The ATP Thailand Open celebrated its 11th anniversary last week, but we could soon be writing its epitaph, because this latest edition of the country's biggest tennis event could well be the last.
The declining popularity of tennis among Thai sports fans combined with a serious lack of new local talents could bring the curtain down on the Kingdom’s only ATP tournament.
Back in 2003 when Paradorn Srichaphan was in his prime, the first ATP Thailand Open was organised during the last week of September with then-world No 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero among the star attractions. Fans flocked in their thousands to the Impact Arena in Muang Thong Thani from the first day to be part of the country’s maiden top-tier tennis event.
In the following two years the event continued to fire the public’s imagination, thanks to strong line-ups led by “Mr Perfect” Roger Federer, the only man to have won in Thailand twice – 2004 and 2005.
However, over the past several years the tournament’s profile has declined among tennis fans. Famous stars like Andy Roddick, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic withdrew citing injuries, something beyond the control of the organisers. But the main reason for waning interest in the game in Thailand is the lack of local icons for tennis fans to connect with, since Paradorn hung up his racquet. We must accept the truth that no one will drag themselves to the outskirts of Bangkok just to see a Thai given a tennis lesson by a foreign (often lowly ranked) opponent. It’s tormenting.
The volleyball fever that has swept the country is evidence to support the theory. Six or seven years ago, no one cared about the game and no one knew where to get tickets for the matches. But these days, fans are ready to jump queues and step on each other to get to see the mighty Thailand women’s team play. By beating China, South Korea and even Japan, against whom they never stood a chance in the past, the women spikers suddenly elevated the sport to No 2 in nationwide popularity behind football. When free TV stations like channels 3 or 7 start suspending their primetime programmes and cutting to live coverage of a tournament, you know that the sport is really huge!
Following volleyball’s example, the only way to restore faith in tennis among the fans is to find talented youngsters and make them good enough to take on world class players. This task belongs to the Lawn Tennis Association of Thailand, which apparently is not doing its job. There is an acute scarcity of young talent in the country, and if the matter is taken for granted, Thai tennis will eventually die.
A fellow correspondent, with extensive experience on the ATP Tour, tipped me off that we would be losing the ATP Thailand Open. The source said the owner of the tournament’s licence has no intention of further extending the deal, and China is showing interest in taking it over.
That makes perfect sense: China already has one ATP 500 tournament and a Masters 1000, which follows the Bangkok stop. If it grabs Thailand’s ATP 250 event, there will be three consecutive weeks of tennis in China, which would be convenient for players.
However, this move has to be approved by the ATP executive board meeting in the upcoming months before the 2014 calendar is announced. It will be bad news for the game here if we lose the Thailand Open, because once it is gone it will be very tough to get back.