Youngsters with hope

What next? Who after Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi? These questions have been haunting Indian tennis for quite some time. A few talented youngsters have stood up to answer, but they are obviously not as successful as Paes and Bhupathi in their performances.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

Rohan Bopanna is enjoying his Davis Cup play. More than that, he is learning to train like a professional in the company of Leander and Mahesh.-Pic. V. GANESAN

What next? Who after Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi? These questions have been haunting Indian tennis for quite some time. A few talented youngsters have stood up to answer, but they are obviously not as successful as Paes and Bhupathi in their performances.

Rohan Bopanna heads the latest list of aspirants. The 6' 4" tall 24-year-old Coorgi lad cannot be easily overlooked. Playing along with Paes and Bhupathi should have given Bopanna a wealth of Davis Cup experience.

Bopanna did not make much news when he made the final of the Asian Championship in Tashkent, immediately after the Busan Asian Games.

He beat a string of quality players in the top-200 region in that championship. He later beat the 83rd ranked top seed Hyung-Taik Lee of Korea in a Challenger in Bangkok.

But when Bopanna beat a 500-odd ranked Jun Kato in the decisive fourth rubber in the Davis Cup match against Japan in February, the young man hogged the limelight.

In the Cup play against New Zealand, he recovered after a five-set defeat against retired professional Alistair Hunt, to record another convincing win over James Shortall, a doubles specialist, in the tie-clinching fourth rubber.

Now Bopanna has no complaints. He is enjoying his Davis Cup play.

More than that, he is learning to train like a professional in the company of Leander and Mahesh. He also gets able guidance from captain Ramesh Krishnan.

With a big serve, strong groundstrokes, which he unleashes quite delightfully on the hardcourts (he is more comfortable playing on hardcourts rather on the unpredictable grass), Bopanna has the game to be among the top players. He is now determined to take the big steps into the next league.

The former captain of the Indian Davis Cup team, Naresh Kumar, was quite categorical that Bopanna has the talent to make it big, though he did not hide his disappointment that Mahesh did not pursue his singles career.

``The biggest advantage with Bopanna is he goes for the strokes. He does not believe in keeping back anything. That is a good trait,'' said Naresh Kumar.

He has hired Prahlad Srinath to be his travelling coach, with his own resources, though the AITA supports him to compete in tournaments.

Till he starts winning the Challengers and makes a few waves in the ATP Tour events, Bopanna will continue to be treated as part of the Indian second string, though he may have the honour of being the No.1 singles player for the country in Davis Cup.

Harsh Mankad is next in the line. The smart young man has been unable to make the jump into the next league mainly because of lack of physical power.

A player of considerable skill and mental strength, who reads the game a lot better than anybody else, the talented son of former Test cricketer Ashok Mankad and national tennis champion Nirupama Mankad, has been struggling to be consistent even at the Futures level.

As Ramesh Krishnan observed, a combination of Rohan Bopanna and Harsh Mankad could be the answer to the aspirations of Indian tennis in its quest to find a top player.

It is in this context that the 19-year-old Prakash Amritraj offers some hope. Son of Vijay Amritraj, a legend of Indian tennis, Prakash has been fortunate to have the best resources and a wealth of knowledge to fall upon.

Prakash did not leave much of an impression when he went down tamely to Jiri Vanek of the Czech Republic in the Tata Open in Chennai.

But has notched up a few impressive wins in the qualifying events of the $355,000 Tour events in Scottsdale and San Jose, including the one over the 100th ranked Alexander Waske of Germany.

A serve and volleyer, who can hit winners on either flank, Prakash has the game to play in the big league.

He has played a couple of Challengers in India a couple of years back, but Prakash, who has become eligible to represent India in Davis Cup from April 1, will be watched with interest in the coming Challengers in Bangalore and Delhi.

``I believe in making points from the big tournaments as well as the small tournaments, rather than from a large number of small tournaments,'' says Prakash.

That is the difference between him and a whole lot of Indian players, who have been caught in the $10,000 circuit, and been unable to move higher from there.

Quite honestly, except for a few like Bopanna, Harsh, Sunil Kumar and Vinod Sridhar, the others have not been able to win singles titles at the Futures level.

That is a disappointment, considering the number of international tournaments that are being held in this country.

It has, in fact, been a little counter-productive to have so many tournaments at home, as the players have struggled to make a mark in the events abroad.

A classic example was the case of talented Sunil Kumar, who had won the national title when he was 16; was awarded a wild card for the $ 400,000 Gold Flake Open; and had since won a couple of Futures titles at home. The same lad did not win one round of singles in three Futures tournaments in New Zealand recently.

There has been a lot of talk that the left-hander needs coaching support, but unless you show results abroad it is not going to be any easy to win support, no matter that you have Leander Paes to speak for you.

Actually, Mustafa Ghouse, Ajay Ramaswami and Rishi Sridhar were also there in that New Zealand circuit. Ghouse and Sridhar came good in the last tournament; it was a face-saving effort.

All said, the drive shown by players like Vijay Kannan, Ghouse, Sunil Kumar, Nitin Kirtane, Ajay Ramaswami, Vinod Sridhar, Vishaal Uppal and Rishi Sridhar within their limited resources has been commendable.

The national association has been restricting itself to conducting a string of international tournaments and funding a couple of players for tournaments abroad.

For sure, there has been no system to tap the talent, and provide the right guidance through professional coaching.

Players who are struggling to keep themselves on the Tour cannot be expected to spend on coaches to travel with them. Without the coaching support, the Indian talent will continue to stagnate.

``If a highly successful Indian cricket team has a professional coach from New Zealand, why can't tennis have a professional coach who would lift the standards?'' asks Happy Bhalla, the US-based coach who has been coaching Vishaal Uppal and Harsh Mankad in recent months. Quite thankfully, there are some juniors like Somdev Dev Varman and Karan Rastogi who are trying to make a lively career in tennis. Somdev, in particular, has shown that he has an all-round game, athleticism and the hunger to succeed.

``Skill at an early age is the key to development,'' says the junior development officer of the AITA, Sunil Yajaman.

The tremendous success of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi has not helped much in stopping the rush to the US Universities, and that is saying quite a lot.

It is for the players like Bopanna, Harsh and Prakash to show that Indian professionals do have the ability to rise above mediocrity in the intensely competitive world of professional tennis.