Waiting in the wings to soar high

It was India, five times over, against the New Zealanders in Chandigarh.-PTI

India will need a guide like Leander Paes, if it nurses high aspirations. There is a bunch of quality players who have the potential to make Indian tennis the pride of Asia, writes Kamesh Srinivasan.

The doubles stars may be in trouble, but the singles specialists are doing great for Indian tennis, promising a bright future.

Forget the doubles stars Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna who keep the Indian flag fluttering in the Grand Slams, and even the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Somdev Devvarman, who hasn’t come to terms with his tennis on return from a shoulder surgery.

In such a scenario, Yuki Bhambri and company have been making waves in recent times to send a positive signal about what lies ahead for Indian tennis.

The 20-year-old Yuki, in particular, has been doing very well in the professional circuit, winning the Challenger titles, in both singles and doubles. He has been able to reach a career-best rank of 179, the best for an Indian after Devvarman, who was able to get a wild card for the Olympics and enter the U.S. Open on an injury-protected ranking.

It is quite commendable that the former world No.1 junior and the Youth Olympics silver medallist, Yuki has been able to make the transition in the professional circuit, thanks to the constant guidance of coach Aditya Sachdeva, and his own willingness to slug it out.

The good point is that it is not just Yuki, but a clutch of youngsters have been able to make meaningful progress.

Vishnu Vardhan made the breakthrough into the big league thanks to Leander Paes, who nurtured him for a few weeks in the run-up to the Olympics. Vishnu was able to match the best in the business, albeit in doubles in Olympics, and the way he smashed return winners against world No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France and volleyed on par with the multiple Grand Slam champion Michael Llodra, has given him tremendous confidence. He may not have been able to breach the top-200 like Yuki, but the 262nd-ranked Vishnu has also been improving and working very hard on his fitness.

In between, the talented Sanam Singh, who won the Asian Games doubles gold medal with Devvarman, has been able to overcome ill-health to make the quarterfinals of a Challenger, beating Yuki along the way in Shanghai!

Throw in Sriram Balaji, who has been able to win the Futures events abroad apart from making the semifinals of a Challenger as a qualifier, and Saketh Myneni, who has been dominating the Futures circuit at home, you have a healthy bunch, ready to take Indian tennis forward. We have not even discussed a talented player like Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, who has also been doing his bit.

With the left-handed Divij Sharan combining well with both Yuki and Vishnu to dominate the Challenger circuit and reaching a career-best doubles rank of 94, the best after Paes, Bhupathi and Bopanna in the last 20 years, there is all-round growth in Indian men’s tennis.

It was this healthy trend that was reflected in young India’s 5-0 victory over New Zealand in the Davis Cup Asia-Oceania relegation play-off in Chandigarh. Of course, the quality of tennis was nothing much to crow about, except for Vishnu’s singles match in the ‘live’ second rubber, and Sanam’s on court brilliance in the dead fifth rubber.

Yuki Bhambri... from hopelessness to hope.-AKHILESH KUMAR

The Kiwis lacked the will to fight and thus it was no surprise that Yuki Bhambri was able to overcome a 3-6, 0-6 loss in the first two sets to beat Daniel King-Turner, in the first five-setter of his career. Yuki definitely has played much superior tennis in beating Izak van der Merwe of South Africa in 2009 and Denis Isotmin of Uzbekistan earlier this year.

Even in the reverse singles against the Kiwi No. 1, Jose Statham, Yuki was able to win after losing the first set 2-6 as his opponent lacked the will to drive home the advantage. In six hours of tennis, spread over eight sets, Yuki may not have won many new fans, but the fast court and the humid conditions, not to forget the below par tennis that the Kiwis played, all conspired to project him in poor light.

Vishnu was quite explosive with his power tennis, but “lost the legs” suddenly in the doubles in partnership with Divij. But the two stepped up in the fifth set to ensure victory for India on the second day itself despite rain having taken away four hours of play spread over two days.

Vishnu highlighted the Indian effort quite appropriately, by saying that it was more about the heart than tennis. Actually, the Kiwis lacked the heart for a healthy fight, and that made it easier for the Indian lads to ensure that the team stayed in the Asia-Oceania group ‘I’ for the next season.

When Devvarman returns to the squad in February next year, the team could be quite formidable, ready to take on the best of teams in the region like Australia, Uzbekistan and Chinese Taipei.

The former captain of the Indian Davis Cup team, Ramesh Krishnan said that the boys have the time to get ready for the next tie. He stressed that their growth would be gauged more in the professional circuit rather than in the Davis Cup competition which happens once in about six months.

“Winning this match was good news, but it will be tougher as we go along. Maybe, the pressure of playing at home against a team you were supposed to beat got to them. Asia-Oceania is one of the toughest zones in the world,” said Ramesh as he analysed the scenario.

Vishnu Vardhan and Divij Sharan... making a makeshift combination work.-AKHILESH KUMAR

“We need to have consistent performances at the higher level. Winning when you are not playing well is also a good thing. But, it has become so competitive that you can’t afford to play at 65 or 75 per cent at any time, as you will be left behind,” felt Ramesh.

For sure, the team will need a guide like Leander Paes, if it nurses high aspirations. There is a bunch of quality players who have the potential to make Indian tennis the pride of Asia.

THE RESULTS

India beat New Zealand 5-0 (Yuki Bhambri bt Daniel King-Turner 3-6, 0-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2; Vishnu Vardhan bt Jose Statham 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-2; Vishnu Vardhan and Divij Sharan bt Daniel King-Turner and Michael Venus 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-3; Yuki Bhambri bt Jose Statham 2-6, 7-5, 7-6 (5); Sanam Singh bt Artem Sitak 6-4, 6-1).