With East Asian doors shut, Indians go knocking elsewhere

China, Japan, Korea and Thailand have been off the tennis map for two years forcing players to scramble for tournaments due to COVID-19.

Prajnesh Gunneswaran watching a match with other Indian players, at the 2022 Bengaluru Open ATP Challenger.   -  MURALI KUMAR

The East Asian ATP Challenger circuit has been a happy hunting ground for Indians. Yuki Bhambri and Prajnesh Gunneswaran have won a combined seven ATP Challenger titles and all have come in India and East Asia.

However, the complete washout of tournaments in China, Japan, South Korea and Thailand for two full years because of the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a body blow. The period has coincided with India having no player in the singles top-150.

Against a yearly average of 22 Challengers in the region from 2017 to 2019, only two were held in 2020. Though the total number of Challengers around the world in 2021 (147) was on par with pre-pandemic levels (average of 157 from 2017 to 2019) after a lowly 57 in 2020, there were zero Challengers in East Asia. Not a single event figures in the calendar released until April 2022 too.

“It has been quite tricky and a bit of struggle,” said Prajnesh, who played ten events in East Asia in 2019. “Being closer to home makes it easier for travelling. It’s quicker to come back if you are out early and you have a bit more time to train.”

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The fact that almost 90% of the tournaments in East Asia are on synthetic surfaces has had an impact. Indians prefer hard courts but now have to play a lot more on clay as the tournaments have moved to Europe and the Americas.

“It is what you are comfortable with, and if that is taken away, it makes the job difficult,” said Yuki. “Indians, growing up, have generally played on hard courts. It is already tough to break into the top-100, and [this] has affected a lot of Asians, not just Indians.”

“Four massive countries in the Asian region are shut. I don’t think sport is a preference there. It is more how to save lives. Everybody has had a different approach, and for Asia that is the approach,” Yuki added.

That Europe is the global hotbed of tennis doesn’t help. When tournaments plummet to the levels seen in 2020 (57), the competition is fierce.

“When they have less events, the draw is deeper, and it gets a little bit harder to make results,” said Prajnesh. “Hopefully, this is the last wave, and we can go back to normalcy. But we have accepted things are as of now and play wherever events are and make the most of them.”

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