Will the championship stay in Chennai?

The talk of moving the championship started in 2003 and the rumours made the rounds this year as well.

S. V. SRIRAM

"CHARMINAR is for Hyderabad, Tennis is for Chennai. We love it, don't move it anywhere, Madras is the home for tennis not Hyderabad."

An over-view of the centre court at the Nungambakkam Stadium in Chennai. "We like it here in Chennai but if we cannot find the sponsorship and the spectator response it will be very difficult. If things aren't worked out, we may even have to move to another country," says the Tournament Director, Fernando Soler. — Pic. VINO JOHN-

If ever the organisers of the Tata Open 2004 needed a vote of faith that they need not move India's only ATP Tour tournament to another venue, then the messages that the fans in Chennai left on the boards, at various spots in the tennis stadium at Nugambakkam, should have sufficed.

But the fans did not stop at just that. They turned up in hordes for the semifinals and the final, screaming and yelling for their favourite player to win. Not quite rivalling a Latin carnival neither having the colour of your local temple thiruvizha, the crowd was in a festive mood nonetheless and rooted for Paradorn Srichaphan — Chennai's adopted son — who was up and roaring in the semifinals.

They continued in the same vein in the final, backing both Carlos Moya and Srichaphan to the hilt. But the biggest roars were reserved when the organisers got up to thank the sponsors for their continued support and promised to return next year.

But will they return?

The talk of moving the championship started in 2003 and the rumours made the rounds this year as well. The journalists, who were eager to get a scoop or a revealing quote, hunted the people in the know.

And adding fuel to the fire was a lukewarm response from the public in the initial stages of the tournament. In fact, the first half of the tournament saw empty stands. Players invariably walked out to the claps of a few diehard fans, their cries of anguish or ecstasy echoing across the empty stands.

But the story doesn't end here. It takes a further twist with the visit of a top ranking sports official from Andhra Pradesh to the SDAT stadium giving credence to the rumour that Hyderabad is the likely venue in 2005.

Asok Kumar, Vice-Chairman and Managing Director of Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh (SAAP), however, was non-committal. "I have come here in my personal capacity to check the facilities as Chennai has been successfully staging this event for the past eight years.

"The centre court is more spacious than the SAAP stadium at Hyderabad. I had a complete tour of the venue, the outside courts and the media centre. I will now be putting forward my observations to the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Chandra Babu Naidu."

It is pertinent to note here that IMG, which owns the ATP Tour event in India, has entered into a MoU last August with SAAP to build world-class infrastructure in about eight disciplines, including tennis.

But before we look to the future let's have a glance at the past. A past which peaked with the presence of star crowd pullers like Boris Becker (1998), Richard Krajicek (97), Thomas Enqvist (97), Patrick Rafter (98), Yevgeny Kafelnikov (2000) and Mark Phillipoussis (2003).

A hard court meet, the Tata Open, after its move from April to the beginning of the season in January was positioned as one of the build-ups to the first Grand Slam of the season, the Australian Open. The move was then necessitated primarily due to a couple of reasons, viz: the heat in Chennai at that time of year and because it was played right in the middle of the clay court season.

But the tournament has lost much of its sheen after this move. The tournament now is mostly made up of clay court specialists who use it as a preparation for the Australian Open. The other top players (read those comfortable with faster surfaces) however give this meet a miss and instead choose to play either in Doha or in Adelaide, which are on at the same time.

Here's what Vijay Amritraj, the man responsible for bringing the tournament to India had to say: "We would love to continue our association with Chennai for a long time to come. As far as the field is concerned, this year we've had the deepest and strongest field ever. Men's tennis is now very different from what it was in our time. Longevity is the key. Back then we played for a long time and the people had no choice but to get to know us.

"But now things have changed. Burnouts are common, even in the fourth or fifth year of a player's career. So, a star of the previous year may not be even in the top 50 this year. Right now, the men's field has only one real crowd puller, Andre Agassi, and he is 34 years old!

"We managed to get Becker only towards the end of his career. So, the top 20, from where we pick our contestants, are young and are on their way to the top. We have to choose from what we have," he said.

Tournament Director, Fernando Soler, echoed Amritraj's views. "We (ATP) would love to remain in Chennai. But sponsorship, either from private sector or government, has to be forthcoming.

"We like it here in Chennai but if we cannot find the sponsorship and the spectator response it will be very difficult. If things aren't worked out, we may even have to move to another country."

Ravi Krishnan, MD and Chairman, India & South Asia, IMG-TWI, said, "We are hoping to stay in Chennai. There has been no real development, though we have been working really hard on this front."

As far as the players were concerned, though they liked it in Chennai, being professionals many confessed that they wouldn't mind even if the tournament was moved.

Doubles winner Tommy Robredo, said, "The centre court is very nice here. People are nice especially the people who prepare the rooms right to the drivers. Anyway, it doesn't matter to me. Chennai or anyplace, I'll go where ever they move the tournament. I have done well here and hope to do well anywhere else."

"I love coming to Chennai. The crowd support here is really great. It is as if I'm playing at home," said Srichaphan. "I love to begin my season in India, it doesn't really matter where in India."

M. P. Shankar, Hon. Secy., TNTA: "At TNTA we are taking up the matter with the State government in conjunction with the SDAT to keep the tournament in Chennai. We are requesting the State government for help in reaching out to corporate houses in Tamil Nadu and Chennai to tap resources.

"We need to work in co-ordination between the government, corporates and the tourism department to ensure that the tournament stays here. We have positive response. The government too is studying the proposal. We'll have to wait and see."