Zeeshan Ali: Next few years are going to be tough for Indian doubles

Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali feels the time has come to blood a new generation of Indian players.

India lost to Finland in the Davis Cup World Group I tie.   -  Finnish Tennis Association

India’s tame 1-3 defeat to Finland in a Davis Cup World Group I tie last weekend has raised fresh questions about standard of the sport in the country. There is currently no Indian men’s singles player ranked in the top-150, and this year, Sumit Nagal’s first round appearance in the Australian Open – courtesy a wild card – was the lone Major main draw singles match featuring an Indian.

Zeeshan Ali, Davis Cup coach, feels the next few years will be a period of painful rebuilding. Excerpts from an interview:

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What were the reasons for the defeat?

Both against Croatia’s Borna Gojo (rank 277) in the World Group qualifier last year and Finland’s Otto Virtanen (rank 419), we were hoping that Prajnesh [Gunneswaran] would win. He was ranked around 150. In Davis Cup, rankings don’t always matter but the player has to play as per his ranking. Yes, Virtanen played like a top-100 player, but it cannot always be the case that only your opponent rises to the occasion.

It has been six years since an Indian beat a higher ranked player in the Davis Cup [164-Somdev Devvarman against 40-Jiri Vesely in 2015]. You have to reach beyond what you are capable of and the biggest example is Leander Paes. Ramkumar Ramanathan’s matches against [Marin] Cilic and [Emil] Ruusuvuori were close, but it never felt like he was in a position to win. The difference in class and the level of tennis showed.

Doubles specialists are also ageing. Is the cupboard empty?

No doubt the next few years are going to be tough. We have just two or three players to rely on. Sumit, Ramkumar and Yuki [Bhambri], if fit. We need to consistently play top-100 level tennis. Our players should compete in bigger events consistently, not just Challengers, so that they know what to do against top-notch opponents like Cilic. We need to start building a younger team, with 17 and 18-year-olds, and invest time and money in those with hunger.

Do you see any positive signs?

It’s a little hazy. Sumit needs to play, and Sasi Kumar [Mukund] also. It was bit disappointing to see them skipping Davis Cup to play Challengers. In our days, Davis Cup meant so much. You are not just doing it for yourself, but for the country. That feeling and emotional connect seem to be lacking now [in the younger generation]. Sumit, Ramkumar… these are the guys who can still deliver. And we need the younger guys to step up in doubles.

How much is India’s tennis ecosystem to blame?

The top-200 players need to be playing bigger events. As far as I know, ATP 250 in Pune is not happening in 2022. So, the next big tournament will be end of 2022 or early 2023. Where does that leave our players? One event of that calibre is not enough. We need to have four or five.

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