The Tata Open Maharashtra, South Asia’s lone ATP event, is celebrating its fifth edition this year. The tournament has not had a straightforward journey, navigating through several storms, the biggest being one being the Covid-19 pandemic. And one of the chief navigators who helped the ship dodge these storms has been its Tournament Director Mr. Prashant Sutar, who’s also the Chairman of the Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association (MSLTA).
Mr. Sutar talks to us about the 2023 edition of the tournament, what fans can look forward to, wildcards, his role with the MSLTA, and much more –
Q) This is the fifth edition of Tata Open Maharashtra, South Asia’s only ATP 250 event. What can the public expect from this special edition? What is your message for Pune’s fans before the start of the biggest tennis festival in India?
PS – We are all excited for the fifth edition of our very own Tata Open Maharashtra. As you all know, Pune is the home of tennis in India. Everyone is really looking forward to this event. We have a tremendous player field. Every year we have a lot of Indians and top foreign players playing this tournament. This time we have 6 Top 50 players playing. I believe it should be fun for the tennis loving crowd of Pune.
Pune has been fantastic over the last 4 years. The event’s going to be open for public for this year. Last year unfortunately we were not able to invite spectators because of covid related restrictions. But that’s not the case this year. It’s going to be a great atmosphere.
Q) The tournament is back to its original slot in the first week of the year again. How is this beneficial for the players?
PS – Traditionally the tournament was before the Aussie Open, which used to be a great opportunity for players to compete in similar court and weather conditions. That has always been the case right from the Chennai (Open) days. We had to move it to after the Aussie Open just once.
But in this slot, it definitely helps players coming from Europe to come to Pune and then go to Australia to start the year. I think the result is here for everyone to see. We have one of the best player fields in the last five years.
Q) 17 top-100 players in the main draw and also a strong field for the qualifying. Thoughts on this? And how will this attract more fans?
PS – If you see the player field, many of the players are returning back to Pune. If you look at Marin Cilic, it’s his 3rd time in Pune. That says a lot about how liked Pune is as a destination amongst the players. I think what makes a big difference is that the Pune crowd supports these players as if they’re home players. Having 5 Top 50 players is definitely going to be a big plus. We also have the legendary Rohan Bopanna playing again. He’s won many editions across Pune and Chennai.
So all in all, it’s going to be a really exciting edition for everyone involved – the players, the crowd, the management, and all other stakeholders.
Q) We have seen in the past that players who do well here can take the momentum to the Australian Open. Your thoughts on this?
PS – If you look at the past, players who have done well in Pune and even in Chennai, have eventually done well at the Australian Open as well. Because if you have a good start to the year, the momentum is automatically carried forward. And since we have great players playing here, you have to win after competing against really good players. So it does help. Don’t be surprised if the winner of the Pune Open does a great job at the Aussie Open in a few weeks from now.
Q) We have seen similar faces getting wildcards in the past. Will there be any change this year?
PS – Traditionally in the last decade or so, we have had only a few names in the top Indians list. I think we have to think about the next gen also. This year we will also consider the next gen as well. Obviously, the Indian players who are playing on the circuit consistently will also be considered on a positive note. But it’s also time to think about the next gen players.
Q) What are your views on the Indian competition this time in both singles and doubles? We’ve had a great year in doubles with 8 or 9 players in the Top 150
PS – As you rightly said, we have (Rohan) Bopanna playing with his partner. Ramkumar (Ramanathan) has done phenomenally well in doubles recently. Then we have the recent entrants in the Top 100, Yuki & Saki (Yuki Bhambri & Saketh Myneni), who’ve won six Challengers in a row. Doubles is going to be good for Indians. We also have one or two wildcards that might be given to Indians most likely. I am happy with the doubles situation.
At the same time, in the singles the top Indian is ranked around 350. That’s a little unfortunate and we have to look into this. It’s something for the AITA and all the state associations to look into jointly to figure what’s wrong in the Men’s Singles side of things. We will address this issue.
Q) You have been actively contributing to the tennis in Maharashtra with your association with the state body. You are now the Chairman of MSLTA. Please share your future development plans in this role and how Government has been supporting the sports.
PS – As you may know, I have been associated with the MSLTA since my childhood. I was playing Tennis and then I was a coach at MSLTA. MSLTA has been an important part of my journey. MSLTA is one of the most active associations amongst all the states, actively conducting tournaments in the last 10-15 years across Juniors, ITF, Challengers, etc. There are many players playing in all of Maharashtra’s districts. Now we just have to take this legacy to the next level. Of course, we have a great team that includes Mr. Sunder Iyer, Mr. Bharat Oza, and my other colleagues who are doing a great job across the state.
In my opinion, why the top Indian is ranked 350 in the ATP Rankings is because we don’t have mass players coming up in the Juniors. Tennis is being played only in the major cities right now. I personally feel that can be one of the reasons. There can be many other reasons also. But I feel if we can tap into the smaller cities and districts and introduce the sport there, in 10 or 20 years we will see many players in the Top 100 or 200. We are planning to have at least 4 courts in all the districts, and eventually more courts at the taluka level. This is MSLTA’s plan, along with having the coaches support tennis activities across the state.
We have also have an ATP Challenger coming up in Pune in February which will be called the Pune Metropolitan Region (PMR) Open. Then we have one Challenger coming up in Nagpur later in the year. All these things will end up helping Indian Tennis in the long run.