For 21 years, the Chennai Open served as an ideal stop-over for players from Europe en-route to the Australian Open. The benefits of playing in the subcontinent weren’t merely geographic. At Chennai, weather conditions were relatively similar to what is experienced at Melbourne, and the surface of the courts at the SDAT Tennis Stadium were designed according to Australian standards.
Now that India’s only ATP 250 event has shifted base to Pune – to become the ‘Maharashtra Open’ – organisers are working to provide a similar set of conditions to the players at the new venue, the Balewadi Sports Complex. “All seven courts will be relaid, and we will be using the same synthetic material that is used to make the courts for the Australian Open,” says Sunder Iyer, honorary secretary of the Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association (MSLTA).
Weather conditions in January in Pune meanwhile, will be much cooler than the Australian summer. Yet that remains a criterion that affects only a handful of players. “Only top players are particular about getting acclimatized, but that too is rare,” says former Davis Cup coach Nandan Bal. “All players want to earn ranking points. They want to get onto hard courts to get as much match practice as possible especially since this is the first tournament of the season.”
Pune won hosting rights for the premier competition after IMG-Reliance, who own the ATP 250 level tournament, ended their association with the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA) two years before the contract between the two bodies was to expire. “TNTA has received an email from IMG-R cancelling the contract to conduct the ATP event in 2018 and 2019,” stated a release issued by TNTA CEO Hiten Joshi.
With the support of the Maharashtra state government, the MSLTA has signed a five-year deal with IMG-R, pipping the likes of Bangalore, Gujarat and even Singapore. Subsequently, the tournament’s prize money has increased to around the $500,000 mark. Chennai Open 2017 in turn had a sum of $447,480 as prize money. Which players do decide to travel to Pune however depends on IMG-R and the ATP. “They normally start approaching players during the US Open in September, so we’ll only get to know after that,” adds Iyer.
Organisers have planned to relay the courts shortly before the Pune Challenger that starts in November. The tournament will be used to iron out any possible flaws before the inaugural Maharashtra Open. The venue though has been in constant use. Besides hosting India’s first round zonal Davis Cup tie against New Zealand in February, the Balewadi Sports Complex has hosted a $50,000 Challenger for the past three years, which led to the ATP’s approval of relocating the tour event.