The Tata Open Maharashtra is currently the only ATP or WTA-level event in India. However, like many other sporting events across the globe, the tournament could not be staged in early 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2021 edition has not yet been canceled, but with the current health situation in India, the chances of the event being held at a different slot in the calendar look slim.
Sportskeeda caught up with Sunder Iyer, All India Tennis Association (AITA) Joint Secretary and Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association Secretary to discuss the status of the 2021 edition as well as all things Indian tennis.
Exclusive Interview with Sunder Iyer, Technical Director of the Tata Open Maharashtra
Sportskeeda: What are the current plans for the 2021 Tata Open Maharashtra?
Sunder Iyer: According to me, as of now, it will be very difficult to hold the event because we are currently in the midst of the second wave of the pandemic and there are reports of a third wave being predicted somewhere around September or October.
If that happens, I think the government will be strict about hosting international events. In such conditions it may be difficult to organize even domestic events.
Even if the situation improves and the tournament can be held, we are not sure how many players will come to India. Considering all these factors, it is going to be really tough, but we will take it one step at a time as and when the situation improves.
Sportskeeda: Maharashtra is among the worst affected states in India. Has there been any discussion about moving the tournament to another location just for this year if the situation improves in other parts of the country?
Sunder Iyer: I don't think so. I am not sure if it would be possible to do that. I think what will happen is that we will build up for the 2022 edition but I'm not the right person to tell you whether it's going to be held in another city or not.
But looking at the conditions in Maharashtra right now, and in other states and countries, hosting the event this year will be very difficult. But this is my personal opinion, not from the point of view of the secretary of the state association.
Sportskeeda: Besides government rules and players traveling for tournaments, another issue that tournaments across the world have faced is getting sponsors in these difficult times. Is that going to be a challenge for the Tata Maharashtra Open this year and the next year?
Sunder Iyer: Yes, getting sponsors on board at the moment is really, really tough. There are people that we have been talking to but we will have to assess the situation after some time.
Right now, for many companies, it is a matter of survival and many of them are not operating due to state lockdown, which has exceeded 60 days. That makes it tough for them to plan two or three months down the line. Not many had expected India to go into another lockdown and we don’t know if another one will happen in the future.
Hence, it is very difficult for companies to commit and even for governments to provide as much support as they did earlier, because they already have so many other commitments.
Sportskeeda: Events at the ATP 250 level found it hard to attract top 10 players even in the pre-COVID-19 times. What are the challenges that an event like the Tata Open Maharashtra faces in signing marquee players?
Sunder Iyer: Firstly, India is off-radar in geographical terms for the players. Usually, players prefer to play back-to-back events in and around one region to avoid too much travel in a short time.
That's what we saw in Australia when players were able to play three or four events back-to-back earlier this year. In India, there are no other events around the same region so it becomes a little more difficult.
It is certainly a challenge to get the top players to India. The Tata Open Maharashtra is an ATP 250 event, but the prize money is about $5,50,000. If we have the event before or after tournaments in Dubai and the Middle East, it becomes easier to sign players.
Last year, we were in the same week as the ATP event in Montpellier (France). Normally, the French players would have come to India but last year they wanted to play in their own country so we have to deal with these kinds of challenges as well.
Over the years, we have seen a lot of players come here and when they succeed at the international level, it feels great. For instance, look at Aryna Sabalenka, she is very successful today. There were so many people who saw and interacted with her when she won in Mumbai. She has a following in Mumbai and when they see her do well internationally, they feel that connection.
It's also about providing an opportunity for Indian players every year, which is very important. One of the main goals of keeping the tournament in India was to provide the local players with an opportunity to play an ATP level event in their own country, which we are very happy about.
It also adds value to the entire tennis fraternity. Our officials get to officiate matches in India, while commentators, ball boys, and linespeople also receive support. Our focus is to support and celebrate Indian tennis.
Sportskeeda: Recently, there was an ITF tournament held in Pune, which was among the first to take place in Asia amid the pandemic. Can you tell us about the experience in terms of adhering to protocols of the tour, the government, and local authorities?
Sunder Iyer: The most challenging part of any tournament right now is to have an incident-free event and ensure there is no COVID-19 positive person at the event. During the four events we had recently in India, there was only one positive case on the last day of the last event.
Right now, on the ITF calendar, there are very few events and we are proud that we were able to organize these. We were successful because we planned well and followed the guidelines. There were many ITF meetings to show how we should run the tournament and how things should take place.
This was probably one of the toughest tournaments to organize; everything needed to be planned properly. It was a great experience for all of us. We now know that we are capable of hosting bigger tournaments in these conditions, subject to clearances.
Moreover, it was a blessing that these tournaments were held in the first few months of the year and that a lot of Indian players were able to earn ranking points. They will not be able to keep these points for the rest of the year and when tournaments start in other parts of Asia after a few months, they will be able to enter those tournaments based on the points they have now earned in India. Hence, the window we had to hold these tournaments turned out to be great.
Sportskeeda: A lot of players have said over the years that the facilities and infrastructure in India, although improving, are still not up to international standards. What is your assessment of this situation?
Sunder Iyer: There are a lot of positives that have also happened in Indian tennis but unfortunately no one talks about them. Today, we have some great coaches, mental trainers and support staff.
It is true that some players like Sumit (Nagal) and Karman (Kaur Thandi) go abroad for training as they are fortunate to get that opportunity. Having a base in Europe is fantastic because it is easier for them to play a lot of tournaments. In Europe, you can play a tournament every week, but this is not possible in India.
Obviously, there is some difference in terms of infrastructure, but we have spent a lot of time and effort in the last few years to get tennis to where it is today. There has been a huge quantitative and qualitative change in the method of teaching and coaching in Indian tennis and in the way coaches are now helping players.
That is why it is important to hold more events in India. After a while, what's necessary is to play matches, get match experience and use the right strategies in games. If our players had the opportunity to play tournaments every two weeks in India, they would not have to go abroad.
It is also easier to raise funds abroad as clubs and individuals put in the prize money for events. In India, the same prize money is worth 70 times when we convert it (for the same level of tournament).
In our country, even if you host a small tennis ball cricket event, there will be 1,000 players coming to play and 5,000 people coming to watch. But unfortunately that’s not the case with tennis or many other sports.
So what is the return on investment for the sponsors and what is the branding that he is going to get? If a person or company puts in Rs. 10-15 lakhs for an event, he can get a lot of advertisements on television for a few months. So why would someone put that money up for a tournament unless they were guaranteed a good return? Unless someone really loves the sport, they are not going to invest.
If you look at the infrastructure in India, we have fantastic stadiums all over the place which we did not have about five or six years ago. The point is that when you hold these tournaments, it is quite expensive. So, I think probably the biggest challenge is to create more tennis lovers who will invest in the sport.
There are so many players who have played at the national and international level over the last 30 years who are doing extremely well in their professional lives now, but not all of them have come forward to support the sport.
I also strongly believe that if we have heroes, if we create our own stars then a lot of people will start following them and the channels will promote them and show their matches.
This happened recently with Sumit, when he reached the quarter-finals in Argentina. When Leander (Paes), Mahesh (Bhupathi), Sania (Mirza), and Rohan (Bopanna) were doing well, more people were following the sport. These players were reaching the finals every week and winning a lot of tournaments. This creates visibility and makes the sport attractive to sponsors.
Sportskeeda: It has been difficult in the last few months to deal with the pandemic. Can you tell us what the state association (MSLTA) has been trying to do in these times and what they have lined up?
Sunder Iyer: At MSLTA, we have been having a lot of virtual meetings. We currently have a national champion from a district - Kolhapur. There were also two players who reached the final in the under-14 in doubles, and one of them was from our districts.
In the under-12 national championships, we have two players who reached the semifinals, proving that our district program is doing well. We had commissioned a program about 10 years ago called the “Vision 2010” program, then we moved to “Vision 2020” and now we are talking about “Vision 2032”.
The whole idea is to create a pathway for players from the juniors to the professional level. They can then maybe go on to represent India at the Olympics. In Maharashtra, we had an Olympian, we had players in the Fed Cup (now Billie Jean King Cup) and the Davis Cup, and national championship winners. It's not a one-off, so we've definitely been doing something right.
In our district program, we have had all our district secretaries come back to see how we can improve and add value to district tennis. Most of the coaches are ITF certified and that gives us uniformity in the coaching pattern.
There is a teaching pattern that has been followed by the coaches, at least at the beginners level. The basics taught to the players are very good. But we have to develop the knowledge of these coaches all the time. We organize seminars and other things to improve their knowledge.
We are now working on a ‘Vision 2032’. Why 2032? Because that is the span of three Olympic cycles of four years each. We are working things out at the district level, with the coaches, so I think things are getting better.
We don't know how many more months the lockdown is going to go on. We have to first take care of our coaches and make sure they have the basics such as food grains and things like that for their survival. The lockdown has caused a lot of disruption but we have to keep working, think positively and do whatever we can with our resources.