FORMER INDIAN TENNIS great, Vijay Amritraj is a busy man these days. The second edition of the Champions League (CTL) is underway and the brand has been successful in managing to grab the eye balls and has generated a buzz amongst the tennis fans in India. The frenetic pace and nature of the league might be keeping the director of this unique and exciting format on his toes, but the ever charismatic and affable Amritraj still took time from his tight schedule to discuss about CTL, current status of tennis in India and Davis Cup.
Why is it that the Indian players are not a part of the singles category in the CTL?
They are just not good enough yet. It’s very simple. They are not ranked in the top 30 and those are the protocols we follow before picking a player.
How will the CTL help tennis evolve in India. Are the young boys and girls benefitting from CTL?
Well, three things. One is we are able to take world class tennis to different cities in India; otherwise they don’t have a chance to see it. Other than the Chennai Open, there is no quality tennis. Rest of the country doesn’t get to see any international tennis unless it’s on TV. The CTL gives an opportunity to all the tennis fans in India to see the action closer.
The second thing is we have one Davis cup player in each team who can actually play doubles with the great singles players. The Indian player needs to ask himself: why I am not as good as my senior? What can I learn from him and improve? At the end of the day, that’s why people play tennis.
Thirdly, there are juniors in the league. So we are promoting tennis at grass root levels and also encouraging these juniors to aspire for bigger things. The opportunity to travel with the legends of the game is huge and the juniors also get a chance to eat with them, hit balls, pick their brains etc.
Talking about the juniors, can you explain how the super-point works, and how the juniors can bring value to their respective teams?
The super-point is basically created to keep these young boys and girls involved. And, so each home team match, the home team boy and girl will try to hit the CTL target (placed by the opposing team’s juniors) on the other side of the court. Every time they hit it, they get a free point for their team, which can be used once in a set. The maximum they can get is five points and they can use one in each set. And since the sets are short, one point can make all the difference.
Is brand CTL doing anything to promote the game outside the 14-day window?
Not yet, because it’s just started. Hopefully, we will get to it as we progress. Any kind of operation or business, you look at 3-5 year horizon, at least and we can see how we progress from there. The knowledge is limited, so we try and educate them more, everything is a constant learning process for the CTL, the franchise owners, sponsors and television.
Unfortunately, Kevin Anderson and Andreas Seppi withdrew at the last moment. Do you think the likes of Santiago Giraldo and Roberto Bautista Agut are fair replacements?
Absolutely! Very simple. We keep going down the rankings, to see who can play, who is available, who’s happy to come and then, we say yes or no. In Kevin’s case, it was a personal issue, he was keen on playing, and Seppi just finished his surgery and is doing fine.
Can these clay-courters Giraldo and Agut bring glory to their side? Are you also convinced that all the six teams are evenly matched?
There are no clay court specialists or hard court specialist anymore. The courts are generally slow everywhere. Today, it’s not necessarily a surface change; they are all slow court players. As far as the teams are concerned, they are dead even. You couldn’t pick a winner. Last year, if you look at it, the lowest ranked person in the league was the guy who didn’t lose a single match. And that player got the MVP award in the foreign players’ category and the Indian player who didn’t lose a match in doubles, got the same award. I think all of them have been encouraged playing CTL last year and they will have a good time going ahead.
Martina Hingis and Flavia Pennetta are coming off a successful year. Do you think they will draw a lot of attention from our fans?
No question. It’s all about the popularity of winning majors, both Martina in doubles and Flavia in singles. But you should also watch out for the likes of Heather Watson and Elina Svitolina. Jelena Jankvoic too, has been the former World no.1. You are talking about five quality players and in a shorter format, there are no favourites. Just because Flavia has won the US Open doesn’t mean that she will win her set here. And at the end of the day, the sets don’t count much, it all about the games.
What about the legends, their fitness levels. Do they have enough match practice under their belt?
They have all been playing ATP tour senior events and playing singles and they have been working out regularly. For eg: Last year, you saw Mark Philippoussis playing against Thomas Enquist. The matches were unbelievable. If last year was any indication, where all matches went into the tie-breaker, I don’t see it not happening this time around.
You spoke about the CTL wanting to give more exposure to the Indian players. How about launching a protracted league to help our Indian nationals?
It’s better than having no league at all. Practically it’s impossible to get more time. Schedule is cramped, the calendar is long. So, the question doesn’t arise. You can only find a window of ten days or two weeks.
You have been World no.16 in singles and have beaten the Connors and Lavers. We have struggled to produce a top Indian player in singles. Now, we have Yuki Bhambri. What can he do to climb up the rankings and sustain at the top?
It’s an individual sport and it comes down to the individual’s work ethics, sacrifice, discipline, dedication, and determination. You also need to be backed by an incredible support team. And, that’s where our problem lies. We have not had players in the top-50 or top-100 consistently and that obviously affects our qualification for the World Group in the Davis Cup. I always thought Somdev could do it, Yuki too. Then, the likes of Saketh and Ramanathan, all these guys can do it. At the end of it all, they have to show the desire and just have to end up doing things necessary. They just can't be a potential for their whole life.
What are your expectations for this year. Will CTL be successful in drawing fans to the courts?
We are not looking at more than 4,000 people in any place. We are not looking at a cricket stadium; there are enough players playing the game. It’s the question of excellence factor that the players need to have to get into the Fed and Davis Cup. The popularity of the game is fine, the television viewership in India for tennis is second only to cricket. It’s more a question of them being able to dedicate to an entire sport without expecting any guaranteed results. I think, we are often not willing to take the chances, in certain cases we are, but it needs to become a regular thing. I think all the boys and girls have the opportunity to make the grade and graduate to the top-15 singles and that’s where tennis is played, that’s what tennis is all about.