Interview with Sunder Iyer(Secretary MSLTA)

Mr. Sunder Iyer has partially been the man behind the latest revolution in Indian Tennis. Secretary and face of the MSLTA, Mr. Iyer, with the help of his diligent team, has been able to organise a cohort of tournaments in Maharashtra, which has helped our players immensely to quickly make the grade in the ATP and WTA Rankings.

With his dedication, we have the ATP-KPIT Challenger running in Pune for more than 3 years now. It may be recalled that Yuki Bhambri cracked the Top 100 for the first time by winning this Challenger in 2015. He was also instrumental in ensuring that India’s only ATP 250 event stays in India. With the tournament being shifted out of Chennai starting this year, he took the initiative to start talks with the Maharashtra Government, and as a result, the tournament has stayed in India and was held in Pune earlier this year. He also organised a WTA event in the country for the first time in a long time last year in Mumbai, with the WTA $125K event held at the CCI courts.

Along with this, he’s organised various ITF Futures events for men and women, along with various other local tournaments. He’s also headed a lot of programmes along with the MSLTA, for talented kids, coaches, etc.

He talks about all this in an interview with Indian Tennis Daily.

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Tournament Director Mr. Sunder Iyer along with Jt.Director Dept of sports Narendra Sopal and Dy.Director Anand Vyankeshwar discussing on court preparation for the upcoming Davis Cup tie along with officials

Q) What has been the backend story of your involvement with tennis? How did the association start?

It started when I was 18. I organised my first tournament at 18, when there no tournaments in Pune at that time. We, as players, had to travel quite a bit. That’s when we thought that we should have more local tournaments. Then I got into coaching as well. The first tournament that I organised, with the help of a couple of friends, was called “Praveen Trophy”. It grew to become an open event, then a state ranking tournament and so on.

Later, at Port Club, where I was coaching, we started a tournament for non-ranking players. Then we did a circuit called the “Hero Honda Tennis Circuit” by getting corporates onboard for the first time. There were four legs and a Masters. It benefitted the Pune players a lot.

Then I left coaching and got into journalism, working with The Times of India. But I did not stop organising tournaments. I knew that I wanted to get into the administrative side of things.

In 1989, we did one of India’s richest tournaments, in association with Bharat Forge in Pune, where we invited players like Zeeshan Ali, Vasudevan, etc.

Q) There has been a wave of changes brought about by the MSLTA in the last few years. What has been the mantra?

At MSLTA, our primary focus is on the players. Building the right infrastructure, making it affordable, making it a game where people can come and play. Tennis was always considered to be a rich man’s sport, this is the concept we have tried to change in the past few years. We wanted it to be played at every level. That is how a sport will survive and grow. Making it acceptable as a sport, basically.

We took it to districts, where there was interest, but no facilities and proper coaching. We started doing camps there, and sent our coaches there to train the players. And then their coaches used to come to the cities for knowledge programs. That is how a system was built with knowledge exchange. We wanted to empower the district coaches and bring them upto a level.

Before the Level 1 and Level 2 of ITF was introduced, we had MSLTA coaching courses in Marathi language. That is how a base was built. Gradually, interest in the districts grew. In a while, the district players started beating the city players and won tournaments. Then we focussed on the infrastructure in the districts. We built MSLTA centres with the help of the government. We now have 8 sectors around the state.

In 2006, we started a “MSLTA Vision” program by selecting the best junior players, organised camps for them. Dr. Vece Paes was the consultant of this program, with Hemant Bendre as coordinator. He talked to the players, did physical analyses for them. We used to take them abroad to Spain etc to train them and give them international exposure. It started with 8 players. The first group consisted of players like Arjun Kadhe, Prarthana Thombare, Rutuja Bhosale. So the results are showing now.

We have a Coaches Committee involving people like Hemant Bendre, Aditya Madkekar, Nandan Bal, Nitin Kirtane, Radhika Tulpule, etc. We involved everyone, took the best ideas among them, and implemented them.

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Mr. Sunder Iyer with the victorious Maharashtra Team at the Inter State Meet in March 2018

Q) How can other associations emulate it?

Every association does something or the other. It’s not like they don’t do anything. But maybe they don’t do it in such a planned way like us. The coordination might be missing.

Some associations organise tournaments, some give funding to their players, some do camps. The entire activity line is not done by any of the associations.

For instance, the Gujarat Government is doing great work by funding their players. Tamil Nadu sends them to Europe for training.

Q) You have hosted such big events in the recent past, ATP, WTA, Challengers. Where has the financial support come from?

Over the last six years or so, we have done good marketing efforts to build brand “MSLTA”. We’ve approached a lot of corporates, giving them good Return on Investments(ROI’s). Tennis is becoming a bigger sport among the sponsors. We made them understand that the growth of the sport is of utmost importance. We made them invest in the game rather than just one event.

We’re also very thankful to the Government of Maharashtra who have come forward with a lot of support.

We have a good team around us. I have another colleague, Prashant(Sutar), who’s taken up the responsibility of raising money. We have Mr. Kishore Patil, Chairman of KPIT, who have been the title sponsors of the KPIT Challenger that happens every year. They are ambassadors for us, doing what they promise.

Q) What is the typical career path for anyone interested to get into tennis or sports administration?

I think more than anything else, the most important thing is passion. You have to work hard without expecting anything in return. It’s a very thankless job, people don’t acknowledge you in public. But you don’t do it for yourself, but for the players. If that is there, everything falls in place. It has to come from the inside.

It cannot be a profession, but you have to be professional. So it’s very tricky. You have to be passionate, and act professional. It requires immense dedication.

Q) What are your thoughts around the ITF Transition Tour that is going to be introduced from next year. How will it impact our players?

It’s a good idea. The lower rung of players will also start making something out of the sports. There are so many currently who are playing for nothing. It sometimes takes you 3-4 years to make your first ATP point if you are not lucky. Anyways in India, there are many AITA 5-10 Lacs tournaments. Those can probably be converted to the Transition Tour events.

There was quite an effort to come up with the Asian Tennis Tour(ATT) events a few years back, but it did not work out. So those can be converted to these Transition events as well.

Tennis in India is really growing. Earlier in my Girls junior tournaments in Maharashtra, I used to struggle to fill draws of 64. Now I easily get 128 girls to participate. So it’s a big plus. So it will probably work.

Q) What are your thoughts on the ITF events reducing in India this year?

Unfortunately, there is a lot of money involved in doing tournaments. If it’s a $15,000 tournament, the actual cost is $30,000. So it’s very tough on the organisers. So to raise that kind of money is very tough. But now, there’s an effort from AITA to push its members to do tournaments. So by the end of the year, we’ll have some sort of a revival.

The associations are now taking help of their local governments. Eg – Karnataka, Chhatisgarh, Orissa. Every association can now do 1 tournament per year at least. So that makes it at least 28 tournaments in a year.

Q) Places like Egypt or Turkey have Futures events every week. Can’t we have a system like that, with the help of someone like, say, Neeta Ambani, who’s always ready to help sport in India?

So in those places, it’s a different system. It’s not done by their association, but by a private entity and is a business model. Firstly, that is a tourist place, with proximity to Europe. So a lot of players come. And it’s mandatory for them to stay in the partner hotel where the tournament takes place. And they have to eat there as they don’t have anything around the hotel in 30 km radius. So it’s a proper business model.

If some entrepreneur in India can thing along those lines and come up with a viable plan, there’s no reason why we can’t do it too. But the revenue model has to be studied and worked out properly.

Q) The recent “Khelo India” games did not feature Tennis. Any insights on that?

So it was the first year, and they did not want to do all sports. Tennis has a circuit already. Other sports don’t have a circuit and only have say a nationals or something.

So they will grow sport by sport. They might include tennis next year onwards.

Q) Indian Sport is going through a league revolution. We have had two attempts with tennis. IPTL and CTL. What are your thoughts on building a financially viable tennis league in India?

India controls Cricket. If you look at Badminton, Indians are world champions, with the Top 10 being stacked by Indians.

When you come to Tennis, there were a lot of leagues that were started. We need a league in India that will help our players. We had this league in Maharashtra, which ran for three years, which stopped due to financial issues. To find a window for the international players is also difficult. If you look at December, they have their season.

Also, TV has to come in. Cricket is watched by all. But watching tennis daily can be exhausting, unless we have huge local interest. So our players have to get to that level to competing at the highest level. So for the league to be popular and viable, we need people like Yuki and Ramkumar to enter the Top 20’s and 30’s.

So we surely need a league to help the other players, and not Yuki and Ram. This would help our players become more popular among our own public. That is very important for the sport to grow.

Q) We often notice that several of our players have bad basics that are hard to undo later. This can be attributed to lack of quality coaching at the grassroots level. What is being done to address this age old problem?

In India, we have one of the best coaching programmes today. It’s improving and is very strong now. Coaches are ITF certified, with vast knowledge. They are being exposed to training before becoming a coach. Earlier, anybody used to pick up a racquet and become a coach. That is not the case now. You have to be a certified coach. There is a common education pattern being taught to be the coaches. It’s caught up in the last 3-4 years in India. The results are also showing. We also have this yearly coaches workshop to keep our coaches updated on the latest techniques and scientific methods. It’ll only get better.

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