A tournament entirely for India

Vijay Amritraj (right) with his son Prakash (centre) and the Hyderabad team owner, Dr. K. Rama Raju, during an event in Hyderabad to promote the Champions Tennis League.-V.V. SUBRAHAMANYAM Vijay Amritraj (right) with his son Prakash (centre) and the Hyderabad team owner, Dr. K. Rama Raju, during an event in Hyderabad to promote the Champions Tennis League.

“People look forward to the Chennai Open every year, whether or not the stars are playing. But one tournament is not enough. Consistent live action with international stars is missing. So this endeavour (Champions Tennis League),” says Vijay Amritraj in a chat with N. Sudarshan.

Tennis is perhaps one of the few sports that do not have a time-quotient. A match can be scheduled for three hours, but it can end in one or stretch beyond three. This, according to the purists, contributes to the sport’s beauty.

But in 2005, for the first time in more than 30 years until then, the scoring system was tinkered with. In an ATP tournament in Beijing, doubles sets were played to six games with a tiebreak at 5-5. Then in Tokyo, sets were played to five with a tiebreak at 4-4. Both had no-ad games. The French pair of Fabrice Santoro and Michael Llodra even won a match 3-5, 5-4, 5-4. Later on, a match tiebreaker to 10 points was proposed instead of the third set.

However, these changes didn’t cut much ice. Since then, only the match tiebreak and the no-ad scoring have survived and none of the experiments has even touched singles.

Now, these changes are set to make a comeback, albeit not on the ATP tour, but in the two cash-rich city-based tennis leagues that will be played in India over the next two months — Vijay Amritraj’s Champions Tennis League (CTL) and Mahesh Bhupathi’s International Tennis Premier League (ITPL).

At a time when international tournaments in India are few and far between, these two leagues, with their battery of international superstars, are seeking to fill the void. In a chat with Sportstar, Vijay Amritraj, tells us how it will help Indian tennis, the idea behind the format and its long-term goals.

Excerpts: Question: What made you think of CTL?

Answer: About three or four years ago, we wanted to get another event in India apart from the Chennai Open. Around 20 years back, when I was the ATP president, I brought the Chennai Open. People look forward to it every year whether or not the stars are playing. But one tournament is not enough. Consistent live action with international stars is missing. So this endeavour.

How will it benefit Indian tennis?

It gives an opportunity for our Davis Cup players to play alongside international stars. One can see how these stars think, strategise, practise, eat and so on.

Apart from them, it will also help inspire the next set of youngsters — those below 20. Because Chennai Open has nothing to do with juniors, it’s pretty much an international tournament. Here they get an opportunity to be on the same team with them. For example, Ramkumar Ramanathan will have Thomas Enqvist as his captain and will play doubles with Feliciano Lopez, which is great.

Do you think a part of this money and sponsorship would be better spent holding more Challengers, which will actually help the players climb the rankings?

Here I feel the All India Tennis Association (AITA) has done very well. There are so many tournaments in India, both Challengers and Futures. We never had these 20 years ago. Earlier, to get to 300 in the rankings from around 1000 you had to go overseas. Not anymore. One can get to 250 only by playing at home which is a huge plus. From there, it’s up to the individual.

ATP’s executive chairman and President Chris Kermode recently termed ITPL as ‘Glorified Exhibition’. How different is CTL?

This is entirely for India — for the Davis Cup players and the juniors. It has international stars in action only in India. Also, the players who are in the team are committed to play in all matches.

In the ITPL, Roger Federer is playing for the Micromax India Aces only in Delhi, but not in Singapore. I don’t know how it works. For a team you need to play everywhere. Here Venus Williams will play for Bangalore everywhere. It builds a real team environment, makes it really competitive and more interesting for the public to follow.

City based leagues are increasing — like the Indian Badminton League, then Pro-Kabaddi and the Indian Super League football. These have, however, retained the essence of the game. With the CTL, there is some tinkering. No-ad scoring, nine-point tiebreakers at 5-5 instead of 6-6, and so on. Is there an apprehension that this might not be well received?

Not really. The basics remain the same. It’s still two serves. The courts, the balls, the equipment are the same. The no-ad scoring is to cut short the game. (No possibility of seemingly endless deuce games).

The tiebreaker is not much different. In the early days, they used to be at eight games all. In the late seventies, we moved to six-all. Time constraint and TV scheduling has much to do with these changes. It’s like the difference that exists between Tests and One-Day Internationals, although I don’t like to make this comparison because one is an individual sport and the other a team sport.

What’s the long-term objective? How will the brand be sustained?

The franchises have been signed for a nine-year period and television rights for five years. So, it’s long-term. It does help that the sport as a career option is getting traction. So many players are getting paid. This is a big positive.

Also, there are so many leagues in the country now. This is something that I never dreamt of when I played. This has made it appealing for both TV and sponsorships will come in.

What is the growth you are expecting in the coming years? Any new franchises?

The entire thing is based on the ATP and WTA calendars. It’s challenging. If we can get two full weeks it will be great. We can do more.

* * * CTL format

Six teams - Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh, Pune, Bangalore and Hyderabad - of four players each are divided into two groups.

Each team will play the other two in its group on home and away basis.

Each match will consist of five sets. Each set will be played by different sets of players. So, there will be a set each of legends, mixed doubles, women's singles, men's doubles and men's singles.

A set will have a nine-point tiebreaker at 5-5 and no-ad scoring. In the traditional 12-point tiebreaker, the first to reach 7 points with at least a 2-point difference over the opponent will win the set. If not, it prolongs until there is a difference of two points. In a nine-point tiebreaker, the first to reach 5 wins. Even 5-4 is allowed.

The team which has the highest aggregate of games over five sets wins the match.

* * * `You have to dream big'

Vijay Amritraj, who was in Hyderabad recently to promote his brainchild, the Champions Tennis League, stressed on the need to encourage the sport in a big way from the junior level. "There is a need for a vast base of talent, and the basics too have to be very strong," said the 60-year-old former Indian tennis star.

"It hurts to see that no Indian figures in the top 100 either in men's or women's singles. It is time for serious introspection," said Vijay when asked why there are not many men's singles players who look good enough to match the achievements of the likes of Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes.

Sania Mirza... 'a role model for any budding sportperson.'-V.V. SUBRAHAMANYAM

What is the reason for India not producing even a women's singles player who can be rated half as good as Sania Mirza?

"It is all boils down to hard work. There is no substitute for this - be it in sport or life. Look at the way Sania and her family faced the challenges while taking up tennis as a career. I mean it is a huge gamble no doubt - to be a tennis player or to go to school as a junior. You need to make lots of sacrifices. I feel this is where Sania stands out as a role model for any budding sportsperson," Vijay explained.

"She is an incredible player. Wish Sania played for long in singles. It's unfortunate that injuries forced her to shift to doubles. The fact that she continues to be a star performer in the WTA circuit in doubles is superb. She always had the personality to be a wonderful tennis player. And winning the WTA Tour's women's doubles title is majestic. It is never easy to win so many titles given the extremely tough competition in the circuit," pointed out Vijay, a renowned TV commentator now.

Incidentally, Vijay was the first Indian to win the WCT doubles title in Dallas in 1977. Sania is the second Indian and the only woman player from the country to win the prestigious doubles title recently.

Looking back at his own career, Vijay said: "I have been fortunate to have played Davis Cup for close to two decades and in the ATP circuit for a long while. It has been a very happy journey in tennis for me and I have no regrets."

He is of the view that tennis in India should improve, with the CTL and the IPTL scheduled to be held in the country and also with so many academies across India. "The onus is on the young talent to ensure there is continuity of interest in the sport and the passion to excel for a longer duration. You cannot have short-term goals. You have to dream big and have the desire to chase it," Vijay said.