Indian Tennis in 2017: One step forward, two steps back
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Organisers for India’s only ATP event had an additional responsibility this year – arrange ‘first class’ transportation for players from Mumbai to Pune. For the past 22 years, the tournament has been associated with the big metro cities, New Delhi hosting the inaugural edition in 1996, and Chennai becoming home to it for the next 21 years. Yet this time, as the event moves to the tier two city Pune and is rechristened Tata Open Maharashtra, for the foreign athletes, travel arrangements hit an experimental stage.
“Most players came into Mumbai and then travelled three-hours south to get here,” says tournament co-director Tom Annear. “I flew into Pune, which is preferable, so hopefully a lot of players will catch on to that. But that’s just the experience that needs to take place.”
That was just one of the prerequisites required for moving the event to Pune. The venue itself, the Balewadi Sports Complex, needed to provide the feel of an ATP 250, and for that, a change in colour was in order.
For the past four years, the biggest tournament the stadium has hosted was an ATP Challenger. And the green colour associated with the logo of the lower-level event had long decorated the venue. Now it’s all been replaced by the blue of a tour event – from the new banners of branding that cover the pillars outside and hang under the centre court roof, to the arching structures that cover each entry to the venue.
“Pune definitely has a Challenger mentality, but we’ve been pressing on them that the standard has to be much higher,” says Annear. “We’ve been delivering to them forms and details and expectations that comes from the ATP tour. And they’re meeting those expectations.”
Construction work began shortly after Yuki Bhambri, India’s highest ranked singles player won the latest Challenger last month. The recent installations are the commentary box and an enclosed station for the Hawk-Eye team at the top of the north stand. The 2500 bucket seats don new covers and the aisles have been washed and painted with a large crowd expected to come and watch the biggest tennis tournament Pune has hosted, though the venue itself is on the city’s outskirts.
Over the years, Chennai had struggled to bring in the bigger names in tennis. “We’ve always been after the same top 10 players, and it’s a very competitive week with Pune, Doha, Brisbane, and the Hopman Cup. So they’re all vying for the same players,” says Annear, who has served as tournament director for five Chennai Open events.
One of the attractions in the Tamil Nadu capital however, was that the climate and court conditions were similar to the Australian Open. Pune meanwhile is situated at an altitude of 560 metres, providing more bounce. “We aren’t used to playing at an altitude at the start of the year, so it’s going to be crucial in the first round to adjust and keep the rhythm going,” says Bhambri.
Annear too recognises the change in conditions. “It was a leap of faith so we had to make adjustments in the way the tournament is held,” he adds. “So we’re going to hold a Saturday final rather than a Sunday to give players time to make their way down to Australia. Those are just things we need to recognise.”
The tournament hasn’t disappointed though, as a similar field to what was seen at Chennai last year will be competing. The top seed is 2014 US Open champion, and two-time Chennai Open winner Marin Cilic, with defending champion Roberto Bautista Agut returning as the third seed. The second seed is 2017 US Open finalist Kevin Anderson who had travelled to Chennai in 2016, but had to pull out due to a recurring knee problem.
As expected, the home event has garnered a large Indian contingent. In the singles draw, Bhambri plays local lad Arjun Kadhe, while India no 2 Ramkumar Ramanathan plays world no 106 Roberto Carballes Baena. Should Ramkumar win that match though, he will play Cilic in the second round. 20-year-old Sumit Nagal too will feature in the main draw after making his way up through the qualifiers.
Meanwhile, as many as nine Indian players will feature in the doubles draw, with the likes of Divij Sharan, Bhambri, N Sriram Balaji, Vishnu Vardhan and Kadhe competing. But the doubles draw will present an interesting clash between veteran Leander Paes and Purav Raja, and defending champions Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan and India’s highest ranked doubles player Rohan Bopanna.
Despite the new venue though, the world no 18 had spent five years in Pune while growing up. Yet that was long before Pune had been recognised as one of the sport’s breeding grounds in India. But there was never any shortage of inspiration.
Nandan Bal, one of the more prominent names to have emerged from the city, remembers the Davis Cup tie against the Soviet Union of 1974. “That one was held at the Deccan Gymkhana and I was a ball-boy for those matches,” recalls the former Davis Cup coach. “Opportunities like that to be so close to players, watch them and learn from them, that’s the motivation you need.”
The big events didn’t come that often thereon, till the Balewadi Stadium was renovated in 2008, becoming the focal point for the sport in the city. “Earlier, tournaments were confined to clubs, which had restricted access to the public. But the Balewadi stadium is open, and we’ve organised 22 international events in the last 10 years here,” says Sunder Iyer, honorary secretary of the Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association (MSLTA).
That number included a numerous Futures events, four Challengers, and the Davis Cup tie last February. But the new ATP 250 event is the crowning jewel.
Pune has long been unheralded as a tennis city, behind the likes of Chennai and even Calcutta. For the past 21 years, New Years and the new tennis season was celebrated in Chennai. This time onwards, the party has shifted to Pune.
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