In the last decade-and-a-half, global Tour-level tennis in India has predominantly been just men’s tennis. That is set to change with the Chennai Open WTA 250 tournament scheduled to be held from September 12 to 18.
The competition will also mark the return of high-level tennis to the Tamil Nadu capital after a gap of five-and-a-half years. Chennai is often referred to as the game’s soul in India, having produced greats like the Krishnans — Ramanathan and Ramesh — and the Amritraj brothers — Anand and Vijay.
But ever since the annual men’s event, which ran for just over two decades in Chennai, found a new home in Pune starting from the 2018 edition, sport in Chennai hasn’t looked the same, for tennis has always been part of the collective consciousness of its populace. The return of the WTA 250 tourney will feel like oxygen.
“We needed to do something like this,” said Vijay Amritraj, president of the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA), the main organiser of the event. “When I took over at TNTA a few years ago, the goal was to rectify a few things, make sure we can get global tennis back.
“And this is also a kind of way, an encouragement for the girls to let them know that we are behind them as much as we are behind the guys. We never had one like this in Chennai before and we are glad.”
India’s top-ranked singles player Ankita Raina (No. 326*), who has been given a wildcard for the event, felt that the chance to play at a high-level tournament at home brings with it huge advantages.
“The idea of having such big events in the country is to get you to play at the highest-level while being in the comfort of a home ground, with [familiar] courts, weather etc,” she told Sportstar. “Usually, the players who participate in a 250-level event will be playing the Slams too. So that’s where you want to be after all. Having this opportunity in India saves the expenses, travel and you get the support of everyone here at home.”
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In addition, such competitions also have a developmental aspect to them. To hit with a top-50 player, see how she manages her body, controls her emotions, and overcomes nerves are all priceless lessons. Nobody would want to pass up the opportunity to practise with the likes of Caroline Garcia, World No. 17 and the champion at Cincinnati WTA 1000 recently, and Alison Riske-Amritraj, World No.29 and a Wimbledon quarterfinalist in 2019.
However, evidence of such events in India inspiring a generation to excel in the sport has been patchy. The ATP Chennai Open ran for 21 years and the ATP Tata Open Maharashtra has run for four years. But since the turn of the millennium, just three Indian singles players have broken into the ATP top-100 — Somdev Devvarman, Yuki Bhambri and Prajnesh Gunneswaran — and none into the top-50.
It would be harsh to judge the women based on what happened on the men’s side. One of the biggest regrets in Indian tennis is how official policy did not capitalise on Sania Mirza’s stardom in the 2000s. For a large portion of the four-year period from 2005 to 2008, she was ranked in the top-32 singles players in the world and peaked at No. 27.
Many girls who watched Sania play, both at home and abroad, would have, no doubt, wanted to pick up the sport, but were largely let down by the administrators. The brand-new WTA 250 in Chennai is a small, gingerly step towards changing that.
“Hopefully this will inspire our girls,” said Vijay. “There are of course more girls playing the sport today. The draws are bigger than they were 10 years ago. [But] we also want to get to a situation where we are not giving wildcards for the main draw all the time. That is my goal.
“This year at Wimbledon there was a special under-14 tournament organised and we had one Indian qualifying from Asia. It was a girl and not a boy. I went to watch her play. She was overpowered but at least she made it there. These things should really inspire the girls to work like hell and get better,” added the former World No. 18.
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Elite tournaments-wise, India has not had it this good in a long while. The year 2022 will be the first in more than a decade to see 250-level action both on the men’s and women’s sides. But one hopes that the happenings at the Tata Open Maharashtra earlier this year do not repeat. Despite the presence of four Indians in the singles main draw in Pune, only one of them won a match (Bhambri).
“At the end of the day you need to have a couple of crown jewels and you need to have a programme…simultaneously,” Vijay said, explaining the need for a solid tournament structure to act as a feeder for big tournaments at the top. “Everything can’t be given for free. We knew the difficulties we faced through the 1970s. There were none of the opportunities there are today.
“Certainly, competition is more [at present]. But to be able to cross the bar we are at…. if it’s 1000 forehands a day, 1000 backhands a day, so be it. When I come to India, I don’t like to see courts empty between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. How can you have so many empty? It’s hot, yes. But that is not a good way to think.
“It is one thing if we had absolutely no infrastructure, courts, coaches, money, or the ability to go abroad. We have all of that now. You should be able to say that you want to be the next Nadal, Federer, Serena rather than say ‘I got to the doubles quarterfinals’. There is nothing wrong with that and I am not negative towards doubles. But that is not the focus you should have,” Vijay added.
If the WTA Chennai Open can bring about this change of mindset in young players, it would have done its job.
*Rankings as on August 29, 2022.