“Let’s go Rambo, let’s go,” echoed around the main show court of the Balewadi Tennis Stadium in Pune. The few hundred fans allowed in the stadium on the final day of the ATP 250 event were cheering on India’s newly forged title-winning doubles duo. Rohan Bopanna and Ramkumar Ramanathan, dubbed ‘RamBo’, had started the year by winning the Adelaide Open last month, and the Tata Open Maharashtra had turned out to be their homecoming party. Bopanna and Ramkumar edged out Australian duo Luke Saville and John-Patrick Smith 6-7 (10), 6-3, 10-6 in the final on Sunday, 6 February.
“Anytime you play a tournament at home, there is more pressure. When we were in Adelaide not many people were watching us. Here people expected us to do well, to win,” said Bopanna, who, along with the 27-year-old Ramkumar, had battled back from match points in the semi-final on Saturday to clinch the title. “The crowd made a lot of difference yesterday and today. It just helps—gives you that extra boost, that extra energy. Even when your legs are feeling tired the crowd gives you the energy to hit that serve. Winning in India is always special,” he said after the final.
This is the 41-year-old’s 20th year on the professional tennis tour, and he crisscrosses the world to ply his trade. It can get incredibly lonely on the road and the one week he does get to play in India is a rare treat. Ranked 35 in the world in doubles, Bopanna played 24 tournaments in 2021, none of which were in India. The ATP event in India was cancelled due to the pandemic last year and looked like it would suffer the same fate in 2022 as well.
“The story of the past six months was that India would not be able to host this event,” said Sunder Iyer, the honorary secretary of the Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association. “In early January, there was an ATP (men’s governing body Association of Tennis Professionals) board meeting, they said that if India was ready to host, they would give us a go ahead under certain conditions, including exemption for players from quarantine. We had only 26 days to prepare.”
The ATP event was first launched in India in 1996 in New Delhi before Chennai played host from 1997 to 2017. Even though a few more ATP and WTA were brought to India none of them lasted long enough. But the only surviving tour event in India that has been held in Pune since 2018, has required true Indian hustle to get back on its feet. “This is showcasing the fact that India is still doing big events in spite of all the challenges,” said Nandan Bal, former Davis Cup coach and chairman of the All India Tennis Association (AITA) selection committee. “The biggest challenge right now is to raise money.”
Over the years, the event has attracted some big names, including Rafael Nadal, Boris Becker, Pat Rafter and Marin Cilic. Three-time major winner Stan Wawrinka is the most successful player at the tournament, with four title wins. Significantly for the host country, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi won their first ever tour title as a team at the 1997 Chennai Open. Scheduled during the first week of the year, European players would often use it as an ideal stopover before flying Down Under for the Australian Open.
The tournament has lost some of its appeal for the players from abroad as it now takes place in the week right after the Australian Open, but it remains the crown jewel of the Indian tennis calendar. Unlike some of the showpiece international events India has hosted in the recent past, the ATP event is not a one-and-done thing. India has a rich history in tennis and has reached the Davis Cup finals thrice. In its own way, the tour event keeps Indian tennis on the international map.
India ran the risk of losing the tournament if it failed to hold it for two consecutive years. International Management Group (IMG) holds the license for the event, and have the right to take it anywhere in the world. To make sure India holds up its end of the bargain, the MSLTA decided to go ahead with the event—which needs an investment of almost ₹15 crore even before sponsors sign on the dotted line. “The important thing also was to keep it going. Not just for the players, but for the ecosystem,” added Iyer. “There were about 170-180 people working during this tournament, in various capacities. Whether they were in TV broadcast, staff, ball boys, linesmen/women. The economic turnover is about ₹10-12 crores. In the last two years, sporting activity has taken such a hit. Whenever a new covid wave comes, the first thing to stop is sport.”
More importantly, the tournament gives Indian players a bigger platform to perform. Currently, India doesn’t have a single player in the top 100, which means all of them compete primarily on the lower-rung events like the ATP Challengers or ITF Futures. The tour event is their doorway into top-tier tennis. At this year’s Pune Open, four Indian players featured in the singles draw, five all-Indian teams featured in doubles and two players were given wildcards in the singles qualifying event. “It is the biggest event for players in the country and nobody wants to miss it,” said one of India’s best singles players, Yuki Bhambri. “Everyone’s there, literally every single player is there!” He adds that the tournament is important to help grow the game in India. “It is not about always watching Federers and Nadals on TV. It is an eye opener for a lot of parents as well, to see a lot of Indian players performing, to know it’s possible to have a career in tennis.” It is one of the steps from the foot of the ladder to the very top.
But one argument against the tour has been that though Indian players have had this platform for some time now, not many have been able to take advantage of it. In its 26-year history, India has been represented only once in the singles final –Somdev Devvarman in 2009. Apart from Bhambri, none of the Indian players made it to the second round of singles in 2022. “This one tournament can give them the exposure but not the experience,” said Iyer. According to Bhambri, who has broken into the top 100 in singles twice, any event in the country, in home conditions, in front of home crowds, is a shot in the arm for the Indian players. Especially coming after a testing couple of years, when the players struggled to stay afloat due to the travel restrictions during the pandemic. “We are such a small bunch of people playing tennis in the country,” says the 29-year-old. “There are a billion people in India but only a couple of hundred playing tennis. I respect every Indian that’s trying to compete, whether it is Futures or Challengers or ATP level. Everyone is doing this on their own; without any support.”
Bhambri, returning from a knee surgery, won his first main draw tour match since 2018 by beating Jozef Kovalik 6-7, 6-2, 7-5. For winning that one round, he earned 20 ranking points and $9,235 (almost ₹6.9 lakh) in prize money. Similarly, doubles pair of Vishnu Vardhan and N Sriram Balaji who got into the doubles draw as alternates—already a difficult proposition outside the country—rode their luck to the semi-finals, earning 90 ranking points and prize money of $7,560 (almost ₹5.6 lakh) as a team.
For his efforts in singles and doubles in Pune, Ramkumar pocketed $13,220 (about ₹9.88 lakh). In an expensive sport like tennis, these can be career-saving contributions. Though the ATP event started in troubled waters, Ramkumar helped end the Indian campaign on a high. He struck a service winner on match point to win his maiden title at home. Fittingly, he also broke through into the top-100 in doubles for the very first time.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.