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Ramkumar Ramanathan is currently Indian No.2. Photo: Shankar Mourya/Hindustan Times
Ramkumar Ramanathan is currently Indian No.2. Photo: Shankar Mourya/Hindustan Times

Advantage, Indian tennis?

Two tennis leagues, one driven by Mahesh Bhupathi, the other by Vijay Amritraj, will play themselves out between 17 November and 13 December

These days, Indian tennis occupies a sliding scale of national attention. The more news there is about the actual tennis, the faster it tends to slide off India’s collective consciousness. In 2011, there was a phase when India had a player in the top 100 of the men’s (Somdev Devvarman)​ and women’s singles (Sania Mirza)​at the same time (never happened before, etc., etc.) but nobody even sneezed.

Then there’s the other, off-court stuff. Now that stays on in the public gaze for far too long, and often keeps returning. Like Leander Paes vs Mahesh Bhupathi Episode XIX, Sania Mirza’s choice of husband/clothes, selection conspiracies, the simmering All India Tennis Association (Aita) power tussle between Delhi (Khanna Jr, son of the former Aita president) and Chennai (Chidambaram Jr, son of the former Union finance minister).

In 10 days, however, the sport in India, or make that Indian involvement in new tennis ventures,is going to be centre stage again.

Between 17 November and 13 December, two tennis “leagues" are going to play themselves out, one driven by Bhupathi, the other by Vijay Amritraj. The gentlemen insist these are not competing leagues or comeuppance contests.

First, the facts: Amritraj’s Champions Tennis League (CTL) kicks off first, from 17-26 November. It will be held across six Indian cities and will feature teams made up of four players: a Legend (in capital letters), two current pros, one man, one woman (ranked between 5 and 25 in the world) and one top-ranked Indian men’s player.

Bhupathi’s International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) will run from 28 November-13 December, and will be played between four competing Asian franchises, across four countries—the United Arab Emirates, India, Singapore and Philippines (Manila). The IPTL has 28 players skimmed off the very top of the ATP and WTA rankings, with Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna on the Indian Aces franchise, and yet more “Legends".

The concept of city league tennis is not new: World TeamTennis (WTT) in the US began in 1974, and has run continuously from 1981. The formats of the new leagues borrow from it. A match is five sets, with different combinations playing in each set. No deuce/advantage, bells, whistles, etc.

The IPTL says it was created “to fulfil the increasing demand for top-level tennis in Asia… the first city-based professional league in the world, played across four countries."

The CTL markets itself as having been “conceptualised to promote a passion for tennis… CTL holds the promise of taking tennis in India to new levels."

So no rivalry, then? Dream on. Amritraj and Bhupathi represent two generations of Indian tennis, but competitors never really fade away. They set aside their tennis rackets and put on suits. The leagues are two competing business models and tennis fans will decide which one they prefer. Amritraj is putting boots on the ground; the success of Bhupathi’s venture would make him India’s new millennium Mr Rolex across world tennis.

The IPTL got its big noise out first, saying that online tickets for its Delhi leg sold out in 20 minutes. Mirza-Bopanna’s teammate on the Indian Aces team happens to be that Roger Federer dude. That’s the blinding star value that the IPTL offers: “21 Grand Slam Champions and 14 current and former World Number Ones."

The CTL’s cache is a larger group of Indian players sharing team spots with international pros. Six of India’s top seven men’s singles players will play in the CTL (No.3 Yuki Bhambri has chosen to play in Japan), along with two Indian juniors (a boy and a girl) who will travel with every team. Amritraj is smoothly insistent that there is no “clash" between the leagues. “There is only one tennis league in India and that is CTL…. Ours is an India-centric endeavour." Ahem.

But what about that amorphous entity called Indian tennis and its response to these new market dynamics? In the past, it has been neither creative nor nimble in an expanding economic environment. From the outside, its priorities have appeared skewed. India has hosted an ATP big-ticket event for 18 years (now known as the Chennai Open) but has failed to strengthen and build its own calendar around it, by establishing and sustaining events that benefit Indian players.

For the last six years, Aita stopped conducting ATP Challengers, which are link/feeder events to accumulate ranking points and ascend the ladder to bigger Tour events. Many tennis insiders believe Challengers are far more important for a country’s tennis than a solitary, starry Tour event. They say India needs 10-12 Challengers a year to catch up with Asia, never mind the world.

This year, as if offering living proof of its errors over the past six years, Aita has held five Challengers. It has meant that on this week’s ATP rankings, four Indians are ranked between 139 (Devvarman) and 263 (Saketh Myneni), again a rarity for our tennis.

Ramesh Krishnan, he of the feather touch that stung as it floated, and the slow, slow serve that drove John McEnroe crazy, will be watching the leagues. They will “create excitement and awareness", he says, but looks at a far simpler big picture: “More Indian players in Grand Slams, more juniors playing in the junior Slams." The leagues will be larks, but let’s not get distracted.

A tennis-journalist friend offers a well-reasoned suggestion. Its starting point is the money sloshing around the new leagues. After all, Legends, world No.1s, Grand Slam champions and top 25 Pros don’t turn up anywhere without handsome appearance fees. So, for anyone wanting to use India as a platform in tennis, Aita could insist on an appearance fee of its own: funding for, at the very least, a $25,000 Challenger. In exchange for approvals, calendar slots, and the rest.

The timing of these leagues works perfectly with the big-picture stuff that must accompany them. There is optimism around the post-Bhupathi-Paes generation (glory, glory, no new blood feuds), the singles’ skills of 19-year-old Ramkumar Ramanathan (currently India No.2 behind Devvarman), and the doubles power of Myneni, twice Asian Games medallist. The optimism, however, is attached to the prospect of continued opportunity. Aita must keep its commitment to the Challengers, offer the women a better, more regular calendar, and juniors, a higher quality of competition.

Maybe then, that scale will actually give more weight, once again, to the tennis in Indian tennis.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo.

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