Maharashtra and the Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association(MSLTA) has been at the forefront in the development of Indian Tennis for quite a few years now – be it from a player development perspective, organising ample tournaments for the players, etc. Led by Mr. Sunder Iyer, Honorary Secretary, the team has been able to pull off multiple international tournaments, ranging from an ATP 250 event, WTA event, ATP Challenger event, ITF Futures events, and numerous other junior tournaments as well. We speak to Mr. Iyer to pick his brain on the above mentioned topics –
Q) Maharashtra has been doing a majority of home events like ATP, WTA, Challengers and Futures tournaments. What are your thoughts on this?
We tried to do something different as a state and I think we are happy with it. Last year, we did 141 tournaments in Maharashtra, including international, national and states, which is the highest by far. We did 11 international tournaments, including an ATP Challenger, WTA Challenger last year, 4 $25K tournaments. I think we spent about $300,000 on doing international events last year.
One of the major reasons behind doing international tournaments is to encourage our players and we feel that we are in good position to do it. I don’t know about next few years, but right now, we are trying to make the most of it.
Q) The Tata Open Maharashtra enjoyed two successful editions. What do you think were the key metrics to make this edition a success especially with the weakened player field?
It’s not a weakened field at all. It’s just that the numbers, in terms of seedings, are not there. If you look at this tournament, there are 4-5 players who were in the top-10, top-20 or top-50 in the world and are all world-class.
If you look at someone like Jiri Vesely, he used to be considered amongst the brightest of talents, along with likes of Alexander Zverev. So you never know in Tennis. Once you grow older, you start doing well and most of the players you see here today, may turn out to be world beaters. I think we are very happy with what we have and ultimately, it is the event of the Indians, for the Indians and by the Indians.
This is what i feel and we are okay, even though the field is not very strong in terms of rankings but in terms of player engagements one to one, I think everybody is strong.
Q) You have a 5 year contract for the tournament given the scheduling is same for the next two years. So what are your plans for year 2021 & 2022?
This year was a learning curve with a change of dates. We were not able to attract top players because although we were speaking to some of them, logically it was not possible for these guys to come to Pune. We were in talks with 3-4 very good players but 2 of them got injured at the last moment and had to pull out.
Probably next year starts better for players as well as for all of us, because normally we have to contact the players during Wimbledon for their commitment in the next year and last year Tsitsipas was a nobody when we talked to him to come to Pune and by the time the tournament came, he was one of the hottest players in the world. Del Potro is one of the players we were in touch with but unfortunately, he pulled out. We wanted to get Murray, but Murray got injured. So there are a lot of factors. But anyway, I think this year is gone and we have our own learnings, probably we will have our strategy in place for next year.
Q) We had a record 5 Indians in the main draw here. How much of an impact do you think the event can have in this season and their career?
Obviously a big chance for the Indians. Most of them were not able to make an impact this time, but one thing is that you know they were playing world class players and they showed their metal but unfortunately they fell short.
But I think they can learn a lot. They learnt a lot. I mean Sumit is young, Prajnesh is not young but he is doing well and Ram is also young. So there is lot of learning that they can take back with them and probably this performance will help them to gain some in the coming year. I am happy that Prajnesh reached the second round, gained 20 points which will help his ranking a little bit to move up.
Q) The WTA Mumbai Open, India’s only WTA event, was held for a couple of years but was discontinued in 2019. What happened? Are there any plans to renew it?
Obviously we want to start the WTA again. We are looking at it. Last year, we had some problems logistically date-wise. During the 2019 edition, the elections at Maharashtra were held at the same time. It is very difficult to conduct an international event during the election period because there is a lot of logistical problems that we face. The city is closed for two days. There’s a compulsory holiday. It is very difficult to run a tournament of this stature. We had the elections and we are already in touch with the WTA that we are interested in doing a tournament. We are looking to put it back in 2020. We are talking about the dates with WTA and I think by the end of this month, we will have some concrete dates and then we can go on.
Q) Could you speak about the initiative that MSLTA has taken for the last 5 years for player development?
Maharashtra is the only state that is putting emphasis on player development and we tried right from the under 10 events to the professional events and we had 141 tournaments conducted last year, out of which 36 were U10 tournaments. We have a proper data analytics that we do for our tennis development. We work in areas where we are weak and SWOT analysis is done very month. We appointed a data agency to do analytics. Obviously we have our own team of our own young coaches that are doing really well.
People like Sandeep Kirtane, Nitin Kirtane, Nandan Bal and his daughter, and Kedar Shah, we have one of the best coaches just here in Pune and Mumbai. We have about 600-700 tennis courts all over Maharashtra, and Pune itself has about 140-150 tennis courts. We have a very good infrastructure. We are not just working on player development, but we are working on tennis development on a whole, which means we are working on coaches, workshops and we are working on creating officials.
We have a wholesome program because this is what is necessary for development of tennis and we have enough tournaments, enough competition and we have a vision program where we choose the best of 100 players across age groups and enter them right from the first from the base to the top. I am very happy that we have 4 National Champions this year in 2019. We are probably the only state in India which has the most number of top-20 players across all age groups. So I’m talking with all records and facts and we are working a lot for women tennis in Maharashtra. So if you look at it, our whole effort was towards junior development of junior programs in womens and we are getting those results.
Q) What is your advice for other state associations? If few of them can replicate what MSLTA has done, we would be having international tournaments in India every week.
I am no one to advise anybody but a lot of people appreciate what we do. A lot of people are trying to use our model and I’m very happy to share it with them. Unfortunately there are a lot of logistical problems in India weather-wise, finance-wise. If you look at the dollar, it has moved up by 20Rs recently, and right now 65Rs/dollar as changed to 71Rs/dollar so expenses are more.
At the AITA level, we would be able to put maximum number of international tournaments and I think this year would be much bigger and better for Indian players because we will have many more tournaments for our men and women. And last year there was a problem because of the change in rules that ITF had, we were not able to have $15,000 and $25,000 tournaments, but this year I think with the rules being revised, we will have many more.