“Who do you want to see play here?” Sunil Chhatrapal Kedar, the Sports Minister of Maharashtra, asked.
“Roger Federer!” the fans shouted the name louder after the singles final of the Tata Open Maharashtra where the Czech Republic’s Jiří Veselý emerged the champion.
“Okay, we will get him here,” the Minister vowed to a cheering crowd that was out in large numbers despite the absence of big stars.
The Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association Secretary Sunder Iyer heaved a sigh of relief after hearing that during the presentation ceremony. “We are now at least assured of the support of the State Government for the tournament till 2022,” he told journalists shortly after.
It had been a tense week for the organisers of India’s only ATP 250 event. The change in dates because of the inaugural ATP Cup put paid to the tournament’s privileged stature as a pre-season warm-up event for the year’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, and the organisers were forced to make do with a weaker playing field. Though always difficult to pull in the big names, the tournament at least had the scheduling going for it. But from this year onwards, it has been pushed to the week after the Australian Open, nullifying all the advantages the tournament had previously enjoyed. It was time for the start of the European calendar and the organisers had the tough ask of convincing the best players — mostly Europeans — to instead come and play in Pune.
Benoît Paire, ranked No. 19 in the world when the tournament got underway, was the only player from the top 50 in the tournament. After a first-round bye, he lost to Italian qualifier Roberto Marcora in the second — a big blow for the tournament. Last year’s runner-up Ivo Karlović, the big-serving Croatian, had crashed out in the first round.
The only hope for the sustenance of the tournament was the performance of the Indians, five of whom featured in the main draw and six competed in doubles. Yet, there were no Indian winners in the country’s only ATP World Tour event. Except for Prajnesh Gunneswaran, who lost in the second round, the other Indians couldn’t cross even the first hurdle. Ramkumar Ramanathan and Purav Raja were a little more successful by entering the semifinals in doubles.
“It’s definitely very disappointing. Especially with a weak field, I definitely expected all of us to do better. It’s very heart-breaking for me as a tennis player. But it’s not true that something is lacking in us. It was just one of those weeks where it didn’t click for all of us. I wouldn’t say we don’t belong at this level; they were all close matches. We will be back next year, we will be better,” Sasikumar Mukund, who lost a close first-round match to Taro Daniel of Japan said.
“We were very optimistic that the Indians would do well. We had already mentioned that we were investing money this year for the Indians, to give them a platform to do well. In that way, it was very satisfying as we had so many Indians in the main draw, but it was unfortunate that they lost in closely fought matches,” Iyer said.
“Obviously, the top players will draw crowds, but we have to create national heroes,” he added.
How do you create national heroes?
“We really need to reinvent tennis as a sport in India because the competition in sports in India is huge now with all the leagues. Be it boxing or wrestling or shooting or badminton or chess, Indians are doing very well. Tennis in India needs a nice energised injection infused into the system; we need to be attracting a lot of kids,” said tennis legend Leander Paes.
“It takes a lot of work to be a champion in tennis. I’m really proud of the young Indian players, men and women, for the way they persevere and have that passion to travel a 12-month season all around the world, trying to be the best they can be. It’s not easy. Tennis is a crazy, expensive sport. It’s the hardest sport on the planet,” he added.
Opportunities to play at the top then become paramount. The more the youngsters are exposed to playing in tougher competitions, the better their rankings. It is not easy to enter a Tour event if you are not in the top 100. It is difficult to be in the Top 100 if you haven’t played enough number of Challengers.
An ATP 250 event in India, then, becomes an important entry point to top competitions for up and coming talent from the country.
“It’s good that we have these events... There was a time when we had five Challengers in the country. You could see that there were many players whose rankings improved. They got a chance to play in these tournaments and obviously their rankings went up. They performed better,” doubles specialist Divij Sharan said.
“I don’t know how easy it is to have more Tour events because it is very expensive. And you also need a lot of players ranked close to a 100 in singles or even doubles to make use of that opportunity. But I think it would be great to have more Challengers, then we can look at a lot more players in the top bracket,” Sharan said.
The MSLTA’s five-year contract with IMG, the owner of the event, will last till 2022. Despite its significantly reduced value in the ATP Tour calendar, Iyer said the organisers will stick to their commitment and persist with the tournament.
“We’re really happy organising the tournament because it adds value to our entire effort. I think this tournament has really helped Pune become the tennis capital of the country,” he said.
“Mark my words, this will be one of the toughest events next year. Because looking at this field, a lot of players who did not come to play would say that they have a great opportunity in winning a title and so many more people will enter the fray,” he said.
“We are also planning to host another Challenger tournament in Mumbai this season, either alongside the Pune Challenger or closer to the Tata Open Maharashtra,” he said.
The “effort” Iyer mentions is building a sound infrastructure from the bottom in the state.
“Maharashtra has the most number of Indians ranked in the top 20 in all age categories. We organise the most tournaments. We are spending approximately $500,000 in prize money annually on international events including juniors and the rest of them are national and state-ranking events as a part of our Vision 2020 programme.
“We have a monthly report for all the age categories and organise competitions to improve in the age categories which we think are lacking,” Iyer said while showing the analysis reports he receives every month.
“As part of the vision programme, we have been training hundreds of kids in all the age groups and select a few for international camps as well. We have organised a WTA Mumbai Open, which has helped players like Ankita Raina and Rutuja Bhosale gain exposure tremendously,” he said.
“We are investing ₹60-80 lakh in the development of promising youngsters, be it international training or assisting with funds for travel. We have a good coaching programme and have the highest number of match officials. So, it’s not just about junior programmes or conducting tournaments; we’re looking at wholesome development of the sport,” Iyer said.
On hosting the ATP 250 event, he said: “It gives Maharashtra more mileage. More acceptability, you can say. A lot of things are going on underneath. So this is like the icing on our cake.”