For a city that considers itself the soul of the sport in the country, five and a half years is a long time without big-ticket tennis. The Tamil Nadu capital witnessed its last tour-level event in 2017 – the ATP Chennai Open – snapping a golden run of 21 straight years of high-quality action.
This drought is set to end when the WTA Chennai Open gets underway at the SDAT Tennis Stadium on Monday.
“It was important to get the buzz back into the city,” said Vijay Amritraj, Indian tennis legend and president of the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association, the host of the event. “It was critical that we showed the girls that we cared for them too. To give them the opportunity to get better.”
But the tournament comes at a disconcerting time for Indian tennis. Even as non-cricketing sporting heroes of multiple hues have started emerging, tennis has not marched in tow.
There isn’t an Indian singles player – male or female – ranked in the world’s top-200. Among women, Sania Mirza remains the last player to have breached the top-100, a feat achieved more than a decade and a half ago.
Sania has since carried the flag admirably in doubles, but with her retirement imminent, and there being no high-quality pecking order below, even mere participation at top-level tournaments will start looking like successes.
The search for a figurehead is not expected to end in Chennai, but if the tournament can spark interest among young girls, it would have done well.
“WTA Tour-level tennis is outstanding,” said Amritraj. “These events will teach you what it takes to be there, like how to be strong in the third set. The ball-striking, the strategies involved, the mental IQ are all high standard.”
One player who fits this bill – apart from top seed Alison Riske – is the Canadian Eugene Bouchard. The 28-year-old is unranked after a string of injuries and needed a wild card to compete but she is a former Wimbledon finalist (2014) and top-five player.
Karman Thandi, one of two Indians in the main draw, practised with Bouchard on Saturday. Any lesson imbibed is sure to come in handy in her opening round encounter against France’s Chloe Paquet.
Ankita Raina, the other Indian in the fray, has a tough opener against Germany’s Tatjana Maria. The 35-year-old mother of two is an inspirational figure, having made an irresistible run to the Wimbledon semifinals.
“I will try and make the best use of the opportunity,” Ankita said. “We want such events at home. It will be a great experience. These are the players who play the main draws at Slams. That’s where you want to be.”
Whether the Indians belong will be evident over the course of the week.