The world’s leading producer of tennis racquets announced last month that it was putting an end to its contract with the French Tennis Federation (FFT), signed in 2011, as the official supplier of racquets, balls and strings for the Roland-Garros tournament. As reported in a news briefs in this issue, Wilson is taking the French company’s place.

A few days later, Babolat announced a collaboration with the Alibaba Group for the opening of a Babolat store on the marketplace of Tmall, to be followed by their contribution to the development of tennis and other racquet sports in China, including paddle tennis and badminton, where it has a margin for expansion.

As planned, Babolat set up an office for Greater China in Shanghai last July 1, replacing a former distributor, Glorious, that had worked mostly for Babolat in the past 10 years. It has agreed to take over the distribution of its products in Japan from Sumitomo Rubber, which remains its supplier of tennis balls, as of July 1, 2020.

Babolat is clearly shifting its focus to Asia, where it has more potential to grow. It is already the leader in France, Japan and the higher segment of the U.S. market. It is also a major factor in many other markets in Europe, but Wilson is becoming a stronger challenger and the tennis market is not growing overall in these countries.

By controlling the distribution and the marketing of its products in China and Japan, Babolat wants to apply some of the techniques that have helped it to become a leading player elsewhere, such as organizing demos and tournaments, while working closely with tennis coaches. It wants to capitalize on its ongoing sponsorship of Li Na, the former Chinese champion in women’s tennis, develop digital marketing and take other initiatives to grow the game in a part of the world where badminton is much stronger.

According to Babolat, the market for tennis racquets and balls in China is worth only around $100 million a year, and its market share there is half that of the local leader, Wilson, followed by Head, Yonex and Dunlop. Now that it is indirectly controlled by China’s Anta Sports Products, Wilson will no doubt make a stronger push for the development of tennis in China.

Babolat wants to generate more sales in China by offering a wider range of products. It wants to popularize the easier game of pádel, the Spanish version of paddle tennis, which it has grown in France and Spain. It also wishes to build up a local and global reputation in badminton racquets, where it has come close to Yonex in markets like France, Germany and the U.K.

The French company is harboring similar diversification and activation plans for the Japanese market, where badminton is more popular than in Europe, after it takes over the distribution there. Japan is already the second-largest market for the French brand after the U.S. 

New staff are being recruited to work with a recently appointed country manager, Mitch Umehra, who previously worked for Salomon and Mavic, two brands of Amer Sports, in Japan and France. The Shanghai office already has a staff of about 15 people. It is run by a Frenchman, Sébastien Bodennec, who comes from another sector.

According to Babolat, the global market for tennis racquets declined last year by about 4 percent, and the company’s sales dropped at a similar rate. On the other hand, strong increases in other product categories allowed Babolat to limit the decrease in its total revenues to €135 million in its 2018 financial year, which ended in December rather than in June as before, as compared to €136 million in the previous year.

The strongest growth took place last year in the area of pádel, the Spanish form of paddle tennis, which is approaching 4 percent of the company’s turnover. Babolat is investing a lot in this sports activity, which has just started to take hold in China and Japan, feeling that it is likely to be adopted by the local population because it is easy to learn and good for socializing.

Babolat is also planning to add clothing and other accessories to its own range of badminton racquets and shoes. It shares the leadership in France wit Yonex, and the Asian development project is expected to help it to gain greater recognition internationally.

Badminton has come to represent about 5 percent of Babolat’s turnover, but its sales of badminton products have stopped growing because Decathlon has decided to eliminate them from the offer in its own stores. It has launched its own private label of badminton products, called Perfly, coupling it with some of Yonex’ products because it is the market leader internationally.

The Asian project is led by Antoine Satihcq, the former executive of Le Coq Sportif and Odlo who was appointed as Babolat’s chief sales officer at the beginning of this year. In Europe, Sathicq is putting together new strategies to work more closely with retailers including key accounts such as Tennis Point and Tennis Warehouse.