Pune, Oct 25: The Indian tennis players are a jittery lot these days as the number of tournaments - both Challengers and Futures has fallen to alarming levels, making their life tougher on an already demanding circuit.
In the 2015 season, India had hosted 19 men's ITF Futures and 16 women's ITF events but this year the men have got only six tournaments so far while the ongoing USD 10,000 event in Pune is only the third tournament of the season for women.
India hosted four ATP Challengers in 2015, but this season only two have been held Delhi Open and Pune Challenger in eight months. It has severely impacted the progress of players who are outside top-200 in singles.
Almost every player competing on the circuit is deeply concerned since in the absence of home events, they are forced to travel outside India for competitions, burning a big hole in their pocket.
"It played a major role financially. Without any sponsor and coming from a middle class family it was difficult for me. Playing leagues in Germany in the summer helped me a bit as I used it (the money) for travelling," says N Sriram Balaji.
Newly crowned national champion Vishnu Vardhan said over the years the country has seen an increase in number of tournaments but the reduction this year has made the job tough.
"To improve my ranking I had to travel to Egypt, Astana, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe and Thailand this year and I still couldn't have a full schedule of tournaments this year. It did workout expensive for me," he said.
"If we had a similar schedule as last year, I could have expected to finish the year with a higher ranking. Hope we have more tournaments next year so that I can move up in rankings," he added.
Vijay Sundar Prashanth also lamented the "bad situation".
"It makes it tougher for Indians to go up the rankings. I am sure state associations and national association has enough money to conduct tournaments."
The women are worried too. Country's number one singles player Ankita Raina said the situation is bad not only in India but all over the world.
"In India the prize money has come down by almost 40 percent but if you add Asian Tennis Tournament (ATT) prize money then it has come down by 25-30 percent, she said referring to the new initiative launched by the Asian Tennis Federation. The ATT has two events - USD 5000 and USD 7000 -- and in both, they have a separate USD 2000 allowance for the players, to be distributed equally to all 16 main draw players.
While playing on the ATT, if a player loses even in the first rounds in the two USD 5000 events, the player earns a minimum of USD 650 while a first round loser in USD 10,000 ITF Futures gets only USD 146.
The title winner at USD 10000 ITF Future gets USD 1224 as prize purse and if a player wins two ATT events of USD 5000 each, he earns USD 2050. He is earning USD 826 more.
However, ATT is not a solution according to Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan since it does not offer points and only money.
"It's clear that tournaments in India aren't based on the development of players to compete in Grand Slams or make top-100. Secondary tours have taken priority and while it is good for certain players it isn't the path for players wish to play on the ATP World Tour," he feels.
New national champion Riya Bhatia says, "the chances of winning the events and getting points is easier in India than abroad.
"We play our best in our own conditions. Its difficult to save points outside the country," the 19-year-old from Delhi said.
Rishika Sunkara says, "Its been a rough year for most of us and we hope to get back more tournaments next year making our journey easier."
Sowjanya Bhavisetti rued that most of the Indian players don't have sponsors.
"Till last year we survived because we had so many tournaments. I personally think AITA has to make some serious moves in getting sponsors for the tournaments or the state associations should raise funds for their top players."
The major reason for the sad situation indeed is lack of sponsors and the situation is likely to get worse as from the 2017 season onwards, the entry level tournaments will be USD 15000 instead of USD 10,000 in the wake of new ITF rules.
The cost to host a USD 10,000 event is no less than USD 20,000 and for a USD 50,000 Challenger the organisers need to spend at least USD 85,000.
Now that hosting even USD 10K events has proved a tough job, getting sponsors for 15K events will be even difficult. AITA is equally worried but refuse to be labeled helpless.
"The reduction in tournament is happening worldwide. I understand the players' concerns. Even the officials are feeling the pinch. There are not enough tournaments. We are trying to work out a long-term solution," said AITA Secretary General Hironmoy Chatterjee.
"We have also realised that of all the tournaments we were conducting in India, only three percent of the prize money was going to the Indian players and the rest were taken away by foreign players," Chatterjee said.
However, this claim of AITA is debatable. Out of 19 men's Futures events in last season, 13 singles titles were won by seven different Indian players, with Ramkumar Ramanathan and Sumit Nagal winning three trophies each.
The success rate was less on the women's circuit as four Indian players shared six titles out of 16 events.
"We ask state associations to opt for the tournaments but they incur losses thats why they are not coming forward. The whole fraternity is worried but I would not say we are helpless. I am hopeful. We are knocking the doors of the government and they have agreed to support by giving at least the prize money. Next year we will have at least 13 men's Futures and eighth women's event," Chatterjee said.
Even players, who are in top-100 such as Purav Raja, says that absence of Challengers does impact them.
"See, I am ranked 70 today. We try to play the ATP250 events but half the year we are playing Challengers. If the ranking falls a bit we have to get back to Challengers. I wanted to play at home so I asked Divij Sharan (his partner on the circuit) to play with me in Pune, Raja said. In 2014, if India had hosted Challengers in Indore and Chennai as well, perhaps it was because ATP gives a 50 percent grant to first-timers on the Challenger circuit, which means USD 25,000 was contributed by ATP.
It indeed is a challenge for the state associations to find sponsors to host tournaments.
However, MSLTA has been bullish and has committed to continue with the Pune Challenger. Asked what makes them confident, MSLTA Secretary General Sunder Iyer said they have managed corporate backing and suggested the same to other.
"We have Kishore Patil supporting us financially for this event. Until corporates come forward in other states, it wont happen. These tournaments are not to make profits but to support players. I am sure we will continue with our tournaments," he said adding that they have four womens event lined up.
One player, who did not wish to be named, offered a solution.
"If each Major state such as Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh can host one tournament each in a year and not-so-strong states such as Punjab, Haryana, Goa, Orissa and Kerala can host ATT tournaments, India can have at least 25 tournaments for its players," the player said.