Sunder Iyer is one of the first names that will pop in your head when you think of tennis administrators in India. The face of Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association (MSLTA), he has been leading the show with consistent efforts to support the players and organize events for many years now. He is the Hon. Secretary of MSLTA, the Joint-Secretary of AITA (All India Tennis Association) and is the founder secretary of Lakshya Sports, an NGO that has been aiding multiple Indian sports.
Sanketa Anand caught up with him on the sidelines of the ITF $25K women’s event in Pune. From Manas Dhamne to age fraud to the minute details that go in putting an event together, he puts forward an administrator’s point of view. Excerpts:-
(About the Author: Sanketa Anand – Director of a Tech firm in Singapore with a keen interest in Indian Tennis. Sanketa has been ITD’s face for Singapore / Maharashtra since inception)
Q) AITA has taken a lead role in the entire Asian continent, in terms of getting the tennis back again after COVID and organizing so many tournaments for the players. Can you detail some of the effort and the planning which has been put in, to make sure that we have such an activity going?
Sunder Iyer: It has actually been a bad year for tennis players last year, as you all know. Not too much sport at all. Who would have imagined that tennis will start again in just 1 year? It’s exactly 1 year that the lockdown was in. We had our elections last year and since then, there has been a lot of thought process going on in AITA in how to start the activity at the earliest. I would like to mention Mr. Anil Dhupar, the secretary of AITA who took the initiative and was very keen to push these things. They had a meeting with the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and even SAI were looking at restarting sports in India. They have also been very co-operative in aiding our efforts to start tennis activity. And all of a sudden, as states opened up for tournaments and competitions, a lot of states started doing tournaments – mostly in the North, in Haryana, Punjab, Delhi. Madhya Pradesh was one of the states which initially started [tennis]. In Maharashtra, we started a bit late because we did not have permissions. Though tennis started in August, we did not get permissions for tournaments. When we got permission for the tournaments, we decided to pitch in. I would like to thank Mr. Kishor Patil of KPIT, because he has been a great supporter of tennis in India. He has been doing the challengers for six years in a row. We lost a year last year and he said “Sunder, why don’t we do something for the Indian players? Why don’t do something to start international momentum for them. Let us use the budgets from our challenger to do something for Indian tennis.” So that’s how these two tournaments in Pune came about. We planned a $15k for men and then Mr. Dhupar pitched in and said why don’t we do a $25k for women, which will help Indian girls. So that’s how these tournaments came on board. So, I’m really grateful to Mr. Dhupar, Mr. Patil, the Government of India, our members in the AITA for starting tennis again.
Q) Organising 78 tournaments in such a short span of time like around a month or so, is no mean feat. Financially it has been an extraordinary effort to generate such funding. Can you detail some of the work involved and highlight a few of the sponsors?
Sunder Iyer: If you see the entire month of March, we tried to do as many tournaments as we could and like I mentioned, Mr. Dhupar and Mr. Anil Khanna got in touch with Uttar Pradesh, with the DLTA (Delhi Lawn Tennis Association), I got here in MSLTA, Mr. Dhupar himself at Indore, and Mr. Suman Kapur in Haryana. So at least, these 5 or 6 people said let’s start something. As you know, as per the rules of international tennis, we need to do two $15k events back-to-back and only then you would get an allotted tournament. So we decided to do 2 tournaments in the first, then take a break for one week, in which we have the nationals next week and then do two- Pune and Delhi again. So I think this was quite a good strategy to help Indian players. The rest of the tournaments, we are doing 2 nationals, we just finished a U-12 National in Mumbai. Now we are doing the U-14 nationals. So it has been quite a tenacious effort from all of us because there is so much tension involved, so much effort to see that the tournament goes on without any incident. So incident-free is one of the focus that we all have. So that is why we are very strict. There are a lot of protocols to be followed this week. We are trying to keep the players and the public segregated so that there is no incident of COVID happening in our tournaments anywhere in the international events. Even in the nationals, we have compulsory COVID tests for all the players and the parents coming in. We are trying to allow just the players whose matches are there. We have to build a protocol.
But one thing is for sure that everyone in the administration wanted to restart tennis, wanted to see that whole ecosystem start again. Like if you see for yourself this week, there are so many people involved in this tournament- at least 25 people who are involved in this tournament. There is some money that they are going to get. The stringer is busy, the canteen guy is busy, the event manager has got a job, the linesmen have got a job. So, the whole ecosystem starts working. Now the coaches are busy, the children are playing tournaments. So, all this gives momentum to the entire effort and I think we are very happy that we were able to start [tennis]. There are so many foreigners coming in here and they have all praised us heavily. I was in Lucknow and they were foreigners who came in and they were very happy to be out of the bubble or lockdown in their own countries. They are so happy with the kind of arrangements. They said they never expected India to be so safe. There is a perception that we as administrators have to change. I guess that is a good effort.
Q) MSLTA has a very bright prospect in Manas Dhamne who is UTR U14 No. 1 in the world. Your thoughts on him and any other prospects from MSLTA whom you are excited about for future potential?
Sunder Iyer: We were probably the first association to put a proper program in place for the Mission Vision program. This Vision program was planned for 2010 and it has seen the emergence of many players like Rutuja [Bhosale], Arjun [Kadhe], Prarthana Thombare. The whole effort of the vision was to manage to see players represent India in Davis Cup, Fed Cup, Olympics and the Asian Games. I think it has been a very fruitful effort from all of us. So, we have a readymade program for the vision to take it to 2020. When we decided to move from 2010 to 2020. We are now about to give 11 or 12 years in the program. So, we have a very good system to identify who are the players we should back, who are the players we should work on. If you see, Maharashtra has always been doing well in national events, whether it is like U-12 or U-14. In U-12, we had 4 [Maharashtra] players in the semifinals, though none of them won. It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about the system and how many players you are able to put at the top because someday they will win. Manas is one of them. Last year he played U-12, he won the U-12 nationals and then we realized that his potential is good. His height is good, better than the other players. So, that is the time when we realized that he should be looking at bigger things and we have been talking to his parents. Obviously, he is a very bright kid, very smart in tennis. He went to the US, he played the Orange Bowl and he won it. He is one of the players, who I think the entire Indian tennis community should look at positively. I’m also a bit worried that he should not get burnt out.
Many of the players have burnt out early in life. They show tremendous potential, but could not keep up or attain the level they should have. I just pray that the same thing will not happen to Manas. There should not be too many expectations of him. Normally, I always advise children or parents, I’m not very happy if you win U-10 or U-12 Nationals or U-14 and U-16 Nationals. It’s not very important for them, because I have seen so many U-14, U-16 National champions, who have left tennis and never played tennis in life. So the most important thing is to continue tennis after the age of 18. So, I’m very happy to support players who are now playing the Men’s and the women’s tournaments, who have graduated into professional tennis players. So that is what I also think should happen to Manas Dhamne. It’s not important to be UTR No.1 in U-14 or National Champion at 14 or 16. If he is 14 now, I think he should play more tournaments in U-18 or men’s, where he starts losing. It’s very important that he should also fight it out with stronger opponents, rather than just play. That is what we have been talking to his parents. Obviously, they are listening parents and take the advice seriously. As MSLTA, we will always support him. But, he will also get that kind of support from the AITA. We gave him wildcards for U-18 juniors tournaments and he performed exceedingly well. This is what we expect – that 14-year-old kid starting to do well in U-18. This is what I think we should keep as a benchmark for junior tennis in India.
Q) Age fraud has been an issue in Indian Junior tennis for quite some time. There have been committees set up in the past, some players banned but still, this remains a burning topic. Any proactive measures in the plans to root this issue out?
Sunder Iyer: Age fraud is like a double-edged sword. There are no fixed rules in Indian law about age cheating or verification of age. There is no perfect system to identify age. We have TW3 test and one of the good things that AITA has done is to have a system where the first certificate is to be registered and it is to be nearest to your b’day. For example, if somebody is born in 1989, we will not accept certificates of say 1992. But many a times, India is such a big country, there are so many loopholes – people say he was born in a village or there is no hospital there or there are no records. So, they try to get certificates from the collector, which is a valid document otherwise. But, when it comes to sport, it really does not help. These TW3 tests are also inconsistent. They will give you something like, this kid is 12.6-14.3 years, which is a huge range. So, whether it is 12 or 14, it is in confusion. These can be challenged in court. People say that AITA doesn’t take decisions or does not do anything when they complain. It’s very easy for them to say it, but to make these cases stand legally is another challenge. So, we have to be very careful, because the kid is not at fault, the kid’s parents are at fault. The kid does not understand that his parents have fudged his age. So, it should not come hard on the kid. So, banning a kid- that’s why we take a lot of time deciding in these cases, because the kid’s life is at stake. Once a kid is branded as a cheater, mentally he gets disturbed. It’s not the way we need to put the spot. So obviously, the laws have to be strict and the laws have to be made by the government of the country, by the sports department. Once these laws are in place fabout age cheating and fudging, then I think things will move.
From our side at the AITA, we are taking strong measures. If you see, there are 3 or 4 kids now in the U-12 nationals who were checked, whose TW3 were done. We realized, there was not too much difference, so they were allowed to play and there were 2 players who were not allowed to play. So, age fraud will happen, it has been happening. It’s the parents who have to understand that cheating of age and winning – winning is momentary, like I said. Ultimately, you have to play men’s, you have to play women’s, you have to play the professional circuit, you have to be ranked no.1 in the world to make a mark. Being no.1 in U-12 or U-14 is momentary. You can represent the country, but it is burnout. Normally, in the cases that I have observed in the last 30 years that I have been in tennis, the children do not want to play the sport- they just leave the sport, because there is so much pressure on them. You may win a tournament, you may win a national title, but that’s not all- you lose in life. This is what the parents have to understand, you do not want your children to be losers in life. So, winning a tournament is a momentary joy, but overall, the kid loses in life, which not a lot of parents understand. This is what we should make them understand. Like I said, the kid should punch a higher opponent, rather than punching a lower opponent. So that is why I feel a 14-year-old should be playing U18, a 16-year-old should be making his mark in men’s if you want to really do something. Many of the parents now, at least in Maharashtra have understood and they are doing the same. There are a lot of 13-year-olds who play to U18, there are 16-year-olds who are playing the men’s tournament. It’s going to take some time, but I think things will change. It is a combined effort, more education is needed for parents. The coaches should be more involved in telling the parents. Here, the coaches also maybe have some part of it- they want to have that momentary winner with them, so they get many more children. But, many of the coaches now, because of the courses that they are doing, they understand the importance of not fudging the ages. The cases are coming down, surely. Now, you can count them on your fingers, they are not blatant or rampant.
When small kids start beating bigger kids, people will understand that they have to play bigger events. Because it is not the fault of the kid, MSLTA or AITA don’t take strict action. Parents want to say ban the kid but banning the kid is not the option. Tennis is one part of it, they have to grow in life. We don’t want them to be under immense pressure or the brand of age fraud, which is stuck on him forever. We as administrators are answerable. Even in the court of law, there are appeals. If you even do murder, you get 6 or 7 appeals. Because, somebody said he is a cheater, we cannot just take the kid out. There are benchmarks, if they don’t fit into the benchmarks, they will not be allowed to play. As I said, it is not the kid’s fault. These things will only happen through education to parents, communication with parents which I think all of us are doing.
Q) Two new $25k events now show up in the ITF Women’s Calendar for MAY. Any detail on these two new events?
Sunder Iyer: It’s a great job. Mr.Suman Kapur, who is our joint secretary has managed to get Jhajjar on the international lens now, which is a great thing. I just heard Jhajjar is a beautiful facility, it is a resort. So it’s kind of like Sharm-El-Sheikh of Egypt- that is the way they have built that. So probably, we can look at Jhajjar becoming the Sharm-El-Sheikh of Indian tennis. It is a clay court. I think we do not have too many clay courts in India. I think it is a good thing that is now happening. I think many more states will also join the bandwagon very soon, once the COVID situation and the government regulations are cleared in their states. I think this year in India, we should be able to have about 10-12 $15k events for men, about another 10-12 events for women. It’s a great thing to have $25k events as well. I think we will try to see how we can do some more challengers, increase the number of challengers, so the ecosystem is complete.
Q) You have taken on the role of Joint Secretary of AITA late last year. How has the role in the new committee been so far and any programs or new projects that are in the works?
Sunder Iyer: India is a large country and you know there are people who have been in tennis for the last 20-25 years who are a part [of it]. There is so much to learn from them. I’m one of the youngest to join the team. There has been a lot of interactions, there has been a lot of thought exchanges. Though there might be older people, [their] experience has been invaluable towards what we are doing. It’s a great team. We have Mr. Anil Khanna at the helm as the vice-president, we have a new president who is very proactive- Mr. Anil Jain’s daughter used to play tennis, so he understands a lot of tennis. He has been a parent whose kid travelled. So, we have people who understand, play tennis. So these are the visible changes that you see. It’s great being a part of the team.
Q) Can you talk to us about NTC (National Tennis Center) program that is kick-starting next month?
Sunder Iyer: It’s already on. Zeeshan Ali is on board. He is already been working with the AITA. It’s a totally different team which is handling the NTC. We have Mr. Rohit Rajpal, our treasurer and the captain of the Davis Cup team, who is hands-on at that program. So basically, I’m not the authority to speak about the NTC, but the way the things are going, the way the things are moving, we already have 3 or 4 high performance camps and it helped. Players like Akansha Nitture won the tournament, she was given a wildcard. I think this is the way forward- testing players, giving them opportunities. We have Vaishnavi from Maharashtra. I can say from Maharashtra, we have the two Maruri sisters. Atleast we have been able to identify the next blob of players, whether it is men’s or women’s. So the idea is basically to know who are the best kids in India, to get them together periodically. I think it’s a good start and it involves a lot of time and money. Obviously, we are speaking to the government, we are speaking to the sponsors. But in the meanwhile, the job is good. Zeeshan is looking at the kids, he is travelling for tournaments, he is seeing players. He is going to be there for the national. So at least the scouting which was never done before is happening, which is a great step.
Q) NTC has plans to have 20 boys and 20 girls in the programme. Is there any update on the player shortlist?
Sunder Iyer: Obviously, they will look at national champions, they look at the rankings. There is totally a different identification process. I am not authorized to speak on it much, since I’m not involved. My role is totally different and I try to look more at my own MSLTA team. So, there are people who are doing it. There have ideas that got started. We are giving them inputs, we are trying to see a lot of technology that might be used. There have been talks and I have been talking to Zeeshan and Rohan to see how we can use technology, data analysis.
Q) The report also states that the tournaments in India and abroad will be funded by AITA. This is a revolutionary initiative. Can you talk to us about the overall financial planning that is going into this?
Sunder Iyer: Right now, even in these tournaments, there is support of the government and AITA for these $25k & $15k tournaments. That is one of the reasons why all the states are doing it . I think it’s a great effort from AITA. They are trying to get funding from the government. If there is no funding from the government, AITA itself is trying to give monetary support to the tournaments. I think this is the way forward. For nationals, we are trying to get government funding and support, which has never happened before. As a state association, we are very happy that we are getting a part from them. And the future is that we are going to try and see that good players will get funding. But this is a policy matter, so I cannot come in too much, because these are policies that we need to continue.
Q) Coach Zeeshan Ali said in January- “We are in the process of tying up with academies in Europe for this NTC project.” Any updates here in terms of the tie-ups with foreign academies?
Sunder Iyer: I think Zeeshan will be able to talk to you, he has spoken to a few coaches. Though the idea is when our players are going abroad, they would have a base with these academies. So the idea is, if you are playing tournaments in Europe, playing challengers or ITFs, you need a base, because when you win or when you lose you have to come back somewhere. Right now, players are moving from one week to the other. The whole idea that Zeeshan, Rohit and Anil Khanna had, is to create a base in Europe, where when the players lose also- they can come back and train for a few days and then move, because in Europe, things are closer. You can drive in 5 hours to different countries. That is the idea of having these bases.
Q) Thoughts about the matches?
Sunder Iyer: I had tweeted yesterday as sad. Sad is not for our players losing, but sad for missing an opportunity. For a $25k tournament winner, apart from the money gets 50 points, the runner-up gets 30 points, the semifinalist 18 points, the quarterfinalist gets about 8 points. So, when you win a $15k tournament, the winner gets 10 points. So, here in this tournament, if you reach the quarters is equal to winning a $10k event. The players have to understand that this is their home country, home conditions and they have to give their best. Obviously, they give their best, but they have to do better because they have to challenge themselves. The point is that the players have the opportunity. They should have done better. Lack of experience. But somewhere along the line, we have to take advantage of these [tournaments]. If we are going to put so many tournaments together, if we are going to take this huge effort- I have done so many international tournaments, but I can tell you, this was one of the toughest tournaments to organize. Because, in COVID situation we have to understand so many different things – police permission, we had to get permission from our Municipal Corporation, we have to put up with the COVID guidelines. Why we did it- so the Indians will benefit, the Indians will do well. Why Lucknow did it, they felt the Indians will do well. Why Indore did it- they felt the same thing. So we are all for Indian tennis, we are all trying to see that our players get the maximum points. So when they don’t do it, it hurts. That’s why you feel sad. 50 points will make your rank jump by 150 places. Even Rutuja (Bhosale), reaching the quarterfinals and Zeel, they have moved up. Zeel Desai has become the new no.4 player in the country. Rutuja ranking is going to be 350. It is going to help them, because it is the starting of the year, you go into 350, you get to play bigger tournaments in the year. This is the purpose. Somewhere it hurts. Anyways, I’m sure that they also understand and they will do better in the next month.