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Vol. XXXIII No. 22, March 1-15, 2024

Chennai Challenger underscores the need for more international-level competitions in the sport

-- by V. Venkataramana

That Chennai, nay Tamil Nadu, is seen as the cradle of Indian tennis is common knowledge: from R. Krishnan and the Amritraj brothers Vijay and Anand to Ramesh Krishnan (R. Krishnan’s son), the city has brought the best of Indian tennis to the world stage. Among the country’s first female talent in the sport, Lakshmi Mahadevan, is from Chennai, too. Why, the post-Amritraj era saw Calcutta-born Leander Paes and his famous doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi evolve at the Britannia Amritraj Academy in Chennai. All these players honed their tennis skills by playing regularly in tournaments at home and abroad, notably participating in competitions conducted by the World Tennis Association in their formative years before rising to play in ATP tour matches. The fact is that the flow of talent in the State has not thinned; it is, however, a pity that international-level competitions on home soil – matches that give homegrown talent crucial exposure – have been few and far between. This shortcoming has arguably delayed the full blossoming of young talent despite relentless efforts by the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association and the National Association to stage international-class competitions at home.

Things appeared rosy for flourishing talents as long as the only ATP World Tour Men’s Tennis Tournament in South Asia was conducted in Chennai from 1995 to 2017. After that, the only world-level competitions to be staged in Chennai’s world-class tennis stadium have been the WTA Futures and the Chennai Open ATP Challenger Tournament. This year it was played from February 5 to 11 with a sprinkling of upcoming Indian and international players in singles and doubles competitions. The prize money on offer was USD 133,250 alongside 100 ranking points. As many as 13 Indian players participated in the tournament, with three in the singles draw and ten in the doubles. Eleven other Indians were in the qualifying rounds. Also competing was Sumit Nagal, who came into the limelight when he won a set off Roger Federer in the Grand Slam Australian Open in 2023. Sumit began the tournament with the world rank of 121 in the men’s singles cohort and went on to beat ­Italy’s top-seeded Luca Nardi to clinch the title, winning in straight sets 6-1, 6-4 after a tense baseline duel, especially in the second set. This was also Nagal’s fifth Challenger title, one that enabled him to break into the top 100 of the ATP men’s singles ranking – the first Indian player to do so in the last five years and the tenth in history.

Other prominent foreign players in the singles draw included Aussie and former top 20 player Bernard Tomic, who fell to Nardi in the pre-quarterfinals. Tomic was also a former Wimbledon quarter-finalist, and winner of an ITF M25 event in Chennai recently. Amomg significant players who participated were Stepano Neapolitan, Orio Roca Batalla, and Maks Kasnikowski. The two other prominent Indians in the fray in the singles main draw were the Davis Cuppers Ramkumar Ramanathan and Mukundan. India’s Ramkumar Ramanathan and Saketh Maineni won the Doubles title. They beat fellow Indians Nikit Poonacha and Rithvik Bollepalli. The Doubles main draw had 16 teams in the fray. The field was led by the top seeds Sriram Balaji and the German Andre Begemann and the all-Indian duo Nikit Poonacha and Rithvik Bollipalli. Japan’s Kaito Uesugi and Toshihide Matsui and the German pair of Mark Waller and Schnaitter were the other two formidable pairs. But they bowed out in the semi-finals to the Indian pairs. 

Regarding the opportunity to host more international tennis tournaments in the city, TNTA CEO Hiten Joshi – a former player and coach himself – says that “everyone in Chennai’s tennis fraternity is keen to get an international level competition here. But at the moment there are no tournaments available.” He also points out that Vijay Amritraj, the current President of the TNTA and a former tennis icon from the city, has been working tirelessly to realise this goal. Vijay Amritraj agrees that there is a pressing need to stage more WTA and ATP competitions for the benefit of upcoming Indian talents; the onus, he says, is on him to talk to ATP and WTO to allot more Challengers as well as tournaments for the benefit of female talent from the city, given that the Tamil Nadu government has extended all assistance for the development of tennis in Chennai. The sport, according to him, needs to reach more rural areas, which will encourage more kids to take to the game. “They [WTA and ATP] will not be doing us a favour,” remarks Vijay, pointing out that 50 per cent of the overseas players who play in Chennai say that they would like to return. 

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