Since the turn of the millennium, amidst the music season and the New Year celebrations, tennis has sneaked its way to become part of the city’s culture at this time of the year. And for the 20th straight year the city will host the ATP Chennai Open from Monday at the SDAT stadium. But how did the event initially held in the national capital end up down south?
Events of such magnitude took a long break from Indian shores after the final edition of the Indian Open — part of the Grand Prix circuits in 1979 — which was won by Vijay Amritraj at Bombay. And Vijay it was who, along with IMG, proved to be one of the most influential people in getting a top tennis event back into the country after taking over as ATP president.
Ravi Krishnan, the former MD of IMG South Asia who was at helm of the event till 2011, says, “IMG, to bring an ATP event to India, bought a tournament from Nice, France. This was done with the support of ITC which sponsored the event.”
However, the tournament had to be moved from the national capital after the inaugural edition in 1996 due to various reasons including sponsorship. Chennai, in 1995, had successfully hosted the SAF games — this played a significant role in attracting the premier tournament down south.
Vijay says, “It was a triumph to get the tournament to Chennai for me personally since it is my hometown. Also the city was the tennis capital of the country and had just hosted the SAF games which meant there was a proper stadium ready.”
Despite the availability of the stadium, Krishnan says, “the challenge was to get the stadium into international-quality condition. We had to put in lights. Having said that, the government, SDAT and the TNTA were extremely helpful in making sure we had all the assistance we needed to deliver a world class event.”
In the initial years, fortuitously, the tournament was able to attract some of the top stars of the time.
TNTA CEO Hiten Joshi recalls, “In the first year we had the reigning Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek and runner-up MaliVai Washington participating. What helped raise the profile of the tournament was Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi winning a title together for the first time.”
While the first three editions were held during the month of April, in 2000 the tournament was moved to the first week of January and this proved to be a key to the longevity of the tournament. With players returning from the off-season, the tournament served as an ideal stopover before the first Grand Slam in Australia. Indian Davis Cup captain Anand Amritraj observes, “The city has similar conditions to Melbourne in terms of heat, surface and even the balls used. Moreover, players prefer to reduce travel during tournament and presence of good hotels near the stadium has really helped.”
Despite these, one major thing that has held back the tournament has been the lack of Indian stars. Barring Somdev Devvarman’s run to the final in 2009, there has been very little for the locals to cheer about. Karti Chidambaram, vice president of TNTA and chairman of the organising committee, rues the lack of Indian stars. “We still struggle for sponsors and we can hardly get an Indian player without a wild card,” he says. “If there are Indian players who can leverage this tournament it would be a bigger event.”
Also in recent times the depreciation of the Indian currency has increased the woes. “While the income is in rupees, all our significant expenses — ATP fees, prize money and player fees are in dollars. This has made it tougher,” says Karti.
Since 2005, the tournament has been run thanks to the largesse of the State government leading a consortium of sponsors, and Karti says it has been a public effort led by the TNTA and the government that has kept the tournament alive. With the contract up for renewal after 2016, it remains to be seen if the tournament can survive into a third decade.