2013: Diminishing appeal?

There are advantages for Indian tennis from the Chennai Open abound. Yet, the event now fails to generate the same level of excitement that one had come to expect from it.

Janko Tipsarevic beat Roberto Bautista-Agut 3-6, 6-1, 6-3 by in the final of the 2013 Aircel Chennai Open.   -  S R Raghunathan

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have some good news for you,” declared the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association President, M. A. Alagappan. The packed crowd at the SDAT Stadium roared in anticipation, partially aware of the information to come. The TNTA chief then proceeded to announce a three-year extension of the Chennai Open, until 2016.

Starved of premier tennis events or major tournaments in general, the predicament of sports fans in India is similar to that of most students during examinations. Bereft of any major diversions, our average student seeks refuge in trivial pursuits.

The average Indian sports aficionado is equally unfortunate. The country’s sports culture, though progressing gradually, is presently a mix of deformity and underdevelopment. In such a scenario, Indian citizens have to make-do with watching average or below average competitions at home throughout the calendar.

Hence, it is in this light that the significance of the ATP Chennai Open needs to be understood. The tournament has completed 18 editions now, 17 of them held in Chennai, and is currently the biggest tennis event in India. Many major tennis stars such as Rafael Nadal, Boris Becker, Pat Rafter et al, have appeared in the past here, while the present World No. 6, Tomas Berdych, was the biggest star attraction this year.

Berdych, however, lost in the quarterfinals to eventual finalist Roberto Bautista-Agut, who was defeated 3-6, 6-1, 6-3 by Janko Tipsarevic in the summit clash. The doubles final was a contest between unseeded players. Stanislas Wawrinka and Benoit Paire defeated the German duo of Andre Begemann and Martin Emmrich 6-2, 6-1.

Though the big names haven’t always done justice to their top billing by winning the title, they have ensured an above average turnout in the stands and kindled interest in the sport among the young and the new over the years. However, the sheen seems to be wearing off now.

As a writer cleverly remarked ahead of this year’s tournament, the Chennai Open and the city’s tennis fans “have come to resemble a long-married couple.” The excitement is vaguely visible and the fascination generated by the event seems to have diminished.

After Nikolay Davydenko in 2008, none of the top-five players of the world has featured in the tournament’s player field as it continues to lose them to the other ATP competitions played in the same week. The Qatar Open and the Brisbane International are far more attractive propositions for the star players for differing reasons.

The Doha tournament, due to better sponsorship, offers almost three times the prize money than Chennai (it’s $1,054,720 in Qatar when compared to $385,150 in Chennai), while Brisbane enjoys the geographical advantage of proximity to the venue of year’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, which begins seven days after these three events finish.

However, there is also a positive spin to the absence of the Federers and Djokovics at the Chennai Open. It gives more Indian tennis players an opportunity to participate and test their skills against the established players on the professional circuit. Somdev Devvarman’s achievement in 2009 is a case in point.

Devvarman then ranked 202 in the world and granted a wild card for the tournament, stunned Carlos Moya and Ivo Karlovic on way to the final, which he lost in straight sets to Marin Cilic. The now 27-year-old was virtually unknown outside the tennis circles then and became a household name overnight. However, to focus just on the fame garnered by Devvarman in 2009 would be to miss the larger point.

Hosting such an event entails the construction of quality infrastructure, and it indirectly has a significant impact on tennis development in India. Provided with high grade hard courts, young Indian players have massively benefited from the facilities at the SDAT Tennis Stadium in Chennai. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to many that a large number of budding tennis players come from this part of the country.

Exposed to a greater level of tennis for a week at the start of the year and given the space and opportunity to fine-tune their skills during and after the event, Indian tennis players are enriched by the experience. Moreover, many young players also stand to learn about the different methods of fitness and conditioning from the pros and their coaches.

Hence, the advantages for Indian tennis from the Chennai Open abound. Yet, the event now fails to generate the same level of excitement that one had come to expect from it. Arguably, the reason behind it lies in the tournament’s status in the tennis world.

The Chennai Open belongs to the lowest rung of competitions on the ATP World Tour. In a country as populous as India, it would be improper to judge the tournament’s popularity on the basis of the stadium attendance numbers. The event’s significance lies somewhere else. It satisfies — albeit in an incomplete manner until now — our hunger to witness high quality sporting action in a stadium in our own country. With a more competitive player field in the coming years, the love affair could bloom again.

(As appeared in the Sportstar on Jan. 19, 2013)