Chennai Open, the only ATP tournament in South East Asia, opens the men’s season every year in the southern city of India. Over its rich 22-year history, the tournament has hosted several top-ranked players such as Boris Becker, Rafael Nadal and Carlos Moya. Three-time Slam champion Stan Wawrinka had lifted the trophy three times from 2014 to 2016.
However over the last few years, the tournament has failed to attract multiple star players, and subsequently fans, to the SDAT Stadium. This year particularly, fan favourite Wawrinka opted to give the event a miss and the only top-10 player in the field was World No 6 Marin Cilic. Roberto Bautista Agut, the eventual 2017 singles champion, was the only other player from the Top 25.
One of the main reasons for this depleted field is the fact that it's scheduled in the opening week. Along with Chennai, there are two other ATP 250 tournaments in Brisbane and Doha, and a mixed team event called the Hopman Cup in Perth. Brisbane, Chennai, and Doha offer the same number of ranking points – 250 to the winner. The Hopman Cup is purely an exhibition with zero points at play. While the prize money at Chennai and Brisbane is almost at par, $447,480 and $437,380 respectively, Doha gives out more than double the amount to its winners – $1,237,190.
But it’s not just the prize money that becomes a deciding factor for players, it’s the massive appearance fees that these tournaments shell out. Unlike the Grand Slams and the Masters 1000s, the lower level ATP 500 and 250 events pay top players an appearance fee to participate at their venues. Naturally, a more popular player would in turn mean higher ticket sales and revenue.
Tom Annear, the tournament director at Chennai Open, in a candid chat, expressed how difficult it is to negotiate and convince the best players to come to India. “The process (of negotiation) basically starts in March at the Miami Open. Then I'll travel to Wimbledon, I'll be in touch with the agents during the summer, and probably solidify the deal by US Open. So, it's an ongoing negotiation, as you can imagine. You have got four major events, all wanting the top-10 players. You saw the results from Doha, they had the the No 1 (Andy Murray) competing against the No 2 (Novak Djokovic), and the No 2 prevailed. So, there's a lot of competition for a very few players,” he said on the sidelines of Chennai Open 2017.
Annear, who also oversees corporate sponsorship sales at the Miami Open, stressed for the need of a level playing field and said that the tournament might at some point consider shifting its timing in the ATP calendar. “It could be a consideration to shift it later in the year, but I just don’t see where it could fit. Especially knowing how difficult it is to get a top-10 player, or players, currently with our limited budget. You (Chennai Open) are going up against Tennis Australia, which has this massive engine and budget, and then you have got the sovereign wealth and money of Doha. And Doha has twice the amount of prize money. So I have been suggesting to make the prize money in parity with other ATP 250 events. I just want a level playing field in terms of the prize money, which I think is important,” he said.
Annear explained that the tournament’s appearance fee budget has stayed the same for the past few years, and it is used for top-25 players. However, in the last five-six years, the entire budget is being spent on only two players.
This year particularly, the tournament failed to attract too many fans, and the players battled it out in the Chennai sun in front of half-empty stands. According to a report in the Indian Express, ticket sales over the weekdays dropped by almost 75 percent.
Although Annear refused to accept this as a marketing failure. He listed a number of hurdles that made hosting the event even more challenging this year. “The CM passed away, and then a cyclone hit that derailed some of our efforts. (There were) challenges, physically and operationally, it was the floods last year. If you were here a couple of weeks ago, you would have seen that the stadium was pretty badly damaged,” he said.
“Cilic was the top-10 player we ended up having this year and it worked out great on paper. But then he lost on Wednesday. You never know the answer to this. Him staying in, would have produced larger crowds for Friday and Saturday. So, I can't answer if our marketing has failed, because Cilic was the main part of our success. And it didn't pan out. (Jozef) Kovalik played the match of his life, he played ice-cold and really tough. Cilic left. It happens,” he added pragmatically.
Despite the ouster of its marquee player and the lacklustre crowd over the week, Annear tried to highlight the silver lining. “Overall, the tournament has gone very well. Despite Cilic’s early loss, we got a final that you couldn’t have scripted any better – a match between a player from the next generation and a veteran. And an-all Indian doubles final. It's a great story,” he said.
The tournament director chose to be optimistic about the future of Chennai Open. “My focus is on the player contingent. Other than getting the marketing out sooner and more often, I think it really hinges on the player field. Also the revenue side, that is valuable. It’s just not the ticket sales but also the sponsorships. We have a very good team in place, but with the pressures in the market of demonetisation and all that, it's been a challenge. But we are going to tackle all of them,” he concluded with a broad smile.