What ails Indian tennis?

It is only generous corporate support that can help make a modest player into a significant one after years of toil. It is from this bucket that we can hope to raise another Krishnan or Amritraj.

T. K. Ramanathan, a tennis player of good quality himself, coached both his son Ramanathan Krishnan and grandson Ramesh Krishnan to international fame. Such committed parents are hard to come by these days.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The Amritraj brothers, Vijay (extreme right), Anand and Ashok too were honed by their parents, especially their mother, Maggie.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The legendary Boris Becker, with the most happening thing in tennis today, Novak Djokovic. Becker, who is now the coach of Djokovic, says that the tougher it gets, the better the Serbian player becomes.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Rocket (Laver) was one of the slowest kids in the class, but his speed picked up as he grew stronger... was willing to work harder than the rest, and it was soon apparent that he had more talent than any of our fine players.

— Legendary coach Harry Hopman on Rod Laver

Given our not so impressive achievements in international competitions, a periodic introspection on the state of our sports is a useful exercise. This is especially in the context of our one track obsession with cricket that has cost us dearly.

Hockey was one of our strong points until about two decades ago, until cricket took over. Many like Australia, Germany and Holland have surpassed us with their belligerent style, displacing our deft and graceful stick-work.

We were never a great tennis nation, but had stalwarts like Ramanathan Krishnan, Ramesh and Vijay Amritraj who reckoned even in Grand Slam events. It is disappointing that we have thereafter not had anyone of their class and achievements. While every country — including prominent tennis nations such as Australia and the U. S. — goes through a transient drought, ours looks to be permanent. Recent achievements of Leander Pas and Sania Mirza, however creditable, cannot be exaggerated, because they have come in doubles and not singles, which generally sets the standard by which a player is evaluated. The highest ATP-ranked Indian now is Yuki Bhambri at 107. Lower are Ramkumar Ramanathan (213) and Somdev Devvarman (252). To produce others of at least this level is not going to be easy. This calls for not only individual talent, but tremendous organisational support.

Tennis is still reasonably popular in different regions of the country. In my four decades of association with the game and my wide travels within the country, I have seldom seen a district headquarters town without a tennis court or two. The scene is changing with the ravaging demand for space. There is the dismaying trend of many historic locations like the Loyola College, Chennai — Ramanathan Krishnan and the Amritrajs came from there — cutting down on courts. At some places, especially colleges, tennis courts have yielded place to concrete buildings. Nothing can be more painful.

 

The annual Stanley Cup event at Loyola College was once considered the nursery for future achievers. The event evoked incredible response from players as well as spectators. It was competition at its best. Loyola had more than 15 tennis courts at any point of time, and therefore the tournament was quite a draw. Both Krishnan and his illustrious son Ramesh won the championship as schoolboys, competing against senior players of repute. (The two won the Junior Wimbledon as well.) Vijay was another champion here. All this is history. It is sad that there are no signs of a resurgence.

Let us face it. Making even a few modest waves in international tennis is a hard grind. Shaping young hopefuls into good finished products from their callow years is a delicate task. This is what T. K. Ramanathan, the warrior from Tenkasi, did with his hugely talented son who walked into two semis at Wimbledon and took India into a finals in Davis Cup. TKR was a hard task master. He did not stop merely with his son. He went on to drill his illustrious grandson and Ramesh was a deserving beneficiary.

A decade later Maggie Amritraj somewhat did likewise to shape her three sprightly and motivated sons — Anand, Vijay and Ashok — who remain important figures in the history of Indian tennis. These are two instances where parental involvement made all the difference. This is no longer the case. I have seen with my own eyes how a mother or father, even in the 1980s, spent his or her time sitting close to the baseline at the Madras Gymkhana and Madras Cricket Club, keeping a hawk-like eye on their wards and admonishing them for the slightest of errors. At that time, every parent had visions of a Krishnan or Amritraj in their sons. Unfortunately this was not to be. These parents have vanished from the scene, because, in these days of a rat race in every walk of life, they would prefer to concentrate on their own profession, rather than chasing a distant and possibly illusory dream of their son or daughter achieving international fame!

The record of the All India Tennis Association (AITA) is far better than many other sports bodies. It has done some good work in fostering talent and popularising the game in a number of States. The only discordant fact is that there is still a widely held view that tennis is a game for the elite and the rich. Even conceding that the AITA helps with subsidised tennis balls, what about the individual player’s equipment? Both rackets and shoes cost a lot. Will the AITA subsidise these also down to the small town? All this costs too much of an investment. We cannot expect the government to chip in, until there is a change in the image of tennis as one that only the affluent play. We necessarily have to turn to corporate support. The tragedy is, sponsorship, that would benefit individual players, instead of only supporting tournaments, is still negligible. Funding of a major tournament like the ATP’s Chennai Open is not enough. Money has to go down to the level of a dedicated and promising young player, who has the potential to cope with the exacting standards of international tennis.

It ultimately boils down to a young player making it big on his own steam. It is a hard grind to achieve even modest success. Long hours of gruelling practice without thinking of immediate results is a sine qua non for success. Unlike in the past, the younger players of the present times hardly get a chance to play with seniors. Interaction on and off the court between players of different age groups can greatly benefit the one who is willing to rough it out in the hope of making it big. Unfortunate also is the growing trend of those in their 20s giving up the game too soon, disillusioned by their inability to raise their standards. If you read the biographies of a Laver, Emerson or Agassi you will understand how, despite earlier disappointments and reverses, dogged determination backed by single-minded devotion to the game worked wonders.

Participation in tournaments both at home and outside is a basic requirement. This is expensive. Air travel and hotel costs are mounting. A young player will have to fend for himself. Prize money in the early rounds is modest. More than anything else, every up and coming player needs a trainer. This is also an expensive proposition. A talented and dedicated trainer will undeniably make all the difference. Where will the money come from? It is only generous corporate support that can help make a modest player into a significant one after years of toil. It is from this bucket that we can hope to raise another Krishnan or Amritraj. Nothing else may work. Meanwhile, we would do well to indoctrinate our young aspirants to study Novak Djokovic’s life, especially what his coach Boris Becker said the other day:

“He is a tough cookie. I’d call him a street fighter. When the going is tough, he gets better; when he bleeds a little bit, he goes a little forward.”

We should remember that such is the spirit of which champions are made.

(R. K. Raghavan is a freelance writer based in Chennai.)