Indian tennis leagues: Mired in financial difficulties

The legendary Vijay Amritraj feels that the ideal condition to grow the game and help sustain leagues such as Champions Tennis League is for a bunch of Indians to constantly snap at the heels of established stars from abroad.

Everyone is chasing ATP and WTA points. Indian juniors aren’t getting a chance to play against seniors and foreigners unless they go abroad,” says Vijay Amritraj.   -  M. Vedhan

A brainchild of Vijay Amritraj, the Champions Tennis League (CTL) was born in what can be considered the boom years in Indian franchise-based sports ecosystem — 2013 and 2014. Like hockey, football and badminton, the tennis initiative too started with the premise of improving the standard of the sport in the country. But mired in financial difficulties, it sank after just two editions.

Despite the setback, Amritraj believes that such a tennis league does have a future in India. “Yes, there is definitely a market,” he says. “We put the girls and boys together, which seldom happens outside the Grand Slams. When I was a player we had played in a fairly similar format called World Team Tennis. It was very popular. The format is competitive, quick (just one set per match) and the accumulated number of games counts. We put one boy and one girl, both Indian juniors in each team. To them, hanging out with international stars, hitting with them and being coached by them made a huge difference and many of those kids did well post that.”

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This developmental aspect remains the key, according to Amritraj. “In the 1970s and 80s, a lot of top foreign players like [Ilie] Nastase, [Ion] Tiriac played in Indian tournaments and the national circuit. So we had the chance to play against the best Indian players and good foreigners.

“But today that’s not possible because the Indian circuit, as we knew it, has gone away and everyone is chasing ATP and WTA points. Indian juniors aren’t getting a chance to play against seniors and foreigners unless they go abroad. A league like CTL can help address that gap.”

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However, economics remains the biggest hurdle. Even though such leagues are part-inspired by IPL’s success, Amritraj says there is no comparison. Attracting the best players in the world at sky-high salaries is a tough proposition, as Mahesh Bhupathi’s International Premier Tennis League found out when it folded in 2016 following a three-year run.

“In cricket, nearly 70% of the revenue is generated by India. The biggest contracts in cricket, unlike in the 1970s and 80s, are drawn here. This is not the case in tennis. Instead, a good example to emulate is kabaddi and even badminton. But even there we have a lot of Indian players, something that makes a difference to how a league is sustained. So there will be hits and misses and there is no one-size-fits-all routine.

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“But in tennis, economics is the biggest thing. Everyone is an independent contractor. Only golf comes close but even there you have to meet some qualification criteria to get the PGA or European tour card. But in tennis if I am good enough, I can play. No one can stop me. That makes a huge difference to how the individual also starts behaving. So money is a factor.”

Ultimately, Amritraj feels that the ideal condition to grow the game and help sustain leagues such as CTL is for a bunch of Indians to constantly snap at the heels of established stars from abroad. “Take the lone ATP event in India (Tata Open Maharashtra). Which Indian gets straight into the tournament? Hardly any, even after all these years of conducting it. That is the concern. On the other hand, if you have a guy who can win it, and he is challenging the likes of [Marin] Cilic and [Stan Wawrinka], it’s huge for the competition. These are the things that can create the right vibes for the sport to boom.”