Grass courts in the Wild West
On this misty Thursday morning, the trees and buildings around Services Club look like watermarks against the milky sky. The courts are still damp from the rain that washed out the first three days of the tournament, and the bounce is inconsistent, usually on the low side. Mindful of this, players crouch low as they wait to return serve, shoes shuffling in piles of sawdust sprinkled around the baselines.
"Grass is always difficult to play on, especially when it's rained so much," says top seed Tadeja Majeric, after a straight-sets first round win over Indian hopeful Sharon Paul. "But what can we do? It's nature."
Were she to repeat her 2011 feat of winning the Bhavna Swarup Memorial $25,000 ITF tournament, Majeric will win 50 ranking points, which could propel her a fair distance up the women's rankings from 174, where the 22-year-old Slovenian currently sits.
In the pursuit of ranking points, the average tennis pro constantly sets foot in previously unheard-of corners of the globe. Most of Majeric's titles have come in small towns. But a cursory internet search reveals that Samsun (Turkey), Tanjun Selor (Indonesia) and Palic (Serbia) can all conceivably be called tourist destinations.
Muzaffarnagar, however, is different. It is primarily known for three things: its sugar — it has one of the largest wholesale jaggery markets in the country — its steel and paper mills, and — even if locals claim it has dropped recently — its crime rate.
The first two pages of results generated by a news search for "Muzaffarnagar" throw up reports connected to the following events: a gangrape, an acid attack, a self-immolation, the discovery of a missing student's strangulated body, the awarding of a death sentence in a 13-year-old triple murder case and a Valentine's Day 'honour killing'.
Armed members of the police are conspicuously dotted around the Services Club, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with spectators peering over fences at the tennis. "There are around 60 policemen and women at the venue itself, plus 10 accompanying the players in their cars to and from the venue," says Anil Swarup, tournament co-director. "And we have four each on watch at their hotels."
The players have been advised against going out alone. "They can go anywhere that's not too far, but we recommend that they take a police escort along," says Anil.
This has caused a certain level of guarded resentment. "Some of the players, especially the foreigners, feel that the security is too tight," says Nidhi Chilumula, an 18-year-old from Hyderabad who has just won her first round match. "But I guess it's not safe to roam around here. I heard somewhere that it's the town with the highest crime rate in Asia. There was a bomb squad checking the courts just before today's matches began."
Muzaffarnagar, in short, is not the average host city of an international tennis event. But here it is, staging an ITF event that has been a fairly regular feature of the calendar since 2002.
That first edition had its roots in tragedy. In 2000, while returning to Welham Girls' School in Dehradun after a visit home in Muzaffarnagar, 13-year-old Bhavna Swarup was killed in an accident. "She liked tennis, and had begun playing it at her school," says her father Alok Swarup (Anil's brother). "Along with a group of friends, I decided to start a tennis tournament in her memory."
Alok and Anil Swarup are part of a wealthy Muzaffarnagar family who run a number of businesses – real estate, paper mills, flexible packaging – and they run one of the the two hotels assigned to the players.
Since that beginning, the tournament has grown in prize money from $5000 to $25,000, and its current edition is its sixth staging. Sania Mirza was chief guest in 2008, and UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav might watch Monday's final. And the high and mighty of Muzaffarnagar — including the 15 tournament patrons who all have have either IAS, IPS or IRS next to their names on the media invite — take special care of the players and coaches visiting their city.
"Every night, we organise a dinner party for the players," says Alok. "Last night, the District Magistrate hosted them at a nearby resort, where a group of children from one of the leading schools welcomed them with a cultural performance on the folk dances of India. Tonight, a leading orthopaedic surgeon will host dinner at a farmhouse, and tomorrow is the turn of the SSP (senior superintendent of police). We also provide the players free lunch, a stall for free sandwiches at the venue, and their transport."
For players usually left to fend for themselves as far as food and travel expenses are concerned — and these players haven't come anywhere near tasting the riches that the top pros earn — this is quite a change. "It's not normal for a tournament to be so caring," says Keren Shlomo, a 25-year-old from Israel with a ranking of 422. It's not normal, but it maintains the bubble around the players. "We finish here at 6.30 or 7 every night, and then it's back to the hotel and a shower and then dinner," says Shlomo. "We're back here by 9.30 next morning."
This is true of tennis anywhere in the world. But here, in the evening, where other tournaments might give them some time to themselves, the players are whisked away once again from any external influence. The bubble exists everywhere, but it's more impervious in Muzaffarnagar, and the contrast between the worlds inside and outside it is much starker. Even the spectators don't break the bubble. Entry is restricted to those who have managed to procure a pass, either by wielding some sort of influence or by knowing someone who does.
NOT QUITE TENNIS-MAD
Someone has won a point on Court 1, but the spectators can't be expected to know who is playing or leading, with no draw sheets or scoreboards to tell them. Some clap anyway.
Suresh Sagar, a bank employee, isn't one of them. He reads the Dainik Mudgal Times instead. Despite a couple of empty chairs around him, he has chosen one with its view blocked by a palm tree. Asked about the tennis, he says he has no idea what's going on. And why did he come here? "Because a big event was going on in the town."
Law students Mohammad Burhan and Mohammad Istekhar have skipped classes to attend. They received passes from their HOD, who happens to be Rajesh Garg, president of the district Tennis Association.
"We hardly watch tennis, and don't understand the game. But this is the biggest sporting event here and players have come from abroad," says Istekhar. "Hum to yahaan videshi baala dekhne aaye hain (we have come to watch foreign women)."
Slovenian Dalila Jakupovic, who has lost her first round match to India's Prerna Bhambri, mills about near a makeshift lounge where players relax on white sofas. Two spectators, Vaibhav Malik and Mohit Kumar, thrust a notebook and pen in her direction. Autograph procured, they admit that they had no idea who the player was.
All this is understandable. There is little evidence of a tennis culture in Muzaffarnagar. A short history of tennis in the town, written by AN Kaul, a retired Inspector General, suggests that the game was first played at the Services Club in 1937, between its members, who primarily belonged to government service. Little has changed since. The club is still largely the preserve of the local elite, and a life membership has just become five times as expensive, with a recent hike from Rs. 53,000 to Rs. 2,50,000.
If you aren't a Services Club member, but want to learn or play tennis, you will have to join the only academy in town, in a private school with two operational clay courts. This academy is run by Love Garg, who provides physics and maths tuitions when he isn't coaching tennis.
How he became a tennis coach is an interesting story. Sometime in the 1970s (Love Garg can't remember the exact year), Rajesh Garg (no relation), who would in time become the MDTA president, was captain of the college tennis team scheduled to play the university games. When they fell a player short, Rajesh asked Love, a badminton player who had never held a tennis racquet in his life, to join the team.
"I was slightly apprehensive but Rajesh bhaisaab told me there's hardly any difference," says Love. "You just have to hit the ball across the net."
His academy, now 13 years old, trains 40 kids, seven of them girls. Most boys, and almost all girls, quit by the time they are in Class 8 or 9.
It's unlikely that the ITF tournament will cause an explosion of local interest in tennis. The organisers distribute four wildcards to players from Welham School, Dehradun — where Bhavna Swarup studied and trained — but none to players from Muzaffarnagar. In their defence, they'd struggle to find any. The only player of note who has come through from the town is Amreen Chaudhary, who was ranked 71 among India's women's singles players in 2011.
While tennis in the region is likely to remain a passing spectacle, the tournament itself might soon grow bigger. "We've written to the ITF asking them if we can make it a $50,000 WTA event. They've sent us a set of norms that we will need to fulfill. They are happy with the courts and other playing facilities," says Alok Swarup. "It's only some infrastructural requirements like five-star hotels, which the city doesn't have right now. We do have resorts, and we'll try to impress upon them (the ITF) that they are equally good, in terms of facilities."