For Tata Open Maharashtra, the 2023 edition was a return to its pristine past. The tournament’s history isn’t long, having moved bases from Chennai only in 2018. But after spending two years in an uncomfortable slot just after the Australian Open, the event was back as a prime preparatory tourney ahead of the season’s first Major.
This was reflected in the player roster. Where in 2020 and 2022 there was just one top-60 player in the singles draw, 2023 saw as many as eight, including five in the top-50.
The biggest draw card was the 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic, who was in India for the first time since playing in Pune in 2018. Though he won just a solitary match and had to withdraw because of a knee injury that also put paid to his Australian Open hopes, the presence of a Major champion enhanced the competition’s profile significantly. The strength was evident in doubles as well, where the world’s second-best pair of Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury made Pune a pit stop on the way to Australia.
The tennis, thus, was of high quality. Though the final featured two unseeded players in France’s Benjamin Bonzi and the Netherlands’ Tallon Griekspoor, both of whom were also playing their first Tour-level final, the on-court action was riveting, with the Dutchman going on to triumph 4-6, 7-5, 6-3.
Hindsight proves that ATP Tour-level tennis in India has often been a harbinger of future success, with the likes of Daniil Medvedev, Casper Ruud, Karen Khachanov and Andrey Rublev all competing here in their formative years before going on to become global stars. It will be to Griekspoor’s credit if he can be next in that list.
While the championship recaptured its proud place in the calendar, it couldn’t do anything to change the sad and unsettling story that Indian tennis has become. Not one singles player was ranked high enough to make the main draw on merit and the three direct entries – Mukund Sasikumar, Sumit Nagal and Manas Dhamne – were all wildcards. Ramkumar Ramanathan, the fourth player, made it through the qualifying phase.
But not one of them won a round. Dhamne, admittedly, was playing his first-ever Tour match and is all of 15. But the rest didn’t cover themselves in glory. That no Indian is ranked in the ATP singles top-300 tells the story and the Australian Open saw a new low when no Indian even featured in the singles qualifying stage.
This has been accompanied by the troubling trend of Indians increasingly shifting to doubles, with even Yuki Bhambri, the winner of 2009 Australian Open junior singles title and one of India’s best talents, making the switch. Two others in Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan and Sriram Balaji, who got into the Pune doubles draw as alternates, made an admirable run to the final before losing to the Belgian pair of Sander Gille and Joran Vliegen.
One cannot begrudge their desire to prolong their respective careers and be financially self-sufficient, for tennis is a taxing and monetarily draining sport. But it does question a nation’s priorities, like India’s which has a storied past, for no country’s worth as a tennis nation is decided by doubles success.
The contrast with Griekspoor and the Netherlands couldn’t be starker. The 26-year-old was the first men’s singles hard-court titlist from his country since Sjeng Schalken – the losing semifinalist to Pete Sampras at the 2002 US Open – in Stockholm way back in 2001.
In fact, when Tim van Rijthoven – who also competed in Pune – won the grass title at home in ‘s-Hertogenbosch last June as a wild card entrant, mowing past the likes of Taylor Fritz, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Daniil Medvedev, it was the first Tour-level trophy for a Dutchman for 10 years on any surface.
When Griekspoor was asked if he, van Rijthoven and Botic van de Zandschulp – the second seed in Pune – were inspired by the likes of 1996 Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek and 2003 French Open finalist Martin Verkerk, the answer was instructive. “That’s quite a long time ago,” Griekspoor said. “We just believe in ourselves.”
It is this confidence and optimism that tournaments in India were supposed to kindle among home players, but hasn’t quite happened. At the start of 2022, across the ATP 250 Tata Open Maharashtra and two ATP Challenger 80s in Bengaluru, Indian singles players won a total of two matches.
Starting February 13, Chennai, Bengaluru and Pune are scheduled to host ATP Challenger 100 tournaments in back-to-back weeks. Similar results as last year will call into question the very conduct of such events.
But Prashant Sutar, tournament director of the Tata Open Maharashtra, and Sunder Iyer, joint-secretary of the All India Tennis Association and secretary of the Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association, believe tournaments of high pedigree do have a place in India’s tennis calendar, regardless of the immediate returns for home players. If India is to be taken seriously as a global tennis destination, such competitions are vital, they attest.
“It is a process. Lots of countries host big ATP events, but how many players from their own countries are at the top?” asked Sutar. “But people who have played here are almost at the top in doubles. But unfortunately in singles they haven’t been able to take the home crowd support and go forward. But the quality of players is improving.”
The contract of Tata Open Maharashtra with RISE Worldwide (formerly IMG Reliance) is also up for renewal and there is still no clarity on whether it would remain in Pune, or move cities within India or be taken out of the country altogether. Though the Maharashtra government seems keen to keep the event within its borders and showcase its worth as a tennis-loving region, Indian stars emerging is crucial for the long-term health. It always takes two to tango.
*Rankings as on January 1.
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