A sport once so integral to the nation’s psyche is staring at an existential crisis. How did it come to this?
In the last two years, Sumit Nagal has been central to all three stories in Indian men’s tennis that has got the fans most excited. On his Grand Slam debut at the 2019 US Open, he took a set off Roger Federer and became the toast of the nation.
A year later in New York, he became the first Indian in seven years (since Somdev Devvarman at the 2013 US Open) to win a singles match at a Major. At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, he became the first Indian in 25 years (since Leander Paes at Atlanta 1996) to win a singles match at the quadrennial extravaganza.
What Nagal managed was indeed praiseworthy. But how did a sport so integral to the Indian psyche a few decades ago, which produced Grand Slam singles semifinalists, had players in the top-20s and 30s and reached the Davis Cup finals thrice reduce itself to exulting after routine, run-of-the-mill successes?
Not a pretty picture
India currently has no men’s singles player in the top-150 and Nagal’s first round appearance at the Australian Open – courtesy a wild card – was the lone Major main draw singles match featuring an Indian. It recently lost a Davis Cup Group I (tier II) match to an unheralded Finland. Another loss next year will relegate it to tier III, a sorry state of affairs.
Among women, Ankita Raina has done well to enter the doubles top-100, win a WTA Tour-level trophy and feature in multiple Grand Slam main draws. But to this day, Sania Mirza’s No.27 remains the best singles ranking achieved by someone representing India and that came more than 14 years ago. No one else has even cracked the top-100.
There has been success in doubles with the likes of Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna and Sania herself winning Majors. But on a global scale, a nation’s prowess is measured solely on singles performances and as one noted coach put it, “there won’t be a player who picks up a racquet saying he is going to be World No.1 in doubles.”
“You feel like you are very alone when you are trying to make it from India,” says Somdev Devvarman, whose career-high ranking of No.62 (2011) is still the best among men after Ramesh Krishnan’s No.23 (1985). “In terms of support systems, it’s a really lonely place. It is getting tougher and tougher [to break through] internationally, and at the same time other Asian countries, small European countries are doing things right and we are not. The effort is incredibly individual here and if it’s that way, it’s going to be a tough road.”
Worldwide, tennis players excel when there is a robust home circuit comprising both ATP Challenger and ITF Futures tournaments, adequate financial support, sponsorships, good coaching and fitness programmes. In India, each of these is a struggle. To be sure, these are problems that predate COVID-19 and the pandemic has just ruthlessly exposed the deficiencies.
From a high of five Challenger tournaments in 2014, India hosted four in 2015, three in 2018 and two in 2019. Last year, it had one and the current year will pass without a single Challenger. Even the ATP 250 tour event, a near certainty for two decades across Chennai and Pune, wasn’t held this year because of COVID-19 and it looks set to miss its 2022 date too.
“We need a system from the grassroots, coaching, support…none of which we really have. But even if all those things didn’t exist, if we had 20 odd tournaments a year, people will find a way to succeed,” says Prajnesh Gunneswaran, India’s top-ranked singles player at 164.
“More than one Tour event (ATP 250), I think Challengers and Futures will make a bigger impact. Who have been the guys getting to play the ATP 250? Myself, Sumit, Ramkumar [Ramanathan]. We could possibly play Tour events at many places. But are [Sidharth] Rawat (No. 566) and Sasikumar Mukund (No. 392) playing them? How do they get that exposure?”
The Italy example
What Italy has done can be instructive. In the last full season before the pandemic, Italy hosted 18 Challengers, of which Italians won eight, including two by a young Jannik Sinner. Between 2018 and 2019, Italy was able to double the number of players in the top-100, from four to eight.
In the same period, Sinner – who also won two ITF World Tour Level tournaments (Futures) at home in early 2019 – jumped from World No. 763 to World No. 78. He went on to win the ATP Next Gen tournament – also held in Italy – and is now World No.14. Italy currently has nine players in the top-100.
“The advantage of having so many Challengers is that the federation has the wild cards and four or five young Italians will play the main draw at every tournament,” says Paolo Lorenzi, a former top-50 player.
“They watch other players, practise with them and it helps. One of those, [Matteo] Berrettini, is now in the top-10. In India, there was the ATP 250, one Challenger in Bengaluru and one in Pune. But in Italy we have like 20 which means 20 chances!”
Even in Spain and France, the stories are similar. In 2019, Spain conducted seven Challengers and had five home winners. France organised 15 and saw seven winners. By the end of 2019, France, Spain and Italy had the most players in the year-end top-100 with 12, 10 and eight respectively.
At the KPIT MSLTA Challenger that ran for six straight years from 2014 to 2019 in Pune, Yuki Bhambri won the title twice and Prajnesh finished runner-up twice and Ramkumar Ramanathan once. The first two editions of the $162,000 Bengaluru Open in 2017 and 2018 saw Indian winners, Nagal and Prajnesh. The latter, unsurprisingly, reached a career high No.75 in April 2019.
“If you do well at home, you will have the confidence to think about playing similar tournaments abroad,” says Ankita Bhambri, India’s Billie Jean King Cup (erstwhile Fed Cup) coach.
“I remember playing an ITF 25k and a 50k event in Delhi and another city. It gave me the confidence to add a 75k in Spain and hope to do well. I was much more confident and I actually qualified for it. I may have never been able to do it if I didn’t have those tournaments in India.”
The financial burden of having to travel abroad for every tournament can be crippling. It brings with it the pressure of having to do well in nearly every tournament just to cover the costs.
“If you want to play at a good level, you might need around 30 lakh rupees per year,” says 26-year-old Niki Poonacha, ranked No. 784. “It also depends on the region you play in, Europe or Asia, with or without a coach.”
“But you need to reach at least the semifinals to break even and have some 10k or 20k in hand. That is big pressure. You have to always play with the future in mind. Everybody is human. Even if you are very tough mentally, there will be the odd occasion when you will ask if it’s even worth it.”
That kind of support may be hard to come by in India. Governments, private funding bodies and sports foundations seem singularly focussed on increasing the medal count at multi-sport events like the Olympics and Asian Games. Tennis does not provide as many medals as shooting or athletics and is still predominantly an individual sport.
Sunil Yajaman, joint-secretary of the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association that conducts the Bengaluru Open, feels that governing bodies, and prestigious clubs that have long patronised tennis, should take the lead in the sport’s development.
“For the $162,000 Challenger we conduct, our budget will be around 3 crore rupees. Reaching out to corporates will be tough because all businesses are stressed now. It would help if the National federation and State associations create a corpus, and start packaging and marketing the tournament well. If that is done, holding Futures tournaments shouldn’t be tough at all.”
“It will be great if the Central government can earmark a budget for conducting international events, not just for tennis, but for all sports. We are not here to make money from the tournaments. It will help the sport. The government needn’t fund the whole of it. Even 30% to 40% will be of immense help.”
Keeping up with the times
Apart from the lack of tournaments and finances, playing styles, coaching and surfaces are factors too. In early July, journalist Matthew Willis pointed out that the average height of the ATP top-10 in 2021 was nearly 5cm more than it was in 2011, and correspondingly, the first-serve percentage, service games won and aces per match have all gone up. The rise of the ‘big game’ players like Alexander Zverev, Daniil Medvedev and Berrettini in recent times is thus part of the norm.
Ramkumar has a style that mirrors this, albeit without the security of a solid backhand. But consistency and tactics have been his bane. In 2017, he stunned Dominic Thiem on grass, and in 2018 reached the ATP 250 Hall of Fame Open final in Newport. But he has had no follow up successes and at 26, hasn’t as much as qualified for a Major.
Nagal, 24, lacks the height and that perhaps explains why he mostly prefers playing on clay. Prajnesh’s is a hybrid style, but has struggled to hit through the court and finish points off. Yuki, 29, is gifted and has career-high ranking of 83, but has rarely got through an entire season without injury.
“When I was playing, we focused a lot on being competitive, studying opponents. But the focus today seems more on your own ball striking,” opines Devvarman. “But a lot of the guys I played with are still doing very well. Herbert, Gasquet, Querrey, Pospisil, Steve Johnson, Vesely etc.
“The older players study the game better and make less mistakes on big points. So, there are many basics that can still make you successful.”
According to India’s Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali, the lack of good quality clay courts has affected player development.
“It teaches a player to be patient. It teaches you how to work hard for a point. You need to learn how to hit 10 to 15 shots at a stretch to win a point, especially at the junior level because you still do not have the power to hit winners from the backcourt. But Indian clay courts are more like hardcourts with sand!”
“Having said that, you do not need to be a great player on clay to be in the top-100,” Zeeshan adds. “Tournaments happen all the time simultaneously on different surfaces. You can choose what’s best for you and make it.”
Another aspect that’s holding players back is a tennis-specific fitness regime and diet plan from a young age. But trainer Abhimanyu Singh, who has worked with Yuki and Devvarman, feels it’s no rocket science.
“When I work with 16 and 18-year-olds, I see that they are reluctant to do track training in the off-season,” Singh says. “Today, tennis is about endurance and long rallies. To build that lasting power, track running is important.”
“See how Medvedev has improved in the last two to three years. Somdev went through the everyday grind and he was one of the fittest guys around. It also has an effect mentally. If you feel you can last longer, you will also be more confident about your game.”
The rut at the top has coincided with a total lack of success at the junior level, a double whammy. Leander Paes and Yuki, following in the footsteps of Ramanathan Krishnan and Ramesh Krishnan, both won junior Grand Slam championships. But now, mere participation feels like an achievement.
The 2021 US Open was the third Major on the bounce without an Indian junior. There isn’t an Indian boy ranked in the top-100 and an Indian girl in the top-200.
“We don’t have enough coaches, who can frame the kids’ games once they get out of under-12s and under-14s,” says Zeeshan. “I have been coaching for close to 24 years in the United States and Europe. It took me five to six years to learn how to coach. There aren’t enough coaches out on the court. There are a lot of people promoting the game…former players, administrators. But too few on the court.”
Ankita Raina feels there needs to be a shift in the mindset too. “Results don’t come overnight, but Indian parents act like it’s a life-or-death situation when their children are in 10th or 12th grade,” the 28-year-old says. “So more than half the players either quit the sport or just play as a recreational activity.”
“It’s high time we get over it. I’m sure we have a lot of stories where students have failed in those grades but excelled in life. People don’t understand that this [tennis] is also a profession and you give 6-8 hours every day.”
Storm in the Cup
The Davis Cup setback against Finland is perhaps the first sign of the negative net effect of all the inadequacies afflicting Indian tennis. Davis Cup now follows a global format – true to its spirit of being the ‘World Cup of Tennis’ – where nations worldwide are clubbed together into one consolidated group, a shift from the earlier era where countries were divided into regional silos until the World Group playoffs.
From 2014 to 2020, India beat its Asia-Oceania opponents and qualified for seven straight World Group Playoffs. Once there, it lost to European and North American opposition every single time.
This September, it played Finland as early as Group 1 and succumbed. In 2022, it may well meet another European country, with its very survival in Group I at stake.
“We need to start building a younger team, even if that means losing for the next three or four years,” feels Zeeshan.
“We can’t keep relying on two or three players. Prajnesh is 31 and isn’t getting younger. We need at least one or two juniors in the team and for that we should start investing now.”