Chennai Open no more

The event, owned by IMG and organised by IMG-Reliance, was held in Chennai for the last 21 years.

The SDAT Tennis Stadium will not host the Chennai Open in 2018.   -  R. RAGU

Sporting events that have permanent slots on the calendar always carry a certain sense of romanticism. Be it the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, or the Christmas period fixtures in the Premier League. In a similar vein, the Chennai Open ATP 250 event in the first week of January was a part of the culture of the city just like the classical music season during that time of the year.

And on Thursday, as Sportstar had earlier reported on July 16, the fate of Chennai Open was sealed after a 21-year run. IMGR (a joint venture between IMG, which owns the ATP sanction for the Chennai Open and Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Group) ended the contract it had struck with the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association with two more years to go.

Chennai Open: The Champions

The event will now be held in Pune’s Balewadi Complex under the moniker ‘Maharashtra Open’. “We welcome the world class ATP tournament to our state,” Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said. “We are happy to host the Maharashtra Open and sure that we will take it to newer heights by bringing in an elite field every year.”

Speaking to Sportstar, TNTA vice-president and head of the organising committee of the Chennai Open said that they could no longer afford the cost of the tournament. “The title sponsor Aircel, having merged with Reliance Communications no longer exists,” he said. “At the end of the day it is a commercial enterprise and without sponsors it is difficult.”

The former AITA vice-president added, “Most tournaments in the world have revenue streams from television rights, tickets and hospitality and sponsors. We had to run the whole tournament only on revenue from sponsorship. We are very thankful to the Government of Tamil Nadu for the unwavering support over the years and it was a glorious run for 21 years. But without a title sponsor, it is very difficult.”

It is understood that the title sponsor brought in close to 40 per cent of the budget for the event and an approximate budget for the event was Rs 12-13 crore.

Karti also rued that the event lacked consistent support from the private sector in Chennai and said that the government-run PSU can help only so much.

It was the first tournament on the ATP calendar and the climate in the city, the courts and the balls used served as good preparation for the Australian Open, the year’s first Major. It attracted some of the top players including the likes of Rafael Nadal, Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka, Carlos Moya, Pat Rafter, Boris Becker to name a few across two decades.

“It’s a little bit difficult (to imagine),” Somdev Devvarman said.

“It was huge thing when I was growing up. I was emotionally connected and I wouldn’t miss a day. I would say I turned pro because of this tournament and it pushed me to do better. It was part of our culture and the tennis ecosystem in Chennai. People appreciated the whole set of international stars who came.”

In fact, Devvarman’s first-ever ATP singles final was at the Chennai Open in 2009.

“Every budding player would watch and learn,” he added. “In that sense it’s a blow for youngsters in Chennai. It had such relevance. It was kind of cool and fun too. It was not just a sporting event. It was social and it had such good vibes.”

“But there can be no doubt that it’s good for Indian tennis that it is still in India. It will be a fresh start in Pune. There are a lot of tennis enthusiasts there. Mushrooming academies. Lot of young energy in a similar way to Chennai. So I am looking forward to it.”

“The good thing is that it's not going out of the country,” opined Anand Amritraj, former India Davis Cup captain. “If it goes out of India, it's never going to come back.”

“Personally, it’s slightly disappointing. It has been there for 21 years and I was involved with it for 17 years as a commentator. But the problem was there was no Indian interest during the week and crowds built up only in the weekends. We need more to do. We need someone like Somdev in 2009. Poona will have the same problem. But it’s a very nice stadium and under the present circumstances Pune seems the best.”

Challenger event to return

Karti however added, the TNTA has been assured of continued support from the State government to ensure the State continues to be one of the premier tennis centres in the country.

“We have had discussions with the government and they want us to hold international events and have assured us of their support,” said Karti Chidambaram, Vice-President, TNTA. 

“We are planning to hold an ATP Challenger event, probably a week before the ATP 250 in Pune. I have spoken to the ATP also about this. All Indian players will be available and it will be helpful for them. There are also plans to hold a $25,000 WTA Futures event in the city.”

From a high of five Challenger events in 2014, India currently has only one Challenger tournament running in Pune. The city will play host to a Challenger this October for the fourth year in a row and an additional Challenger will do the Indian players a world of good.

With inputs from N. Sudarshan