The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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No Sania, no spectators
- Tennis minus stars fails to impress Calcutta

What: Quarter-finals of a WTA tournament on Friday afternoon

Who: Mariya Koryttseva of Ukraine vs Tatiana Poutchek of Belarus

Where: Centre Court, Netaji Indoor Stadium

Entry: Free.

Crowd count: 11.

If crowd count is the clincher, it’s been a straight-set loss for Sunfeast Open 2007.

Till the quarters, the headcount had never crossed 400 for a match in the 11,500-seater stadium. For some ties, the footfall — minus the ball boys and tournament officials — did not reach double figures.

Even opening the gates on the day of the quarters — “Free entry… Please feel free to get your guests” read the invite — failed to do the trick.

There were more men to gape at Sunitha Rao on a buggy ride at Victoria Memorial than there were to cheer her on court.

Daniela Hantuchova cooking pasta at the hotel drew more cheers than her forehands did in the stadium.

“The turnout has been disappointing,” admitted tournament director Jaidip Mukerjea.

“There were two things beyond our control — Sania Mirza pulling out and the timing of the Twenty20 World Cup matches,” added Mahesh Bhupathi, the managing director of Globosport.

So, the Tier-III WTA tourney — three rungs below a Grand Slam — was beaten by too little star appeal and too much cricket craze.

No spokesperson for title sponsors ITC Foods was available for comment, but tournament organisers Globosport blamed it all on their good luck charm gone bad. “It was not in our hands. No Sania meant there wasn’t anybody the crowd could relate to, for whom they would turn up and cheer,” rued Sujoy Ganguly, the event head of Globosport.

In the absence of the Indian darling in the draw, what Sunfeast 2007 needed was a Sharapova or a Williams. “For Calcutta, tennis is still about big names. There was no Grand Slam winner in the fray and so top WTA players were playing in front of empty stands,” said former veteran tennis coach Akhtar Ali.

If not a Sharapova, then maybe a Tendulkar. The only time that the tournament threatened to come alive was during an exhibition tie on Day II — with Sania Mirza as chair umpire and Sachin Tendulkar with racquet in hand.

“Of the two stars of the tournament so far, one (Sania) did not play a game and the other (Sachin) does not play the game. That sort of sums things up,” says Anurag Hira, executive creative director, Bates David Enterprise. “To keep interest alive, the organisers should have ensured that Sania stayed on in Calcutta and was present at the venue throughout the tournament, visible to the crowd.”

Clearly, there was no Plan B. “For the organisers, Brand Sania was Plan A to Z. As soon as she pulled out, they should have invited trainees from various tennis academies in town to fill the stadium. At least 3,000 kids could have been brought in and it would have been a win-win for all,” observed a South Club old-timer.

That was what event managers Paes ’’ Sports would do — with some freebies thrown in as well — to fill the South Club stands with schoolchildren for the Challenger tourneys a few years ago.

“We had tried to get schoolchildren in, but hardly a handful turned up from three schools,” said Ganguly of Globosport.

If the numbers were a problem, so was the nature of the tennis-watcher at Netaji Indoor Stadium. Cries of “out” in the middle of rallies and loud cellphone rings were a regular feature — repeated pleas of “quiet please” and “please switch off your cellphones” fell on deaf ears.

For the semi-finals on Saturday — which saw the crowd count briefly crossing the four-figure mark, till it was time to head home for the India vs Australia T20 semis — the cops were called in to prevent cellphones and catcalls from disrupting play.

Random sampling by The Telegraph during the quarters revealed how clueless most people in the crowd were about the game they had, supposedly, come to watch. A businessman from Lake Town was convinced that the playing area was smaller for women, a middle-aged life insurance agent had never heard of Roger Federer and a college student did not know whether Sania Mirza was right-handed or left.

“It’s sad but true that Calcutta today is a one-sport city. Only limited-overs cricket can draw a full house here. This wasn’t the case till the 1980s,” observed sports management veteran Amit Sen, who dubbed the tournament “Saniafeast”.

It was a feast gone wrong for food vendor Manoj, who had set up shop outside the stadium. “I had thought it would be a big sporting event, but no one seems to know what’s going on inside. Business is very poor,” rued the Eden Gardens regular.

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