CHENNAI: In the trailer of the yet-to-be-released Batman/Superman movie, Bruce Wayne is seen discussing something with his trusted butler Alfred in a grave tone, “...20 years in Gotham... how many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?” Those aforementioned words could also be applied, with minor changes and a sunnier outlook, to the upcoming Chennai Open.
Replace ‘Gotham’ with Chennai – the Open will celebrate 20 years in the city when it begins on Monday. Swap ‘guys’ with players – the number of top-level talent keeps decreasing with every edition. The message is clear – cinematic dialogue can transcend the medium on a regular basis!
Former World No 16 Vijay Amritraj brought this event to India when he was the ATP player council president over two decades ago. It was the first such instance since the Indian Open Grand Prix, held alternately in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru (1973-79), was scrapped. After its premier edition in New Delhi, the Open shifted here permanently in 1997. Since then, Grand Slam champions like Richard Krajicek, Boris Becker, Patrick Rafter, Carlos Moya, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka have all graced the SDAT Tennis Stadium.
Former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Ramesh Krishnan feels that surviving for over two decades in a cricket-crazy nation is an achievement in itself. “It’s a big thing to keep the tournament going for 20 years in one city. The Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA) and International Management Group (IMG) deserve a pat on the back for doing so,” Krishnan tells Express. “Even Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi began by winning a hat-trick (1997-99) here. One mustn’t forget what this event has done.”
In an age of instant gratification, remaining relevant is the key, hence the rise in fan-related activities. While international exposure has helped home-grown linesmen and officials improve, the crowds continue to be a concern in the first few days. “The lack of crowd participation in the first few days is not nice; fans only show up from the quarterfinals onwards. Maybe getting to see it on television deters them from making the trip. But the first few editions never had this issue,” says former Davis Cup skipper Jaidip Mukerjea.
The sole ATP World Tour event in the country has given Indian players the chance to showcase their skill. Yet the ‘singles champion’ moniker continues to elude India, although Somdev Devvarman did come close in 2009. Amritraj, whose academy once flourished in the city, believes that while the Open has inspired younglings, it hasn’t happened on a country-wide level. “There’s no connect between the tournament and a boy in Jaipur or girl in Ahmedabad! Unearthing potential top-50 singles players from across the board is the need of the hour. Why is there no role model that kids can look up to and say ‘that’s who I want to be like’?” Amritraj asks.
On the positive side, the tourney consistently manages to get one player in the top 10 and two in the top 25 every year. While Nadal is the only one of the Big Four to have played here – he hasn’t been seen around these parts since 2008 – the rise of longtime visitor Wawrinka has helped the Open maintain a healthy profile, even if matching the line-ups in Doha or Brisbane isn’t really viable.
There’s been a bit of an impasse between the TNTA and All India Tennis Association (AITA) since 2014, over the non-payment of royalty, but the parent body’s secretary general Bharat Oza applauds the event’s resilience. “In spite of financial problems, the TNTA has successfully conducted it for such a long time. These 250-level tournaments don’t bring in much money and are loss-making propositions all over the world. That’s why many get replaced in quick time,” Oza states.
But that doesn’t mean the event deserves a free pass in the aforementioned royalty issue, no matter what the TNTA claims. “All permissions go through the AITA and we support them... yet, they stopped paying us royalty after doing so for 18 years previously. Earlier, the IMG was paying us. I’m sure the Open is incurring losses, but I don’t think the IMG has suffered any.”
Despite all this, the Open continues to succeed every year from a tennis perspective. When something is new, it generates interest. When the opposite begins to happen, it’s a bad sign. But that hasn’t happened here. Not yet anyway.