The Tennis Premier League is all set for a blockbuster fifth season. It will be held in Pune’s Shree Shiv Chatrapati Shivaji Stadium between 12th and 17th December 2023. A total of eight city-based franchise teams will feature the top ranked Indian players and International players like Ernests Gulbis, Arina Rodionova, Perry Corrin, Ellen Perez, Lukas Rosol, Maria Timofeeva and many more. Each franchise-based team has a Bollywood star as an ambassador or owner of the team. The eight participating teams are: Gujarat Panthers, Pune Jaguars, Punjab Tigers, Hyderabad Strikers, Mumbai Leon Army, Delhi Binny’s Brigade, Bengal Wizards and Bengaluru SG Mavericks. 

Indian Tennis Daily got in touch with tournament founders: Kunal Thakkur and Mrunal Jain who detailed the journey of TPL from being a small-scale event to making it to Forbes India list of one of the biggest sporting leagues. They also shed light on the the future prospects of the event and its unique scoring format that will grip the viewers.

Balraj Shukla (ITD): How was the idea of the TPL conceived?

Kunal Thakkur (KT): So, my background is, I am a tennis player. I have played tennis for most of my life. I went to Spain to train somewhere around 1995. Obviously, there was no internet, no Instagram, nothing. Playing in Spain made me realize we were going wrong (in terms of playing tennis). We didn’t do fitness.

Then there was a life changing moment. There was a player named Dinara Safina, the younger sister of Marat Safin. She was a 14-year-old girl. I was 18-years-old. She beat me 6-0. When I came back to India, I realized that at an international level the competition was intense. I felt my prospects of making it big were slim. Hence I decided to start my own academy – Kunal Thakur Tennis and Fitness Academy (KTTFA). I was one of the first ones in Mumbai, who started a regime of a proper warm-up and cool-down session in tennis. The focus was on fitness. So, from there, I started my journey of coaching.

Today I have four academies in Mumbai in very prestigious clubs. The initial 5-6 years were very promising. Then, in 2017-18, there was a sudden drop in Indian tennis. One of the reasons was that our star players like Mahesh Bhupathi, Leander Paes, Sania Mirza started fading away from the scene. So the number of kids who picked up tennis watching them also declined in number.

Then around that time came the Pro Badminton League and Pro Kabaddi League. These two leagues had made tennis nearly extinct in Mumbai. The number of kids picking up a badminton racquet had exponentially risen. The shift from tennis to badminton was very evident.

So, we (me and Mrunal Jain) realized everything is happening because of the league format.

ITD: Since how long have you known Mrunal Jain?

KT: So I was friends with Mrunal since 2010. We used to do some acting together. We have done two shows together – Mahabharat and Bandini. I played Balram, he was Krishna. In Bandini also played brothers. So, the best person to get for this venture was Mrunal. Soon we announced that we will be doing the league on tennis.

ITD: When did you announce this?

KT: It was in June 2018. By that time we had good connections in the television world. We thought we will get TV celebrities to be the face of each team. Our young tennis players from Bombay got into the league and played. Luckily for that inaugural edition we got Aishwarya Rai Bachchan on board. She was gracious enough to inaugurate the league in 2018.

ITD: How did you manage to rope in a diva like her for the league’s opening?

KT: Luckily, there was a student in our academy who knew Aishwarya Rai personally. Our pitch to Aishwarya Rai was very simple. We said every industrialist and businessman is promoting cricket. We need support in tennis. And we are really thankful to her that when the league was just at the national stage, she was the first one with Leander Paes who came forward. And I think she had a very big hand in taking the league to the next level because she had come only to promote the sport. There were no commercials involved. Her coming changed the scenario. You won’t believe, if you watch the videos of the inauguration of TPL Season 1, there were around 1800-2000 people who had come in a celebration club, only because Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Leander Paes were there. So, that was an eye-opener. If you want to bring the crowd, you have to involve Bollywood. 2018 went well. Our TV actors and friends supported us.

ITD: How and why did the other Bollywood celebrities started showing their interest then?

KT: So after Aishwarya Rai it was Sonali Bendre who got on board. Because even her kids play tennis. Leander was always there, his daughter plays tennis. And then as the league grew Rakul Preet also became one of the ambassadors. Initially they were there only for the promotion of this league. It is now that some of them have their equities in the teams. 

ITD: What was the idea behind the 20-point format?

KT: We changed the format of the league because we had seen what a huge success the Indian Premier League was. We understood that a small format works. We thought that a normal viewer, a mass audience, who doesn’t or don’t follow tennis, won’t understand the 15, 30, 40, advantage style straight away. So, they switch off the TV. The audience doesn’t come to the stadium. When I used to play in the National League, my parents and the opponent’s parents used to sit. And apart from that, no one was interested in seeing how long the match is.

Now when the points system enters the fray a viewer is constantly thinking who will win this match. So in Season 1 we tested this format, we understood the importance of Bollywood and it was a success.

Staying on the topic of the 20-point format. Can you dissect this format for first time viewers and the format of the TPL in general?

Sure. So lets say for example there are two teams – Mumbai and Delhi. In every match, there are four games. One is men’s singles, one is women’s singles, one is mixed doubles, one is men’s doubles. 

ITD: Women’s doubles?

KT: For now there is no women’s doubles simply because of the greater proportion of men’s doubles players that we have in our country.

ITD: Okay go on…

KT: So, there are four games. Every game is of 20 points. 20 points into 4. So, a match between Mumbai and Delhi will be worth 80 points. Every team will play 5 matches (400 points) at the league stage. After the league stage the top four teams who have accumulated the maximum points proceed to the knockout stages (semi-finals and finals).

ITD: What happens if a game’s score is tied at 10-10?

KT: The onus is on the match and 80 points. We are giving preference to points, not individual games. So the final decision is always based on which team had won more points. That’s why we say every point matters.

ITD: Now all this time the TPL is taking shape. But a couple of years before its inception, we had the IPTL (International Premier Tennis League). Did you get any ideas from that?

KT: In life, everything is taught to us. IPTL, which was closed after a few seasons, taught us that we should not take big steps. In India, tennis is still growing. Let’s be honest, you cannot create an IPL in tennis. Because cricket is a religion. So, you have to take small steps in tennis. We had learned this from the Champions Tennis League (CTL) as well. We also learned that we have to take care of the players monetarily. Based on this what we do is 15 days before the league starts, we keep the amount of all the players with us and thus player security is one of the first things that we ensure.

Now if you see, from 2018, we have grown gradually. People said to us in 2019 and 2020 that now grow this league, rope in Federer, Nadal, etc. But we said no its not the right time right now. Of course, it is one our dreams and aspirations to get them into TPL in some way or the other. Eventually, yes, we want to grow as big as IPL.

ITD: How do you feel the reverberations of TPL have been?

KT: You see, though a lot of people think its become big, is commercially viable, and certainly we have grown a lot; but we still seek support from the passionate fans, the players and corporates. Since Indian Tennis Daily is followed by all tennis players, we hope it acts as a medium for us to grow and grow and grow.

I will also say that TPL has benefited a lot of our top players like Ankita Raina, Rutuja Bhosale, Arjun Kadhe, Sumit Nagal; and has been instrumental in procuring sponsorship deals for them. So, in return, we just want them to support, be involved and come forward with whatever they can.

ITD: What are the biggest hurdles in starting a league at such a grand stage?

KT: So, I would say there are three major issues that come up. First is, of course, the sponsorship. Mrunal would be a better person to explain to you about this. Second issue is viewership. We still struggle to get that easy viewership that cricket picks up instantaneously. Third is getting a crowd to fill the stadium. Sure, compared to other leagues we are doing pretty good in filling up 60-70% of the stadium. But we still have a dream to get a packed house.

Mrunal Jain (MJ): Look for a sponsor, cricket has always been the favourite hotspot. Because over there, even if you don’t get a lot of deliverables or something from the players, there is a bigger viewership which you get.

Now relatively, what the Tennis Premier League, does is that we might not match up to the numbers, but we make sure that there is a lot of content pre-post and after the season which they can use with the players. There is a lot of interaction with which we give them back.

So, ideally, the selling point in tennis has to be very hard-hitting because it’s against the numbers which we fight for. So, when we approach them, we go in with at least 5-6 times higher deliverables. Out of 100, there are around 5 or 6 which show interest in those deliverables. That’s a bigger difficulty which we face in Tennis Premier League.

But I think with the passing seasons, the confidence of the sponsors kept building up. Because they saw the overall property going, they saw the valuable content which was creating for them also. And there was a bit of ROI in content, not on the viewership. So, I think that’s what has changed the game in Tennis Premier League. There have been brands who have been there with us from Season 1. And there have been brands who have kept adding on and continuing from Season 1. So, I think for any league, the biggest success is when you see a lot of sponsors partnering with them.

ITD: Can you tell us something about the TPL app?

MJ: The app is getting launched at a very perfect time. TPL is a stage where the only motto is “Fly after five (the fifth season)”. This app is going to bring the whole tennis community together and going to increase the overall viewership, awareness about TPL as a whole, year-round activities. The TPL as a league is organized for a certain period. But how does it keep the recall value? So the TPL app, is going to take care of this. And that will in turn add value to the sponsors, team owners and players. So in summary, TPL is a 360 degree activation. The features of the app includes finding a partner, coach or academies, and also hit with pro players.

ITD: And is there anything new in terms of gameplay that we can expect or in Season 5? Any new feature compared to the first 4 seasons?

KT: No, actually the format is working really well. I think there is no scope to improve there. The audiences have really enjoyed the format. The scoring has been really nice. The teams are almost always balanced.

ITD: And as we speak, right behind us the TPL Gujarat Open is going on. How are these tournaments linked with the TPL?

KT: Primarily, this tournament is a TPL Gujarat Open. It is a tournament which is hosted on the TPL app. So, we are coming up with this app which is going to be the TPL app and we are going to affiliate with 100 academies all over India. And we are going to conduct regular tournaments in these academies. The idea is that whatever difficulties players are facing in terms of tournaments, we want to organize more and more tournaments.

A juniors match going on at the 2023 TPL Gujarat Open

Are there any more tournaments in the pipeline?

KT: So right now in October we have on the 7th and 8th in Gujarat, 15th in Hyderabad, 21st and 22nd in Mumbai, 28th and 29th in Delhi and then in November we have in Pune. So, next year hopefully we will be travelling to more cities in India and promoting TPL and organizing more tournaments for the junior kids. And then the winners are getting a chance to come to Pune (to the TPL) and be in the dugout with the top players and learn so much from them.

The TPL is currently in the process of ensuring that by merging with state tennis associations, players can benefit by getting ranking points.

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