Updated: February 2, 2020 9:49:25 am
The hoardings outside the Balewadi Tennis Stadium in Pune tell the story in images. In the past two years that the venue has hosted India’s only ATP 250 event, the Tata Open Maharashtra, those billboards depicted pictures of Marin Cilic and Kevin Anderson, who were then world no. 6 at the 2018 and 2019 editions respectively. This year, the giant posters have pictures of some of the more iconic locations of Maharashtra.
But this was not a result of some administrative goof-up. It is a result of a change in the ATP schedule that left the tournament without any star attractions.
Ever since the start of the tournament in its former host city Chennai, it was played as a season-opener and attracted top stars – the likes of Carlos Moya, Patrick Rafter, three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka, and even a certain Rafael Nadal. It was an ideal pit-stop for the top guns from Europe on their way to the Australian Open. The ATP Cup this year, however, forced the Tata Open to be pushed back by a month. And since it is being played in the week between the year’s first Grand Slam tournament and the ATP 500 event at Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the big names have shied away.
“Players have been in Australia for a month, under tough circumstances and probably want to go back home (to Europe),” says Sunder Iyer, honorary secretary of the Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association (MSLTA), the hosts for the tournament. “The (tennis) circuit now moves to Europe. Montpellier this week and Rotterdam next. So it’s much easier to go back to Europe and start playing.”
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The inaugural ATP Cup, held in the first week of January – a spot the Indian Open enjoyed for years – meant that most of the top 10 on the men’s tour descended upon Australia, with no intention of stopping by at Pune on the return trip. That makes this the first time since 2003 that the Indian ATP tournament has not had a current top 10 player in the line-up – Argentina’s Guillermo Canas, the then world no. 15, was the top seed 17 years back.
With the February slot, Pune’s chief competition is the ATP 250 in Montpellier. Both tournaments have similar prize money – Pune has a purse of $610,010 and the French event $672,702. But the geographical proximity of Montpellier to Rotterdam has helped it attract top names. While the likes of world no. 10 Gael Monfils, no. 11 David Goffin, Denis Shapovalov (13) and Grigor Dimitrov (20) have chosen to go to France, Pune’s top seed is world no. 21 Benoit Paire – the only top 50 player in the draw.
The depleted field, though, has benefitted the Indians. The country’s top two ranked players Prajnesh Gunneswaran (123) and Sumit Nagal (131) made the main draw on merit, and wild cards were handed to compatriots Ramkumar Ramanthan (184), Sasikumar Mukund (266) and local lad Arjun Kadhe (617).
“It’s a standalone tournament and nobody is (using it) to prepare for Australia,” says Prajnesh. “But it’s good for the Indians because it gives us an opportunity to make the most of it. Hopefully a few of us, or maybe all of us, can win a few rounds and points and use it as a springboard.”
The change in schedule may have affected the tournament’s line-up, but it was a choice between now and September, when the foreign contingent could have been even worse because the tour would have been on its South American swing, and Pune would still be experiencing monsoons.
“In this week, we are going to be meeting with Alison Lee (executive vice- president of the ATP International Group),” tournament director Prashant Sutar says. “We will be raising the issue that Asian tennis needs to be revamped. We will strongly take it up.”
But while that meeting takes place, five Indians will compete in the main draw of their home ATP tournament for the first time. And with a depleted field standing in the way, there’s a murmur of a few upsets in the offing. Maybe even an Indian going all the way to the title. “Why not? It can be done,” Prajnesh adds.
Paes gets wild card
In potentially his last appearance in a tournament in India, veteran Leander Paes has been given a wild card to enter the doubles draw, along with his Australian partner Matthew Ebden. The duo will take on India’s Divij Sharan and New Zealand’s Artem Sitak in the first round. Meanwhile Rohan Bopanna will team up with Arjun Kadhe (also wild card entrants), and Purav Raja and Ramkumar Ramanathan will form a second all-Indian team.
Indians’ singles draw: Prajnesh Gunneswaran vs Yannick Maden (Germany, rank 125); Sumit Nagal v qualifier; Ramkumar Ramanathan vs Salvatore Caruso (Italy, rank 95); Sasikumar Mukund vs Taro Daniel (Japan, rank 110); Arjun Kadhe vs Jiri Vesely (Czech Republic, rank 109).
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