It was a Chak de! India-style scene-stealer in the annals of Indian tennis, except that it was for real. On 5 January, in front of 5,000 fans at the SDAT Stadium, Chennai, in a gripping match beamed to a television audience of more than 250 million households worldwide, world No. 2 Rafael Nadal of Spain won the semi-final of the Chennai Open tournament against compatriot Carlos Moya. The match lasted almost four hours, as all three sets went into tie-breakers.
The following day, there was an unexpected anti-climax: Russian Mikhail Youzhny, ranked 19, demolished an exhausted Nadal in just 58 minutes of two straight sets to win the $436,000 or Rs1.71 crore, ATP Chennai Open title. Tennis buff, Arunachalam Vellayan, vice-chairman of the Murugappa Group, echoes what many in the audience felt: “The best man on that day won. However, Chennai’s tennis-loving public will remember the semi-final more than the final because it provided a four-hour experience of tennis, the quality of which has never been seen before.”
All this may never have been, but for the fact that Vellayan and childhood buddy Vijay Amritraj, international tennis star and chairman of the Chennai Open, had learnt long back that winning is indeed about enduring. Today, for the duo that was instrumental in creating the Chennai Open, there’s much to smile about, but it wasn’t always so.
Perfect partners: Vellayan with Vijay Amritraj.
The IMG-owned and operated ATP tournament begun in 1997 in Chennai as the Gold Flake Open, then morphed into the Tata Open in 2002, the year when the city’s own Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi won their fourth doubles’ title against the Czechs. But in 2004, at the closing dinner after the finals, there was both shock and fear: the Tatas, the sole sponsor of the event, announced they were pulling out, compelling the tournament to move from Chennai to perhaps Thailand.
N. Kumar, vice-chairman of the Sanmar? Group, a?tennis enthusiast and a player himself, remembers the moment: “In Chennai, we are a close-knit group of tennis-loving people for whom the game is about camaraderie. Velly wasn’t even on the committee, but he rallied us together at the dinner. His biggest contribution to tennis is that the Chennai Open continues here.”
So, even as others struggled to digest the news, Vellayan caught hold of school-friend Amritraj, and the two mapped out a turnaround strategy. Amritraj made a quick call to his contacts in the Tamil Nadu government, getting on-the-spot confirmation that it would match contributions made by business houses and would also provide the tennis stadium. The following day, Vellayan cobbled together a consortium of companies, including his own, to share the sponsorship. M.P. Shankar, a vice-president of the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA), a key organizing body, adds: “Vellayan came up with the name ‘Chennai Open’ patterned after Wimbledon. Today, the Chennai Open is a brand name on the tennis circuit; this year, four players from the Top 20 of the ATP world ranking took part and season tickets were sold out.”
For the key members of the 106-year-old, $2 billion Murugappa Group, a conglomerate of professionally managed companies in diverse sectors such as engineering, finance, bicycles, fertilizers, sugar and sanitaryware, tennis, like business, is a family passion. Vellayan’s uncle and chairman of the group, M. Alagappan, a vice-president of TNTA, still plays a daily game of tennis at the Madras Club; a dozen or so members of the clan play the game, including Vellayan’s two sons Arun and Narayan.
It was in his formative years at Don Bosco School, Chennai, that Vellayan grew to love tennis; he would play with Vijay Amritraj, who was in the same class with him till class VII, and with Anand Amritraj, a year senior. At Doon School, Vellayan got to play for the school; later, for Delhi University and for Warwick University, UK.
Tennis is a way of bonding at all levels—the Murugappa family will play doubles at the club with visiting business collaborators, for “Tennis is our golf!” says Vellayan. And at holiday get-togethers at their beach house in Fisherman’s Cove, 15 clan members and three generations draw lots and make up their teams. Then they play matches morning and evening on the lit-up court, interspersed with beers, dosas and Chettinad mutton curry. Here, says Vellayan, “I play for fun.”
But as head of strategy at the Murugappa Group, Vellayan plays to win. In the last couple of decades, the group has taken over 14 sick firms and turned them around successfully. Vellayan’s last big win was in the group’s fertilizer business, which this year, will be No. 1 in the region. This was accomplished by a strategy “to grow locally and tie -up internationally, as raw materials for this game come from overseas.” Says Vellayan: “We achieve turnarounds through our management capabilities, not by throwing money.”
Rather?like the?public-private-partnership that he and Amritraj engineered for tennis, is the collaboration fostered between the highly regulated government fertilizer firm, Gujarat State Fertilizers and Chemicals Ltd (GSFC), Murugappa’s Coromandel Fertilisers Ltd (CFL) and a Tunisian government firm. A $400 million joint venture spawned in 2006 allows them to equitably share the phosphoric acid production.
Managing director (MD) of GSFC, P.K. Tarneja, who enjoys sweating it out on the tennis court, says Vellayan skillfully leverages their synergy of interests. P.S. Gahlaut, MD, Indian Potash Ltd,? on? whose ?board Vellayan sits, adds: “He’s a matchless fighter for industry with our foreign suppliers, keeping the country’s interests at heart.”
Both Amritraj and Vellayan have come a long way since their Don Bosco days. Vellayan says that through tennis, he’s learnt how to better his business practice, always respecting the rules of the game. For Amritraj, “Tennis is my education. It’s led me to business around the world. It’s a common language across cultures,” he says.
So, how good was Vellayan’s tennis? Amritraj laughs. “Not good enough. But I say, thank God, because it would have made my life miserable. Vellayan could’ve excelled at anything he chose to do.”
Name: A. Vellayan
Title: Vice-chairman and director, strategy, Murugappa Group
Education: The Doon School, Dehradun
BCom from Sriram College of Commerce, Delhi
Master’s in business management, the University of Warwick Business School, UK
Pursuits: Playing tennis, swimming, yoga and walking for a healthy life.
Claim to fame: Head strategist of the $2 billion Murugappa Group, he is the force behind creating national linkages for raw materials in the fertilizer business and de-risking the sugar business by developing an integrated model
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Personal Space runs every alternate Friday and looks at the pursuits beyond work of some of India’s corporate leaders. Write to Sangitaa Advani at email@example.com