Tennis in India: India has a rich experience of hosting International Tennis Tournaments over the last two decades, but will it continue?
The Indian Open, also known as the All India Championships was held for the first time during the British Raj in 1910. The illustrious tournament, which hosted both men and tennis, continued for over seven decades, until 1982. It was hosted by 10 cities during its tenure, including Lahore in present-day Pakistan.
WTA Sunfeast Open (2005-2007)
After a significantly long wait for a prominent WTA tennis tournament in India, the Indian Tobacco Company, better known as ITC, took it on themselves to host the Sunfeast Open from 2005. Sunfeast is a brand of biscuits owned by the conglomerate, based out of Calcutta.
The Sunfeast Open was the only tournament to be held indoor in India at the Netaji Indoor Stadium, with the courts brought in from Europe. This is when the tennis industry was booming in India, led by the rising star Sania Mirza, who was at one point in the Top 30 of the WTA Singles ranking. Mirza also competed and won the doubles’ title in the 2007 edition, which also turned out to be the last.
Decline in sponsorship and broadcasting fees in Indian tennis (2008 onwards)
The decline in investments for tennis in India is largely due to an event started in 2008 in another sport which became a sensation in India, and then globally.
The Indian Premier League, popularly known as the IPL, was the brainchild of Mr. Lalit Modi. This multi-billion Cricket project brought in the biggest names in India as team investors – from Mukesh Ambani to Shah Rukh Khan. The broadcasters and sponsor, naturally, made a beeline to jostle for an advertising space in the Mega Cricket Carnival. Such global attention to Cricket was last seen when media baron Kerry Packer launched the World Series Cricket in 1977, dubbed as a ‘circus’ by detractors.
ATP Chennai Open (now known as Tata Maharashtra Open)
The most prominent tennis tournament in India, though is the Tata Maharashtra Open. It started in 1996 as the McDowell Open in New Delhi. After the inaugural season, the tournament was hosted for 21 straight seasons in Chennai. It received strong support from the Tamil Nadu government, which wanted to make the state the hub of Tennis in India.
The Chennai Open was known as the Gold Flake Open, at a time when tobacco companies were heavily investing sponsorship money in sports across the globe. The tournament was traditionally held at the beginning of the year, right before the Australian Open.
World-class players like Boris Becker, Carlos Moya, Rafael Nadal and Stanisals Wawrinka have graced the tournament. Wawrinka has won the tournament a record 4 times in singles. Nadal has never won it, losing out to Russian Mikhail Youzhny in straight sets in 2008.
The two Indian stalwarts Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi won the doubles title as a pair a record 5 times. No Indian has won a singles title yet, in the tournament’s 25-year history. Somdev Devvarman came closest in 2009, when he reached the finals, only to lose to the lanky Croatian Marin Cilic.
How did the Maharashtra Open take shape?
A political turmoil in Tamil Nadu led to Chennai pulling out after the 2017 season. Talks now began of shifting the tournament outside of India to Singapore. But the Maharashtra Government intervened, with support from the AITA. They presented a plan to the ATP to host it in Pune, the second-most prominent city in the state.
Maharashtra has experience of hosting tennis – the Kingfisher Challenger, and also the Davis Cup, the inter-country tennis tournament. And when TATA decided to join in as the title sponsor, it was a matter of when, not if.
There was one more person – someone who in the news currently for all the right reasons – who associated himself with the event. He is Adar Poonawalla, the young CEO of the Serum Institute of India (SII), the largest vaccine-makers in the world. For those unware, the SII is expected to launch the vaccine for covid-19 by the end of this year. Poonawalla joined in as a presenting sponsor to promote his Clean City Initiative.
The 2019 edition of the Tata Maharashtra Open saw a record being broken – Kevin Anderson competed in the final against Ivo Karlovic, in what is the tallest-ever ATP Tour Final in the Open Era.
What lies ahead for the Maharashtra Open?
The tournament suffered a setback this year – its 25th – due to a schedule change in the tennis calendar. The ATP Cup – a parallel version of the ITF-hosted Davis Cup – was held for the first time this year. The ATP also acted as a lead up event to the Australian Open.
This meant the Tata Maharashtra Open had to be scheduled after the Australian Open. With players exerting extra energy in a Grand Slam, a lot of the bigger names decided against playing in India. This hampered the tournament held this year, with the same being expected in the coming seasons as well.