In the past four years, there has been an Indian among the winners at nine of the 17 Grand Slam tournaments held. Over this period, India has also broken into the Davis Cup Top-20, even ahead of European countries like Austria and Bulgaria, which can boast players such as Dominic Thiem and Grigor Dimitrov, who are regulars in the upper echelons of tennis.
To impart a halo to this, we can summon the yesteryear greats such as Ramanathan Krishnan, Ramesh Krishnan and the Brothers Amritraj — Anand and Vijay — who have displayed their skills at sites like the Wimbledon, the Holy Grail of tennis, and made India a force to reckon with by taking it to the Davis Cup final thrice — in 1966, 1974 and 1987.
In fact, India is the best tennis nation never to have won the Cup, a record which until recently belonged to Argentina, which had lost four finals before winning in 2016. Can it get any rosier than this for Indian tennis?
This is the kind of narrative those in charge of Indian tennis, more often than not, seem to delude themselves with. It’s a glossy exterior no doubt, but dig even an inch deep, it’s all coarse. All nine of those Grand Slam tournament wins are in the doubles, including five in the mixed variety, an event, with all due respect to it, doesn’t even exist outside the Majors. India doesn’t have even one player in the singles Top-200.
The Top-100 in ATP singles has come to resemble a promised land, with only two Indians — Somdev Devvarman (now retired) and Yuki Bhambri — setting foot on it in recent times. So much so, that for an Indian to make it to the main draw of India’s only big-ticket tennis event, the Chennai Open, it’s the benevolence of its administrators — who issue wildcards — that matters.
“I think one is the financial part,” said Zeeshan Ali, India’s Davis Cup coach, when asked about the dearth of good singles players. “There are too few players who have the support which is needed. Playing Challengers and Futures is okay to get up to 200 and 250 in rankings. But up and above that, you need to travel and it’s extremely expensive. We lose a lot of players because of that.
“In Europe every country is just three to four hours away. You can drive from one country to the other. It’s a hundred times cheaper than here. In India to just go to Kolkata, stay and play a tournament it costs around Rs. 30,000.”
In this scenario, it certainly doesn’t help that India plays host to few tournaments for players. From a high of five in 2014, the number of Challengers has dropped to two in 2016. In comparison, players from Spain and France rarely venture out in their formative years. And for those in the neighbouring countries, like Zeeshan said, tournaments are just a drive away.
Even in the United States, Doug MacCurdy, the director of player development for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) from 1998 to 2001, told The New York Times in an article published back in 2009, that if a kid becomes serious about tennis, parents are likely to spend close to $30,000 a year, which roughly translates to Rs. 20 lakh.
Yet, money, as Zeeshan opined, is just one part. Considering the fact that tennis is now seeing the rise of the eastern-European block, in both the men’s and women’ sections, money and infrastructure can no longer be the sole reasons. These countries, for most part, have been on the “peripheries” of the world economy. Afflicted as they have been by political instability and repression, coupled with no special tennis tradition in most of them, India seems much better off. Infrastructure in cities such as Chennai, New Delhi, Hyderabad and Pune, though not yet world-class, are more than decent.
“We don’t have enough coaches, who can frame the kids’ games once they get out of under-12s and under-14s,” said Zeeshan. “There are not many to help players make that transition. There are a lot of good coaches at the grassroots. I have been coaching for close to 22 years in the United States, Europe etc. It took me five to six years to learn how to coach. Now I know what I am capable of. But there aren’t enough coaches out on the court. There are a lot of people promoting the game; former players, administrators etc. But too few on the court.”
“A number of players get lost in that transition,” said Saketh Myneni, India’s highest ranked singles player. “When I started off, there weren’t many professional tennis players. Parents are much more supportive of their children’s career choices now. But it’s tough both physically and mentally. Tennis is an unforgiving sport. If you drop a bit, getting back up is a long road. We need more funding and sponsors.”
While it would be difficult to identify any one variable as a distinguishing factor, a hitherto unexplored area in the discussions is the surface on which Indians grow up playing. In most of the European countries tennis is largely played on red clay. As counterintuitive an explanation as it may seem, since clay-court tennis is considered niche, there is growing evidence of its positive role in shaping youngsters’ style of play.
It is worthwhile to note that the current predicament of a lack of top-notch American singles players — for America top-notch means Top-10 — can be traced to the above aspect. Tennis in the United States through the 1990s and early 2000s was dominated by those who were just one serve, one volley or one booming groundstroke away from winning a point. Andre Agassi was perhaps the only exception. But bereft of clay-court play, it put them at a severe disadvantage against the Europeans who were bred on it. It is no surprise that Agassi was the only one among them to win the French Open.
No doubt the courts are more homogenous now than ever before and we no longer see “experts” like we did before the turn of the millennium. But it cannot be denied that the games of this era of players are better rounded and better equipped to excel across surfaces. Stan Wawrinka’s first notable success was not on a hard court, but on clay when he won the junior French Open in 2003.
“For those aged 12 to 15, clay is the ultimate surface,” explains Zeeshan. “Those who play on clay are fitter and stronger. It trains you for the physical rigour. It also does a lot in shaping the mental side of the game. It teaches you how to construct a point. It teaches you how to hit 12 balls to win a point.
“The clay we have in India is a mix of mud and sand. I would say that the speed of clay here is faster than a hard court abroad. It’s like a hard court sprinkled with sand. So we have to rely on playing on sub-standard clay courts. Then they (players) go abroad and see the clay courts there and find something entirely different.”
For a start, however, India needs to relinquish its doubles fetish. It’s true that from Leander Paes to Rohan Bopanna to Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, all have given up their singles careers in search of success on the doubles tour. But it’s difficult to begrudge the players as it is matter of livelihood for many. The reforms are needed at the roots wherein a player picking up the sport should feel confident of his staying power to continue playing singles.
“It does cross your mind,” said the 29-year-old Myneni when asked if he would consider shifting to doubles later. “If you aren’t moving up in singles, it does appeal. But it hasn’t crossed my mind thus far. I enjoy playing both and my goal is now to crack the Top-100 in singles.”
Indian tennis cannot afford to lose more.