TWAA Interview: Sunil Yajman on Indian tennis

Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent

The starting months of the 2023 season have been good for Indian men’s tennis. The reason for this has been a form of continuity.

In January, the country hosted the ATP 250 event in Pune – the Tata Open Maharashtra. Its lone ATP event, the tournament has been held in India since 1996, first in New Delhi before moving to Chennai for the next 21 years, beginning in 1997, and before finding its new home in Pune from 2018.

What you’re seeing now in February are three ATP Challenger events being held in consecutive weeks in the sub-continental nation: Chennai (February 13-19) then Bengaluru (Feb. 20-26) before finally culminating in Pune (Feb. 27-March 6).

At the time of publication, the event in Bengaluru – known as the Dafanews Bengaluru Open – is taking place. Along the sidelines of the same, Tennis with an Accent (TWAA) caught up with Mr. Sunil Yajman, joint secretary of the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association (KSLTA), the state governmental body that’s organising the $130,000 tournament.

Here’s how the conversation went:

TWAA: How important are ATP Challengers in India?

Yajman: It’s very important [to have ATP Challengers in India] especially from the perspective of the Indian players. It makes life so easy for them to play the big events at home with the home advantage. So, personally, I feel, in a country like India, we should be having 20 Futures for men and women, and at least 10 [ATP] Challengers in a year.

We have the capacity to do that. If each state could take over one Future and one Challenger in a year and [there’re] about 25 states doing that, I don’t see any reason why we’ll not have top-100 players in the next three-to-five years.

I think, playing Futures is one thing, the points are less. But the players need that exposure [and] they need a lot of match practice. [So], they’re out there playing Futures. But Challengers are the most crucial bridge for them to transform into a successful tennis player to start playing the ATP Tour. So, we definitely need more Futures and Challengers in India.

TWAA: With these numbers in-hand, what are the challenges to India hosting ATP Challengers?

Yajman: The basic requirement’s the infrastructure. Second’s raising the sponsorship that’s required. We need to take that pain. We need to go out there. We need to go to the government. We need to go to the corporates. We need to convince them why a tournament like this is important. Just not for the brand image of a [state] but for the Indian players.

With that little bit of pain, I’m sure, everybody can do one-to-two Futures and Challengers. It’s not easy. It’s not difficult also. But we need to go out and find the sponsors and raise the money. That’s the important thing.

TWAA: Last question. How do the country and its players go on from here? Should we hope for more such events, and also bigger events to happen here?

Yajman: For it to make sense to have bigger events, one, it’s good for the sport. But the other aspect is it should also be good for the players. We need players who’ve reached that ranking where they’re able to get an entry into these tournaments and are able to participate against these top players especially, in a tour event.

For the first time, after a long time, we don’t have a player in the top-300 in the world. And, even in these Challengers, the only players who are in the main draw till now are the ones who’ve got wild cards. So, we’ve not had an Indian direct entry into the main draw.

So, this is the time where players need that extra support and extra effort from all of us to have these tournaments. It’s a fantastic thing happening for Indian tennis. [It’s] never happened in this country before. And [it’s] thanks to Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, the fellow states with Karnataka who came forward to host these tournaments, and support from the ATP, and our respective governments. At the end of these three weeks, I’m sure we’ll have some of these players who’ll be able to increase their rankings and move up the ladder.

When we’ll have an ATP Tour event in Pune or any more [ATP Tour events] coming up in India, it would be good for us to have some Indians getting into the event on a direct entry which is very, very important. For that, these events are very, very important and are the real stepping stone.

Note: Prajnesh Gunneswaran, India’s highest-ranked Indian singles player in the ATP rankings is ranked no. 321 this week.

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