Who after Leander and Mahesh?

RAMESH KRISHNAN

WHILE for a casual observer, everything may look hunky dory with Indian tennis 2002, scratch beneath the surface and the close follower will see a slightly different picture. We did have Mahesh Bhupathi win two Grand Slam titles — mixed doubles at Wimbledon and the men's doubles at the U.S. Open — and along with Leander Paes, the doubles title at the Asian Games. The good news ends pretty much there.

The biggest entry on the debit side is the second and what looks like the final split between Leander and Mahesh. All seemed well when they, as usual, started off with a title victory at the TATA Open in Chennai. Granted, their form was a bit scratchy but they had done that in the past also.

After a series of bad losses in the U.S., they parted ways and I got to know of this through the press. It is unfortunate that it all had to end this way. They have been one of the biggest success stories in Indian sport in the past several years and were all set to ride into the sunset together. 1999 was a landmark year for them and, in hindsight, they never came close to it again. Be it injuries or off-court differences, it makes one wonder what might have been....

This was my third year as the captain of the Davis Cup team. And for the third consecutive time, we won our way through the Asian zone, and, like in the past two years, failed to win the qualifying match to get into the main competition. While losing to Sweden, USA and Australia may not be something to be ashamed about, we won only one match out of 15. A spot in the world group looks elusive at the moment.

Leander, once again, was the flag-bearer as far as our Davis Cup wins were concerned. Though our victory against Lebanon in February was routine, Leander Paes, by virtue of his three wins in Beirut became the active Davis Cupper with the best record. This is an achievement we can all be proud of, and will match up with his other honours like the Olympic medal and his doubles victories. I also feel that this feat did not get enough recognition in the local media.

He followed this up with another impressive tie against New Zealand at Wellington. The hosts did not have a top-notch team, but given the hostile conditions — slow courts, heavy balls and cold Antarctic winds — they certainly had it in them to beat us. For the umpteenth time, Leander came up with three victories — and the third one was a closely fought five-setter. This helped us erase past defeats at the hands of the Kiwis.

By the time we played the Aussies in late September, the lack of singles play showed in Leander's game. Leander will be blowing 30 candles come June and it is going to be increasingly difficult to keep up with the younger guns. It is fair to assume that we are seeing the end of an outstanding career.

While Leander was not able to bounce back from the split with Mahesh, the latter handled the situation much better and was able to get back on track. As earlier mentioned, he won his first Wimbledon mixed doubles title and also his first U.S. Open doubles title — in partnership with Max Mirnyi. With this, only the Australian Open is missing. As far as 2003 is concerned, Mahesh is pairing with Joshua Eagle — a player yet to win a major title. Mahesh will be the senior partner and will have to lead the way.

Another problem I see for `doubles specialists' like Leander and Mahesh is that they are losing favour with the ATP Tour. After two editions at Bangalore, there were no takers for the year-end ATP doubles world championships. And the governing body is making some rule changes, which will progressively make it difficult for players relying only on doubles for their livelihood.

The time has come to ask, "Who after Leander and Mahesh?" Three players, Rohan Bopanna, Harsh Mankad and Sunil Kumar have all been making their mark. Each of them has won titles in the `Futures' Tour. Among this group, Rohan Bopanna has made a huge jump in the rankings and is presently the highest ranked Indian in singles. He is a late bloomer (1980-born) and what this means is that his graph has to keep moving upwards. There is not much time for lateral movement. Here's hoping that he keeps up with the same rate of progress.

Harsh Mankad has been a part of the Davis Cup team for the past three seasons. For most of this period, he has also been busy pursuing his college degree. This is like riding two horses at the same time and finally, this year, he has decided to take the plunge. A late season flourish saw him regain some lost ground in the rankings and he is in a similar position as Rohan. He has to make his move quickly.

Sunil Kumar is the youngest of this triumvirate. A few years ago, as a 16-year-old, he won the National title, a remarkable achievement. But since then, he has not been able to make the necessary adjustments to the demands of professional tennis. As he finishes with his teens, he has his work cut out. I feel he has lost a bit of the early confidence and it is important that he gets back on track quickly.

I don't want to give too bleak a picture and would like to end this piece on a positive note. The silver lining for Indian Tennis 2003 has been provided by the girls. And by this, I am talking about the under-16 brigade. Sania Mirza is the name worth mentioning among this lot. She has been ranked within the top 50 girls in the world and still has two seasons left amongst the juniors. Meanwhile, she has also started making inroads in the `open' category. This is most important. I feel too many juniors are not prepared to make that smooth transition once they reach the senior level. This is a critical time for the player and requires a lot of planning.

I do have some first hand knowledge of the younger lot of girls out there. I see quite a few who have opted out of mainstream schooling to pursue their tennis very seriously. This should pay rich dividends to some of them. There are also many more international tournaments available for the girls in India and, thankfully, the gender bias is slowly going away. I am sure that within the next few years, we are going to be hearing some good news from our girls.

My best wishes for the year 2003.