With Stanislas Wawrinka deciding to break his eight-year long tradition of opening the season in Chennai, Tom Annear, the tournament director of Chennai Open, admits that he had to use all his persuasive skills to get World No. 6 Marin Cilic to headline the event.
“You have four events vying for the top 10 players (Doha, Brisbane, Hopman Cup (Perth). We have (Roger) Federer electing to go to Perth for the first time in 15 years. Wawrinka is in Brisbane and you have got Rafa (Rafael Nadal) and (Milos) Raonic playing there. We are very happy getting Marin at No. 6. I had to convince his people very ‘hard’ to come here,” he said.
He minced no words in saying Wawrinka had gone beyond his persuasive ability.
“We called him the ‘King of Chennai.’ He has won it four times. He was our first choice and when he won the U.S. Open, his stocks just soared. For a tournament like ours, he became too expensive,” Annear, who has been helming the tournament since 2012, said.
“What is required is to have the budget the size of Doha, Brisbane or Perth. That’s really the game changer. We have got a decent budget and the prize money is same as Brisbane but they have got a significant player budget. Doha is a sovereign state. I think sovereign ‘wealth’ is how you would describe it. That’s a different ball game.”
Explaining further the difficulties in getting a top player to visit Chennai, he said: “Arguably, you could play in Doha, lose in the first round and receive two or three times the prize money as you would get after losing the first round here.”
However, Annear assured that Chennai will continue to get top players to play the tournament, however limited the budget.
“We have been consistent in delivering top 10 players every year and we have done it this year too. I don’t know if Marin Cilic is going to be the player coming back or it will be Stan or some other top 10 player. (David) Goffin can get there.
“There are players in the cusp like (Nick) Kyrgios, (Tomáš) Berdych; there are a number of players out there. Don’t forget the Next Generation of players. (Alexander Zverev played here last year. I will surprise you again next year,” the tournament director said.
You prod him further about the basis of his optimism and he delivers his sales pitch.
“People tend to do well in Australia and other tournaments after winning in Chennai. That’s exactly my pitch,” he said with a laugh. “I tell them, ‘You go on to do great things after winning here. Look at Stan... We will see what Marin Cilic does this year,” he said, half hoping like us that the ‘luck’ stays with Chennai.
With the current deal running till 2019, player facilities go a long way in convincing the top stars to visit the city again and in the renewal of the contract, and the tournament director is happy with the progress made by TNTA.
“What was a paper thin, temporary structure has been renovated and now holds a player lounge, dining and locker rooms. I think it shows our commitment to providing good show for the players and the spectators,” he said.
However, the tournament director is dismayed by the sight of logs lining the periphery of the stadium, a residual memory of Cyclone Vardah that uprooted thousands of trees and threw Chennai’s life out of gear.
“The pile of wood apparently cannot be given away. It can only be sold by the government. How about that! It’s a strange way of doing business in Chennai, may be in the country as a whole. You can’t move it. You have to have the government take care of it,” he grimaced.
He also ruled out any changes to the format of the tournament or collaborating with WTA for a combined event.
“I can’t imagine, with the limited courts we have, making this draw deeper or bigger. We already slot the first matches around 5pm and qualifiers start by 2.30pm which is a very hot period. I don’t see it happening,” he said.
There are speculations that title sponsor Aircel, whose contract expires with this edition of the tournament, may not opt to renew it. But Annear chose to play it down saying that won’t affect the tournament.
“TNTA has a three-year commitment to ATP (till 2019). In the scenario that Aircel, which we love and value, decides not to renew the contract, TNTA has that obligation of finding a replacement and we are hopeful they would,” he said.
Will a sponsorship change midway through a tournament deal affect in its renewal? Will Chennai be able to hold the tournament after 2019? Annear sees no threat to the event.
“With Chennai, we are very solid and that’s the beauty of it. We have commitments with TNTA, we have commitments from other partners along the way. We have the ATP providing us with the partners. It’s a solid combination of support,” he said, suggesting the tournament will continue to be a permanent fixture in the January calendar.