How WTA Chennai Open can create a trickle-down effect for women's tennis at the grassroots
The last time an Indian woman won a WTA event on home soil was when a 19-year-old teenager Sania Mirza won the title at Hyderabad in 2005. With the return of the WTA event to Chennai, can the trickle-down effect be revived at the grassroots level?
The WTA (Women's Tennis Association) tournament returned to India with the Chennai Open 2022 after a break of 13 long years.
This article gathers insights from Ankita Raina (Olympian & WTA tennis player) and Cesar Morales (ATP & WTA Coach) on challenges faced by tennis players during the Covid-19 pandemic and how global events like WTA Chennai Open can have a profound impact on Indian tennis at the grassroots level.
Sania, Serena, and WTA events in India
Ask any fan in India about the tennis golden age, and the period between 1999 to 2008 quickly flashes into everyone's mind. Whether it's Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi claiming the world no.1 spot in men's doubles or the breakthrough of Sania Mirza, India's most successful tennis player to date.
While the men's tennis events have had a continuous presence in India since the mid-90s, the story has been vastly different for the women's tour. When Sania won her singles title at Hyderabad in 2005, it was evident that a star had arrived. She reached the Top-30 in singles and became world no.1 in doubles along with her Swiss partner Martina Hingis.
Other than witnessing such good talent come through, the global tennis events held in India played an important role too. Between 2006 and 2008, the city of Bengaluru hosted three successive WTA events and witnessed the legendary Serena Williams win one of them. The cumulative effect of such events held in developing countries like India has a deep impact on the next generation of players emerging at the grassroots level.
It is no surprise that a young Ankita Raina, who emerged as the next successful player, partnered with Sania Mirza at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
So, how can the baton be continuously passed on to create a robust talent pipeline for Indian women's tennis?
In and out of the Covid-19 pandemic
The impact of the pandemic was unprecedented across the societal spectrum, and even more so with professions that required weekly travel across the globe.
"With few tournaments held in India, I had to travel outside for Challenger tournaments, even during the Covid-19 pandemic. When the circuit resumed in August (2020), there were times I did not know when I would return home due to the travel restrictions and quarantine protocols in different countries," said Ankita, a medallist at the 2018 Asian Games.
For players ranked higher before the pandemic hit, the pain points revolved around uncertainty and inconvenience at a daily level. For lower-ranked players, it was a decision dilemma regarding their livelihood.
At the time, coach Cesar Morales had taken up a new assignment as the Technical Director at the Padukone-Dravid Centre of Sporting Excellence in Bengaluru to groom emerging tennis players.
Cesar said, "In my 25 years of tennis, I had not witnessed anything like the Covid-19 pandemic. When rankings were frozen for a year, I observed some juniors (ITF) move on to college since they did not know if they would ever go professional in tennis. On the other hand, players in their mid-20s who were ranked between 800 and 1000 made up their minds to quit the sport since they could not sustain a livelihood through tennis during the pandemic. Overall, the total number of tennis players in the circuit shrunk due to Covid-19."
And as normalcy began to get restored in 2022, the tennis circuit chugged along again. And more importantly, India won the bid to host the WTA Chennai Open thanks to the leadership of former tennis legend Vijay Amritraj, currently the President of the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association.
Significance of global sporting events held in India
Be it any sport, hosting an international event in the country has a ripple effect across the ecosystem, even more so for tennis, which is dominated by Europeans to a large extent.
"Any time a sports event is hosted by India, it naturally inspires the local players to perform better and impacts the whole sports ecosystem in a big way. Along with the WTA 250 series event, we also need tournaments at multiple levels below (such as ITF 25K, 60K) since that allows Indian players to improve their ranking points without traveling abroad. Also, the player skillset is not vastly different between ITF Challengers and WTA 250; it is more about competing against a diverse set of opponents that lead to the improvement of one's game," stated Ankita.
The trickle-down effect is not only limited to the participation of the players. The sports federations can utilise the event as a platform to energise the tennis ecosystem.
"The awareness created by sporting events has a big impact on host nations. Players, administrators, sponsors and fans evolve if tournaments are a regular feature on the tennis calendar. For developing nations like India, where the primary sport isn't tennis, it becomes all the more important for local tournaments to be held regularly," said Cesar, whose student Sahaja Yamalapalli was shortlisted to receive a potential wildcard for the Chennai Open tournament.
"The key difference between the ITF Challenger circuit and WTA is the positive mindset of play for emerging athletes. A player could get by playing defensive in the Challenger circuit; however, to compete and win against higher-ranked players at the WTA needs positive intent," he added.
While domestic tournaments include the local talent pool, an international contest is a learning opportunity for state-level tennis federations to understand the performance gap between Indian players and their overseas opponents.
Long-term athlete development
While tournaments play a crucial factor in the athlete's development, the gradual climb up the ladder at the grassroots level determines sustainable success.
"Having more ITF tournaments in India would create the biggest impact; moving up the rankings is critical for upcoming players, rather than the prize money. If ITF (25K or 60K) events are held throughout the year, our players can push their rankings to reach the Top-300 of the world. The next building block would be WTA 250 series and beyond. Given that the tennis tour is expensive, it would be a cost-effective strategy to gain experience and confidence, competing at home events before going overseas." remarked Ankita.
From a coach's standpoint, it is about the development and alignment of all aspects of the athlete right from the early training stages.
"The improvement in tennis infrastructure has come a long way in India. The next stage of the journey is to adopt the long-term athlete development model. All aspects, namely, physical, mental, technical, and tactical, must be systematically built, keeping the demands of the tennis circuit in mind. And in a large country like India, the probability of identifying good talent is extremely high. Additionally, if organizations can support athletes via scholarships, that will provide opportunities for talent across the nation," said Cesar, drawing from his one-year stint in India.
At different times in India's sporting history, it seemed impossible for an athlete to break into the global stage. Yet, we were always in for a pleasant surprise, like how Sania Mirza brought laurels to the nation for almost two decades.
With improvements in infrastructure, training, and international events, do we now have all the ingredients for women's tennis to succeed in India in a bigger way?
The writer is Vijay Krishnamurthy, a Sports Research Scholar (Ph.D.) at the University of Mysore.