Basically, individual-driven!

It is a miracle that despite all the neglect, Indian tennis is staying healthy. If the government steps in to lay hundreds of thousands of tennis courts around the country, we can definitely have a Grand Slam singles champion.

Ramesh, his father Krishnan and Leander Paes at the CLTA stadium in Chandigarh in September 1993. It was a treat to watch them in full flow! Krishnan’s exploits in the 1950s and 60s were ethereal, while Ramesh showed the genes he was made of. Leander, a fighter to the core, is the endurance man of Indian tennis.   -  V. V. KRISHNAN

Indian tennis is vibrant, thanks to the good seeds sown over the decades. Some of the healthy trees have been brutally cut, but that is the modern trend!

Basically it is individuals around whom the game has been spun, and they have sustained it over the years with their splendid deeds.

From Ramanathan Krishnan, Jaidip Mukerjea, Vijay Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan and over to Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza, the champions with their exemplary performances around the world, have taken the game forward by instilling the belief in the youth back home that anything is possible, if you put mind, body and resources together.

Leander Paes winning the bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, behind Andre Agassi of the US and Sergi Bruguera of Spain, changed Indian tennis forever. The beauty of the sport is such that the architect of that improbable triumph, Leander, has continued to hang on for five more Olympics.

Everyone cannot be a Leander, but he has given the belief to every aspiring player that you can continue forever, even on the demanding professional circuit, if you nurture your body and mind well.

After a streak of the odd player keeping Indian tennis alive, what triggered a sequence of unprecedented success was the emergence of Mahesh Bhupathi to shoulder the responsibility on a par with Leander.

After being taken into the Davis Cup team in 1994, Mahesh stabilised in the next couple of years to take the big steps on the world stage. The breakthrough was when he won the French Open mixed doubles title with Rika Hiraki of Japan in 1997. It was the first Grand Slam title for India.

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Vijay Amritraj was simply phenomenal with his all-round game and stretched Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

 

Thereafter, Leander and Mahesh as a pair kept getting better and better and made the finals of all the four Grand Slams in 1999, winning the French Open and Wimbledon. The mixed doubles titles too came in a steady flow, as both made judicious choices to reap rich rewards. Even though many kept saying, “Oh only doubles,” this was absolutely world class, as Leander and Mahesh matched any player across the net, from the Woodies, Jonas Bjorkman and Daniel Nestor.

Singles understandably took a back seat for two reasons. One, the shoulders were not able to take the load, and, more importantly, it was difficult to take a huge pay cut and play the Challengers, when there was big money to win in the big events, in doubles.

After all, professional tennis players compete to make a good living from the game, and it would have been imprudent to say no to the main task of winning money.

The Leander-Mahesh combination was too good to last for long even though there were repeated attempts to reignite the old spark as a pair. The missed medal at the Athens Olympics, when Leander and Mahesh lost the semifinals, after beating the likes of Federer and Andy Roddick along the way, and losing the bronze match to the Croats Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic, will haunt them all their lives. The duo also lost many finals in World Doubles Championships.

The two were poles apart in personality, but combined brilliantly. It was great till the partnership lasted.

Then, along came Sania Mirza, after Nirupama Sanjeev (nee Vaidyanathan) had done her bit to project Indian women’s tennis on the Grand Slam stage.

Sania Mirza revolutionised Indian tennis. From winning the junior Wimbledon doubles title to being the Asian junior champion and taking the junior Fed Cup team to No. 5 in the world along with Ankita Bhambri, Sania used every possible opportunity to lay a strong foundation for a brilliant career.

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Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi with the mixed doubles winners’ trophy at the French Open in June 2012. Selecting their partners judiciously, the duo struck gold on the international doubles circuit. Mahesh’s partnership with Leander is also the stuff of legend.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

From skyrocketing to No. 27 in the world in singles and staying as the world No.1 in doubles for a long time, Sania showed the power of the fearless Indian woman.

She achieved what Leander and Mahesh couldn’t... making the kids take up the game in a big way all over the country.

Of course, she was also guilty of making the game expensive and beyond the reach of the middle class, as the coaches jacked up the rates, encashing on the tennis boom. There were many private courts and academies springing to life all around the country, but the government missed a great chance to provide a strong support to the game by not setting up thousands of courts.

As Ramanathan Krishnan so beautifully put it, a court at home had helped him and his son Ramesh to get a headstart over the others. Since tennis is not played in big numbers, the cost of equipment has also not come down to affordable levels, even though everything looks to be manufactured in China.

It may be unfair to blame the government, because tennis was always run in an autonomous fashion, without government interference or support.

The All India Tennis Association (AITA) has done its bit by conducting national and international tournaments for many years. It also had the Dharam Hinduja Academy in Delhi and later the National Tennis Academy (NTA) on the Gurgaon-Pataudi Road to hone talented juniors.

But, like all good things, even these practises stopped at some stage, leaving the players to fend for themselves. Stopping such good endeavours was akin to cutting the trees.

It was a classic case of both the government and the national federation disowning the game and washing their hands off. Only those who could afford could play the game, and it was natural for the coaches to keep saying that the players didn’t have the “hunger.’’ What most failed to notice was that kids with the hunger for success never got to play the game, as it had become unaffordable.

The big private leagues like the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) and the Champions Tennis League (CTL), which had the biggest names in the game including Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and any other big name that you would care to remember, showed that there was plenty of money to tap for the game.

People travelled from all over the country and paid big money for the tickets to watch the first edition of the IPTL at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium in the capital.

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The iconic Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were brought to India by the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) in December 2015. The League showed that big money could be made in India through such events.   -  SANDEEP SAXENA

 

With a healthy system, all the interest could have turned into success for Indian tennis. Moreover, there was Apollo Tyres which put in ₹100 crore for the development of tennis in an attempt to produce a Grand Slam champion, but it closed shop soon, as the project was not well managed by Mahesh Bhupathi and company.

After the Britannia Amritraj Tennis (BAT) academy run by Vijay Amritraj and family in Chennai had produced fabulous results, despite minimum infrastructure that was hired on rent, there was no better follow-up, even though the Krishnans had a nice centre in Chennai with about 10 courts.

The conduct of the ATP Tour event first in Delhi in 1996 and then in Chennai from the next year, before it relocated to Pune last year, proved that there were enough resources to run big shows.

In between, Mahesh Bhupathi himself ran a few ATP and WTA events in the country. These big events kept the game alive, even as the players struggled in the absence of a domestic circuit.

From all this emerged Somdev Devvarman. Hailing from the North East and honed in Chennai, he went on to take the American collegiate route to strengthen his tennis career. After winning the prestigious NCAA title twice, beating no less than the towering serve machine John Isner in the final, Somdev did justice to his strong legs by reaching a career best rank of 68. He went on to capture the Commonwealth and the Asian Games gold medals and played his part in the Davis Cup. Together with Rohan Bopanna, and the incomparable doubles duo of Leander and Mahesh, Somdev guided India to a 3-2 win over Brazil in the World Group in Chennai, after the host was 0-2 down on the opening day.

In 1987, India had reached the Davis Cup final, like it had done twice earlier. But, after reaching the semifinals in 1993, India was taught an unforgettable lesson on grass by the Aussies in Chandigarh, as the team failed to win a single set in five rubbers.

It was also the first time the players fought for their rights, and after negotiations by Ramanathan Krishnan, Dr. Vece Paes and the great captain Naresh Kumar, the AITA under the shrewd leadership of R. K. Khanna agreed to pay ₹20 lakh each to Ramesh and Leander. It was big money in 1993, even for the professional tennis players, who were investing a lot in their game.

With Bopanna stepping it up and winning the French Open mixed doubles with Gabriela Dabrowski of Canada last year, and looking good for more, there is plenty of promise.

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Many private tennis academies have sprouted in India. This one in Bengaluru has been promoted by tennis star Rohan Bopanna. However, the Government is not showing enough interest to lay public courts and make the game affordable to all.   -  K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

 

Bopanna and Sania had their hands firmly on the Olympic medal in mixed doubles in Rio with a commanding performance in the semifinals against Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram before they crumbled. The Czech pair of Radek Stepanek and Lucie Hradecka proved too good in the bronze play-off.

Yuki Bhambri, Ramkumar Ramanathan and Prajnesh Gunneswaran, along with Saketh Myneni, have stepped it up repeatedly on the ATP circuit. Sriram Balaji and Vishnu Vardhan have tried to break into the big league by entering Wimbledon, while Divij Sharan and Purav Raja along with Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan have become regular on the ATP and Grand Slam circuits, albeit in doubles.

Ankita Raina broke through by winning the women’s singles bronze at the Asian Games in Palembang, a rare feat after Sania Mirza had won eight medals in four Games, including two gold and an imcomparable silver when she blasted Li Na off the court in the semifinals in Doha.

There is Karman Kaur Thandi providing a big hope for Indian women’s tennis. The juniors do not figure in the top-100 of the world any more and that is cause for concern, after Zeel Desai, Mahak Jain and Mihika Yadav did well to be in or around the top-30 last year.

It is a miracle that despite all the neglect, Indian tennis is staying healthy. If the government steps in to lay hundreds of thousands of tennis courts around the country, we can definitely have a Grand Slam singles champion. China and Japan have shown the way. We need to just copy a bit, the good habits.