India lost its fifth successive play-off tie and missed a good chance of returning to the World Group in Davis Cup. With the likes of World No. 3 Novak Djokovic and No. 33 Filip Krajinovic pulling out of the indoor clay court tie, India could have fancied its chances of pulling off an upset win against Serbia.
But that was not to be, with only Ramkumar Ramanathan taking a set off Lalso Djere in India’s 0-4 defeat. Despite the fact that the indoor conditions were pretty alien to the Indians, it would have been fair to expect a greater fight from the Indian camp. The loss of all four rubbers raises the question if India’s tennis is not good enough to be in the big league any more.
Some facts first: There is only one Indian, Yuki Bhambri, in the top 100 in ATP rankings. Only two other players, Ramkumar Ramanathan and Prajnesh Gunneswaran, are in the top 200. An under-cooked Sumit Nagal, who was in that league, is now with three others in the 301-400 bracket. That makes it seven Indians in the top 400.
The nature of the ranking beast is such that players need to compete each week to keep climbing and unless a player rakes in money on the circuit, he is mostly travelling out of pocket. And that is the crux of the problem. Not everyone can afford to be a journeyman for long and will soon end up being satisfied with being a doubles player.
It can get quite difficult to be a lonely on the circuit and it is a lot of hard work. Of course, the argument against that will be that it is the same for players from other countries as well and, therefore, not really an impediment for the Indians. But the truth is that tennis players and golfers are a bit like cricketers in terms of living out of suitcases for more than half the year.
There are as many as five Indian players – Rohan Bopanna, Divij Sharan, Leander Paes, Purav Raja and Jeevan Nedunchezhian – in the top 100 on the ATP doubles rankings. And a further five players in the top 250. It is a fair indication of the line of thinking that professional players make at an important stage of their careers.
That some players are ready to give their best each time they step on the court should warm the hearts but when you look at the junior rankings, you know that the real state of Indian tennis. Only Siddhant Banthia in the top 100 among boys now, compared to a time when there would be at least half a dozen. There are five in the 101-200 range but that does not cause much excitement.
The larger reasons are not far to seek. A couple of decades ago, All India Tennis Association chose to do away with the National ranking tournaments, encouraging its State units to host international events. With time, the number of ITF tournaments in the country has also come down, presenting the juniors with more enormous challenges.
The AITA has the option of looking at men and women players as professionals and leave them to their devices. Or, it can find some ways of supporting them in their quest to get better as players. This can only result in improved performances in Davis Cup and the multi-discipline events like the Asian Games and Olympic Games.
This can happen only if AITA itself sees the annual team events and the quadrennial multi-discipline Games as important milestones in its calendar. The manner in which some players have ignored what can be considered National duty is quite appalling. Worse, in some cases, AITA has actually backed the players’ decision.
If Yuki Bhambri chose to give the Asian Games competition in Palembang the go by because it clashed with the more lucrative US Open – his first round appearance, worth $54,000, helped him increase his earnings this year to $342,243 (more than a third of his career earnings of $906,548) – Sumit Nagal preferred to play the Challenger in Genoa ahead of the Davis Cup tie against Serbia.
To be sure, Yuki Bhambri and Sumit Nagal are not the first players to put their personal careers ahead of National duty. And going by how ‘understanding’ and considerate AITA has been with players like Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna before, it cannot treat Yuki Bhambri and Sumit Nagal any differently.
Yet, it is clear that AITA and the Sports Authority of India, through its Target Olympic Podium Scheme, must find ways to support the tennis players by making available a physiotherapist, a strength and conditioning coach and a mind trainer each in different locations around the country. This will enable the players spend some more of their earnings to play a few more tournaments.
It is imperative that the support system for them is different to the other athletes. Beyond doubt, tennis players cannot be treated the same as athletes or wrestlers or boxers or shooters where players are be in national camps for much of the year and compete in a handful of events. The tennis circuit demands that players be on the road for at least 25 or 30 weeks each year.
Just as the Government supports badminton players – spending on their training and competitive exposure – it should consider providing an elite bunch of 24 tennis players (six each in men, women, boys and girls) with such support. It will increase the competition and ensure that the nation’s best remain on their toes.
Of course, such institutional support may not be necessary for those who are making big money on the professional circuit. And there could be a certain cut-off that the authorities can agree upon with the players so that someone needier can be included in the pool of players being offered such institutional support.
It is also imperative that SAI establishes a handful of Centres of Excellence in its properties across the country to break the business model that has taken the focus away from producing quality. The National Tennis Academy, established by the AITA, has faded away and it is time for SAI to fill the gap, making tennis affordable and at once having a classy support system in place.