Monday, January 25, 2016

A League of His Own

Business magnate Dr. J Rajmohan Pillai, the younger brother of the late Rajan Pillai, has started the Nutking Kerala Tennis League. He has plans to start an all-India league, apart from a tennis academy along the likes of the Britannia Amritraj Tennis (BAT) Academy

Photo of Rajmohan Pillai by Manu R Mavelil

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a humid afternoon in September, 2015, at the Trivandrum Tennis Club, TP Rajaram, the joint secretary of the Kerala Tennis Association was playing a game with Dr. J Rajmohan Pillai, the chairman of the transnational Beta Group, which has a turnover of $2 billion. The group has a major dried fruits and nuts business.

During a break, they had a chat. That was when Rajaram told him about his plans to hold an inter-club championship. “Why inter-club?” said Pillai. “Let's make it bigger. We should get teams from schools, colleges and corporates. That is the only way to unearth the best talents.”

And thus was born the Nutking Kerala Tennis League. For the inaugural league, (November 15 – January 25), there were 37 eight-member teams from all over Kerala, from Kasaragod in the north to Thiruvananthapuram in the south. “We have also encouraged people above 45 to take part,” says Pillai. “Once the parents start playing, the children will definitely follow. I want to create a movement for tennis.”

The league has been divided into four zones. “Each zone had a round robin,” says Rajaram, the tournament director. “The top two will go to the knockout stage. The third and fourth teams will play another knockout for the Loser’s Plate.”

The winner gets Rs 60,000 while the runner-up will collect Rs 40,000. The Plate prize is Rs 30,000 and Rs 20,000 respectively. The total investment is Rs 15 lakhs.

Pillai says that for the next year's league, he will increase the amount substantially, because he has been encouraged by the response. “Tennis has become very popular, thanks to the Grand Slam exploits of Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, and Sania Mirza,” he says.

Moments after the Wimbledon final in 2015, Rajaram took an autorickshaw in Thrissur town. “The driver spoke to me about the brilliance of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic,” he says.

Pillai has been brilliant on court, too. In December, 2015, he won the doubles gold with his partner Shashi Bhushan Sharma (a Deputy Inspector-General of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police) at the inaugural Malaysian Open of the seniors circuit of the International Tennis Federation.

But the interest in tennis goes back a couple of generations. “It all started in the early 1960s when my parents used to play tennis at the Cashew Club, Kollam,” says Pillai. “Soon, my elder brother Rajan [Pillai of Britannia Biscuits fame] who is 16 years older than me, began playing. I started at the age of six. 

Later, when Rajan settled in Singapore, I would go there and he would provide coaches for me. In fact, his house, on Ridout Road, was one of the few places which had a tennis court in the early 1970s. In the end, both of us developed a passion for the game.”

And in the early 1980s, Rajan (1947-95), who was the chairman of the Beta Trust, contributed $12 million to set up the Britannia Amritraj Tennis (BAT) Academy in Chennai. Later, the academy would produce players like Leander Paes, Somdev Devvarman, Gaurav Natekar and Asif Ismail. There was some good news for Kerala trainees, also.

Jaco T. Mathew won the junior national hardcourt title in 2001 by defeating Somdev Devvarman in the final. Unfortunately, he faded away.

Meanwhile, Pillai has plans to start a second BAT, with an investment of Rs 100 crore. “We are looking for a location in Bangalore,” he says. “Or we might even take over a functioning academy.”
He said that his centre would place an emphasis on scientific training. “Otherwise, it would be difficult for Indians to match foreigners in a gruelling five-set match,” says Pillai. 

An academy could provide material help, since tennis is not an affordable sport for most people. “If you want to be a pro, you have to spend between Rs 16-22 lakh a year, for travelling, equipment and taking part in tournaments,” says Pillai.

In September, 2016, Pillai will unveil another ambitious plan. His firm Beta Sports is going to hold a pan-India tournament, in the manner of the Indian Premier League. Says Pillai: “So, what was started off by two people at a tennis club could soon become a movement to unify the game in India with one gigantic league!” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

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