating 446,000 visitor nights in Melbourne and surrounds.

Chris Buckingham of Destination Melbourne says the Australian Open brings strong and consistent visitation over two to three weeks from interstate and overseas. "Melbourne's hotels fill up, the restaurants enjoy brisk trade and our retailers appreciate the increased traffic," he says.

Norm and Daphne play a large part in promoting the event. They tour Asia annually and create hoopla for tennis and for Australia wherever they go, from Tokyo to Beijing.

"In Beijing this year they were greeted by a throng of media, by government dignitaries, performers and literally hundreds of schoolchildren," says Steve Wood, the chief executive of Tennis Australia.

Norm and Daphne are the men's and women's trophies of the tennis championship - the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup and the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, named after Australian champions of the game from another century. But this is more than just a trophy tour to drum up interest in a sporting event.

"It is a story about the culture of sport and how sport can create friendship, goodwill and tourism," Wood says.

He says that apart from the interest generated by the trophies, Tennis Australia clinics at schools have been overwhelmingly popular and there has even been an exchange program started for ball boys that will see six from China in action at this year's Open.

Tennis is played in more than 200 countries, Wood says, and there are more than 75 million global tennis players, including emerging Asian stars led by Japan's Kei Nishikori and China's Li Na. More than 30,000 international visitors attend the Open each year and there are another 54,000 fans from interstate.

Wood says the number of tennis fans coming from the Asia-Pacific region has increased by more than 400 per cent in the past seven years and stands at 15 per cent of the total international audience. The aim is to increase that to 37 per cent during the next decade.

The Australian Open is now an entry point for Asian tourists who "then stick around to see the world's best country", Wood says. "It all starts with a hit of tennis."

And a bit of magic from Norm and Daphne.

The Australian Open runs from January 14-27.