“The idea is to restart Tennis at a local level as traveling is going to be tough” – Mr Sunder Iyer

From starting his journey as a Tennis player to being a Reporter to being an Administrator in Maharashtra to playing a prominent role in AITA – Mr Sunder Iyer has done it all. 

In this interview by Coach Balachandran Manikkath, Mr Sunder Iyer takes us through his journey and also on how Tennis in India can resume after the COVID-19 phase.

Have there been any guidelines from the Govt on when Tennis can start?

The Indian Olympic Association sent a questionnaire on Thursday to all the Sports Federations. We have also got it through the Maharashtra Olympic Association as they had sent to the State Federations as well. 

It had questions around the following along with the Government guidelines

  • What kind of precautions that we take for our sport
  • Whether our sport is a contact sport
  • How will you take care of social distancing
  • And some more

Everyone is looking at starting but things will also depend on the state and the local administration. It will go down to the district level. It will be a gradual path back. 

Is MSLTA preparing any guidelines for the district associations on how they can go back to resume?

We had discussions and charted down what we need to do. There have been guidelines from the ITF as well regarding the start of tennis. There are USTA guidelines too. We are taking the best of the guidelines from these and trying to localise them because all these guidelines are international and its not possible to match them in its current form. 

We need to keep the crowds and the parents away when the tourneys are on. We also need to restrict the draw size. We need to keep a lot of sanitizers around. We need to keep the coaches healthy too.

The costs of the tourneys might also rise with all these guidelines. 

We have to see it in a very local way. At the district level itself, we have to see that the local players get to play first. So for example, to start with, if there is a tourney in Pune – only the Pune players will participate. We have to start similar tourneys in all regions and then gradually expand the scope of the tourneys. 

AITA has already worked on a plan to start first at a very local level. So players don’t have to travel much. As the players progress in the draw and some bow out, the other players can come in. 

And by the time it is October, people can start traveling. 

So AITA has a detailed plan, is it?

AITA has a plan in place on how to start. We have planned out a timeline schedule of 3 months. The idea is to start at a local level as traveling is going to be tougher than playing tennis given the limited transportation options. 

You have a lot of experience in organizing tourneys. When did you first begin? Was it in 1987? You must have been in College then as we had met each other for an Inter-University tennis match. 

Yes, it all started then. It was my last year of college and then I decided to go into administration. I had watched Dr. Ranade at that time and he was doing a great job. I realised that Sports Administration could be a good field to go into because my Tennis would not have taken me much higher. 

I had gone into Tennis coaching as well. I had gone to the US and got myself certified by the USPTA. However, after that I felt that it is better to go into administration than coaching, so I decided the administration path. 

Back then in Pune, there was only one tourney – the one held at the Deccan Gymkhana. It featured all the good players like Sandeep Mulay, Ranjeet Shinde, Nandan – the best players out there. However, we had only one tourney. These players had to go to Mumbai to play the tourneys in general. 

At that time, Maharashtra had a fantastic tennis circuit. We had 8 tournaments in the summer, in different clubs. The last one used to be held in Pune. All of us had to pack our bags and stay in Mumbai for 8 weeks. 

The circuit in Bombay (now Mumbai) used to be very good. It had U14s too and prize money. Why did it go away?

It was a very well planned circuit. That was probably the only organised circuit in India in those times. At that time, MSLTA was primarily centered around Mumbai and every council member used to organise one tourney. It used to be slightly difficult for people like us from other parts of the state to travel. 

Then few of us thought that we should organise few tourneys in Pune. At that time, Sunny Jacob started the Karia Trophy, which became a big tournament. Then we decided to organise one more tourney. That’s when I met Rajkumar Chordia of Pravin Masalawale and then we put that tournament together. So this way, we started having three tournaments. 

You also had a Hero Honda League for non-ranked players

It was in 1994. Again we wanted to do something for the Pune players. I had a very close friend named Deepak in Hero Honda. They were looking at doing something in Pune around Sports. We had recommended that instead of doing a one-off tournament, if they could consider doing 4 tourneys and a Masters – they agreed and this kicked off the Hero Honda League. It became very popular. 

In one year, we had done even the National Ranking series tourneys of Hero Honda in Nagpur, Solapur and Nashik in Maharashtra. 

Ankita Raina had played them too

I still remember Ankita Raina had come from Ahmedabad to participate in one of these tourneys as a 10-year old. I had refused to do her entry as she was not from Pune. Ankita being Ankita gave it her all and a dealer of Hero Honda called in requesting to give this girl an entry. That was her first tourney I think and she was just 10 years old. 

MSLTA has been the benchmark for other organisations. Organising so many tourneys and even offering scholarships for the players. 

The advantage was that we had forward looking people. We had Dr Ranade, who in those days, used to organise Davis Cup events. We had Ghanshyam Patel who did Grand Prix tournaments. We had really good people who were really into the sport. 

We also had people who got us land from the Government for the association – That was one forward looking work which they did. This was 45-50 years ago. 

MSLTA got the corporates involved in Tennis in those days itself – this has turned much more difficult these days. What do you think caused it?

Most of the corporate people are now playing Golf. At that time, they used to play Tennis. 

At least since the time that I’ve been involved, I have tried to rope in a lot of corporates. They may like Tennis but ultimately, they also have to report back to the shareholders on what they are getting back in return. It’s also about how we are able to market them. Then things will become easier. 

People might give you money once or twice but that’s not enough – you have to give them the value back. 

Sponsors have a lot of options – Social Media, Television, Movies and so on. What they pay us, they can probably get more mileage via other mediums. We don’t have much of an audience for Tennis. Even in local tourneys, there are hardly 50-100 people watching them. 

Earlier, when there was no TV, there used to be 1000s of people coming to watch Tennis at the venue. When Ghanshyam bhai was alive, he showed us some pictures – there was a Grand Prix tourney in Mumbai which had Vijay Amritraj participating. The match had about 1,500 people come in to watch his match. 

People have more options now with Live TV, Live streaming and so on. However, the experience of watching it at the venue is different. Once they come to the venue, they will come for the second time. The challenge is to get them to watch the first time. 

In India also, we are quite strict. One can’t get water or food in the stands and so on. No walking or talking during the points. People are coming to watch and enjoy. Now is the time for us to grow the sport. 

The community involvement in Pune

We’ve been able to create a community in Pune. They love sport. We have regulars. For example, the KPIT Challenger in Pune – everytime that we had an Indian in the final, the stands were full. So the people also need an Indian to be there. Kaustubh Shah, me and several others had put in a lot of effort into this.

Our guys are also doing well now. Last year as well, we had Divij Sharan and Rohan Bopanna reach the final and it was packed. 

The big event sponsors like KPIT and TATA – Would it be possible to have them sponsor a Junior tourney too where the sponsorship expenses are much smaller?

I will tell you about KPIT. Mr Kishore Patil is the president of Pune Metropolitan District Tennis Association (PMDTA). He has been gracious enough to sponsor. 

His vision for the tourney is that he wants to support the Indian players. So we always call it an Indian Challenger event. The entire concept and the branding is focused on the Indian players. We want them to earn points, do well and feel at home. So his vision for this tourney is very clear. 

Additionally, as the president of PMDTA, he has raised enough funds for us from his own and other sources. We have a fantastic circuit in Pune but unfortunately we don’t talk about it much. 

We are doing everything for everyone – from the coaches to the markers. Every marker is insured by PMDTA. We have been doing a lot of seminars for the coaches. We have coaches like Hemant Bendrey, Nandan Bal, Aditya Madkekar, Sandeep Kirtane, Radhika Tulpule and so on. Earlier they were all on their own but now we have got them as one consolidated group. We do a lot of seminars with foreign speakers as well. 

Mr Kishor Patil of KPIT with Mr Sunder Iyer

The Junior Tennis circuit and the league in Maharashtra

We have tourneys for the U10 and U12 players. Abhishek Tamhane, a former player and now secretary of the Association, through his company sponsors the entire U10 & U12 circuit. The U14 and U16 circuit is sponsored by KPIT. 

We also have the Junior Tennis Circuit every year. Based on the points that the kids get through the year, there is an auction. Through the junior league, we try to make it a team sport. The rules are flexible such that even a 10 yr old can play against a 16 yr old kid. A girl can play against a boy. These things never happen otherwise. The junior league has really worked well – if you see the national junior champions, many of them have come from Pune. 

Salsa Aher is a very good example. When she started, she had no confidence, she wasn’t winning much. Then she started in this junior tennis league, started winning, grew in confidence and ended up becoming the most valuable player of the league. After that, she put in so much effort that she became the national champion and then represented India. 

We have many such stories – Gargi Pawar, Manas Dhamne. It really helps and they play as a team. 

The team owners had also put in a lot of effort. They appointed Physiotherapists. They had parties. They had Psychologists too. It turned into one large family. All this has turned it into a community and so that’s why we have more crowds for Tennis in Pune in general. 

Now we have a seniors circuit as well. We had planned this seniors circuit (for age 40+) during the KPIT challenger. The whole idea is to create a community rather than just event based. 

We also have the interclub events. Last year, we had about 75 teams which participated. Now we have about 6 leagues going on.  

We also had the Premier Tennis League for a couple of years

It was an effort spearheaded by Mr Aniruddha Deshpande, Nitin Kirtane with Nandan Bal also involved. We had organised this wonderful tournament. 

However, after a point, the players started expecting more money. All these leagues will work in a framework. If we go beyond that, it will all collapse. The players probably felt that the money was less in the 3rd and the 4th years. 

However, I am happy that the Tennis Premier League by Kunal Thakur has started. Kunal has got the right mix of people involved. He has got the TV Industry and the Corporates involved. He has the right faces for every team. These are actresses who are well known. It has to appeal to the media. 

For example, Sonali Bendre is the owner of one of the teams. She has many more followers than any of our tennis players on Social media. So if she starts tweeting or posting about the players, many more people will come to know about them. 

So we have to use all these approaches to promote them. 

MSLTA also had player development programmes with Dr Vece Paes involved and Manoj taking these players to Spain. 

Sharad Kannamwar gave the real boost to these programmes when he got in as the Secretary with Mr Bharat Oza as the President. It really started becoming active across the state during this time. The game started spreading and we had many more people in the council from the districts. 

Once the people from the districts got involved, the tennis started spreading there. The success of a player like Prarthana Thombare, from Barshi which is a taluka place in Solapur was because we had a tennis court there. Prarthana went on to play in the Olympics. 

Now we have a young guy called Kaivalya Kalamse from Nanded and he is very promising. Wherever the British were there, the tennis courts were already there. We created a structure there, creating coaching schemes and that is how it started. 

The Scholarship amounts have gone up 10-fold now. This year we gave about Rs 15-16 lakh worth of scholarship to the players. 

After that, we started the MSLTA Vision 2020 programme. The program was focused on doing tournaments, choosing the best U10 players and helping them to grow. We also had a group of players in Vision Group who were sent every year to Spain. There was a year in which 8 players were sent to Spain. We took care of them. 

The U14 kids were sent to Thailand, to Bangkok. The idea of sending these kids to Thailand was to give them the exposure on how the world is. 

Many of them had come from the districts and had never even seen a flight. They did not have passports. For 3 years, we sent them to the Paradorn Srichaphan Academy and then then for 3 years to the Asian Tennis Centre in Nonthaburi. All these players had become the national champions. 

Hemant Bendrey was an integral part of the programme that we had designed. Our Spain trips also helped the coaches like Radhika, Manoj and so on to get their next degree from ITF. They used to go as the Managers of the teams and the ITF was there. So along with this stint, they used to also complete their exams and certifications there. 

The coaches were also learning new training approaches. We are also grooming our coaches to take the next step in this. 

The Coaches education programme in Marathi

In the districts, most of them did not know English. To connect with them, we needed to do it in Marathi. We started with a Markers tournament only for the assistant coaches and markers all over Maharashtra. 

So in the morning they were playing the tournament and in the afternoon, we were giving them lectures about Tennis Coaching. So it was either Manoj or Hemant going with them. 

One of your pet projects was the Ekalavya project with the Maharashtra State Govt – Tribal Dept

This was the feather in the cap for me as well as the MSLTA as it gave us immense satisfaction. We were talking to the Tribal Department on what we could do with the Tribal kids. 

First we had thought that, can we replicate the Chandigarh model of coaching? Then we realised that these kids cannot come to Mumbai, Pune or Nagpur because their parents will not allow them. Maharashtra is huge – so traveling for example from Nagpur to Mumbai in a train – it takes 12 hours. Even if they get trained, when they go back, there would be no one for them to practice with. 

We came up with the plan of – why not convert them into Coaches or Markers? We approached the Tribal Department Commissioner Dr Pallavi Darade with this plan. Sport is a great leveller. The markers and assistant coaches have great respect in our community. Most of them were trained as gardners and waiters before. The respect they received was a bit less. Since we had the Marathi manuals for coaches, we wanted to explore this path. 

We decided that they should be at least 12th standard pass and some physical abilities. We then put out the ad in the newspaper. For the first ad that she put out, we had several people who had done Masters like MA, M.Phil and others who applied for that – without knowing what Tennis was. 

Prashant Sutar was quite instrumental in this. Then me, Prashant, Manoj and Hemant prepared a plan. None of these applicants could play Tennis, some of them did not wear shoes too as they never had to wear shoes before. 

I remember the person who came first in the course – In his Village, even if someone got Rs 10, they were considered rich. Some people started wearing shoes after 3 months. 

However, these people had amazing tenacity and after some time, they liked it so much. It was phenomenal that at the end of the course, all of them could play tennis and we also prepared them on how to prepare tennis courts. 

The whole idea was to train someone to not just to play but to be able to maintain court, do coaching and also on the rules of the sport – so that they can be an umpire too. They were highly employable. 

The first 30/30 passed out and there was a demand from all of them to start another course immediately. In this next course, we had 50 people enrolled. All of them have got jobs. 

We could not continue the course after that because of the changes in the Government and the Department as the next person who came in, did not think it was that important. 

For us, it was a huge satisfaction as we were able to give respectable employment to these guys. 

The tribal programme was entirely supported by the Govt. of Maharashtra. 

Outside of Eklavya, was there any funding from the Government?

We have started getting the Govt funding only after the TATA Open Maharashtra was started. We have been raising our own funds for the events out of that. 

As you are involved in AITA now, how much of your work are you able to replicate pan India?

It is very easy in a state but it is very difficult to govern in a nation. Each state has its own problems and so to replicate this model in other states, it is very difficult. 

We have been talking to each other, sharing the ideas and so on. It will take some time but it will happen. 

Gujarat has started a lot of development and we will see a lot of action coming from there soon. 

This needs a lot of like-minded people to replicate. 

The Coaches committee in MSLTA – As a Secretary, how difficult is it to manage them with each coach having her/his own ideas and vision?

Fortunately, in Maharashtra, all our coaches are on one page. Everyone respects each other and so thankfully there is not as much politics. We have 7-10 top coaches from India, in Pune itself. So even the junior coaches have started doing well by working with these top coaches. 

We have 10 different centers which are doing well in Pune. The biggest success is getting all these people together and collaborating. 

You dabbled in Legal and also in Journalism as a youngster. What was driving you in that direction?

I love Journalism. My parents used to live in an area called Patrakar nagar which was a society of journalists. I used to read a lot of newspapers everyday. I did a journalist course from Symbiosis and then worked in Times of India for 2 years. 

My sports and legal background helped me. I had done a lot of legal reporting in my role. I was doing a lot of legal court proceeding reports of the big cases. 

I also used to do coaching at that time. So coaching in the morning and then journalism as part of my work. 

I also got married around the time. My wife Sheetal was into Tennis and she just got into coaching around the same time. 

Mr Sunder Iyer with his wife Sheetal Iyer and the tennis legend Vijay Amritraj

Back then, you organised the year long AITA-GWG Tour – It was a good concept with 25 tourneys. Your experience in organising it.

I would like to thank Nandan Bal for getting me into this GWG team. They needed a person who played Tennis, was a journalist, could write releases, get PR done – the job was tailor made for me. 

It went on for 1.5 to 2 years and it went across the entire country at that time. It was a brilliant concept. 

The Kalyani Invitational Championship in 1989

In 1989, with the help of Baba Kalyani, we organised the richest tennis tournament in india. Vasudevan Srinivasan had reached there on a private jet, which was probably the first time for Indian Tennis to use a private jet. We have always tried to ensure the comfort of the players and that has been the key to the success. 

How does one get into Sports Administration

About 30 years ago, when I had come in, it was not so professional. I had a dream and I just followed that dream. There were few ideas that I had on how I could make a difference to the sport and then the society through Sport. 

One needs to have the base understanding and positioning in the sport. There needs to be passion that goes along with it. Most of us who are administrators now in Pune were grass-root level people and that helped because then you connect well to the crowd around you. 

In the field of Tennis Administration – there are 2-3 classes of people that you need to connect with. 

  1. The Elite people : The politicians, the sponsors and so on
  2. People in the industry: The players, coaches and so on
  3. The larger ecosystem: The people around tennis, the fans and so on

A successful administrator is one who can connect from the ground level to the top. 

You can be a good organiser by sitting in the office but to be a good administrator, you have to be connected across all the 3 sections. 

You should also have a vision as an Administrator and have a plan to achieve those things. 

Mr. Sunder Iyer conferred with MIT Krida Acharya Award by VVS Laxman

As you are part of AITA now and also the Davis Cup team manager – Is there any scope for player involvement?

There is a lot of interaction between the players and the administrators since Mr Hironmoy has been here. The players also joined all the AITA Webinars for the coaches. 

Rohit Rajpal has been a great addition as the team captain. There is a lot more of give and take between the players and the administrators now. 

There are a lot of players who want to contribute to the system as well and you can see the ideas being raised by them in the media be it Leander Paes or Rohan Bopanna. 

We can compile all these ideas together and start executing on whichever of them, that is feasible – it will do good for the Indian Tennis community. 

Lot of people feel that AITA is doing nothing. That is because it is not tangible but there are a lot of thoughts, plans and ideas being iterated upon at AITA. It’s just that the issues are different. There are issues in the State, issues in the Government and in other areas. What I can call out is that the ground is getting fertile for the next step. In the next year and a half, a lot of these efforts will be visible from the AITA side. 

We have Mr Anil Dhupar, Suman, Mr Hironmoy in the group and Mr Anil Khanna has done so much work as well. In his way, Mr Anil has been able to project India as a major tennis country. 

Events organisation is not an easy job at all – One has to look into all the logistics, the comfort of the people involved, the complaints from the players – these all have to be addressed and are addressed by AITA. 

I would also like to thank my MSLTA team – everyone is owning and doing some effort or the other. To organise any international tournament it costs 20 to 25 Lakhs and to have people in districts raise this money – it is not a joke. We have Mr Desai doing great work and Prashant Sutar doing great work with the Maharashtra Open – this is an incredible effort. In spite of all this work, we still get criticism.

MSLTA is probably the only state with an international tourney in every district. This is happening consistently and not as a one-off. That is the biggest success of an administration team. 

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