The KPIT-MSLTA Challenger in Pune that the unseeded Frenchman Sadio Doumbia won was the last big attraction for the Indian talents. Some of India's rising talents -- Prajnesh Gunneswaran, Saketh Myneni, Ramkumar Ramanathan and Sumit Nagal -- got an opportunity to compete against some of their foreign peers at home. Ramkumar also got to play alongside veteran Leander Paes in the doubles even if the pair crashed out in the second round.
But the tennis season has ended for a large group of Indian professionals ranked between 200 and high 400s. Some will now head to Europe for off-season training. Others will play in the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Futures or the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Challenger Tours elsewhere in the world.
Paes, who featured in a Challenger tournament in India in nearly two decades, spoke about the significance of having more tournaments in the country. Tennis, he said, was a case of chicken and egg. "You have to play well to get the Corporate support and if you get the sponsorship you will play well. Look at P. V. Sindhu, she won a medal and everyone is supporting her. Everyone supports a winner. But ATP Challenger is the way forward for Indian talent."
The 43-year-old, in this interview, speaks about the future of Indian tennis; the relevance of Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Challenger Tour and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) tournaments and much more.
The 2016 season has virtually ended for the majority of the Indians in the pro-circuit. We had just one ATP Challenger and six ITF events this year. Is it an ideal situation?
One of the interesting things happening in Asia is that there are many ATP Challenger Tour events and ITF Futures. A long time ago myself and my father (Dr. Vece Paes) used to run five Challengers and those events to me are more important than just having one big event. The Chennai Open ($ 250,000 series) is fantastic. We have seen Ramkumar, Somedev (Devvarman) do well; I have done well in singles and doubles. The Chennai Open, Challenger and Future events are the heart and soul of developing young athletes.
The more tournaments we have, the better. The reason I am saying this is because over the last 30 years and especially when I started playing, there were only a few players; but in the last ten years it has increased manifold. With Sania (Mirza) and with me doing well in the Grand Slams and the Olympics, the number of players have grown. But I can clearly see different category of players. As much as the big number, one can see the level of players. And so, having ATP Challenger Tour and ITF Futures events, especially will give these players chance to earn more points.
The tournaments though are less in 2016 ?
More events will always help, but at the same time you have to develop the players. Having more events will help their rankings. I think the ATP Challenger events are more important because there are more points there. Our boys are hovering around the 200s and 300s ranking in the world.
Is it because of the absence of an Indian in the singles top 100 or 200 that the sponsors are not keen to promote ATP Challenger and ITF Futures?
I make it a point promote an event. The Chennai Open and if it is Pune, I spend time here, especially with the sponsors. They are interested in putting more money; they want to grow the tournament. The Chennai Open has got a three year extension. The government supports the event in Chennai. The title sponsor here in Pune wants to make it a bigger event. If you have more players in the top 100 the sponsors will come. Somdev did well in Chennai Open, and he broke into the top 100; his all time best was 62 in the world. Ramkumar has done well.
So you would like to have more ATP Challengers than ITF Futures in India ?
If you play Futures for ten years, you are not going to get enough points to be in the top 100. But if you play the ATP Challengers, you can. Like I said, myself, Somdev and Ramkumar have benefited from the Chennai Open. Ramkumar has been playing a lot of Challengers, he’s going to Europe to play the Challengers.
Even then it was crazy… At the height of winter I had to go to Wurzburg (Germany). I slept in the locker room, I had no money. It’s got better now. You did not have a $ 250,000 tournament in India then.
So even the sponsors should think seriously about the Challengers ?
People should focus on Challengers because the sponsors will get more opportunities in it than by doing the Futures. The type of players who enter the Challengers are better than the Futures. If a Challenger gives you 100 points, and if you win five events in a 52-week calendar which is very doable, you will get 500 points. If you win 15 Futures, you can't score as many points.
What can players like Saket, Ramkumar, Sumit and others do in the circumstances ?
They are going to play a few more tournaments, but I think Saket is going to take time off for the Chennai Open and Australian Open qualifiers. Ramkumar will play a few more.
But do they have to go overseas?
It’s always been like that. They have to be very selective. Tennis is the most global sport on the planet; it’s not like cricket and football where you have international tournaments in India all the time. They have to go out and play. If I look back at my career over the last 30 years, I probably play one or two a year in India.
But there could be more in India …it would cost the players less.
Why only India ? It’s the same for the Koreans, Chinese, Uzbekistanis… There should be more events in India, but we have always had to go to Australia, England, France, USA. It has been like this forever. The players have to travel. You cannot be stuck saying I will win at home only. I played a Challenger in Tashkent, Italy… these boys are playing Challengers every week.
It's really tough to crack the top 100. Was it any different when you started off?
Even then it was crazy… At the height of winter I had to go to Wurzburg (Germany). I slept in the locker room, I had no money. It’s got better now. You did not have a $ 250,000 tournament in India then. When I got into the semi-finals, I cracked the top-100. I won the Newport Hall of Fame after that. But I got into Newport because I reached the Chennai semis.
There are many Indians between 200 and 500. Yuki (Bhambri) has dropped because he is injured. Saket, Ramkumar, Nagal and Prajnesh…all of them can go up. Even Vishnu, I saw him play at Tashkent. He was doing very well and he could have beaten the top seed. And if you look at doubles... When I looked to have a partner here (Pune Challenger) I could have chosen from eight or nine Indian players which is better than five years ago. So the health of Indian tennis is really improving because of the ITF Futures, Chennai Open and the Challengers. Initially, I won three Challengers and made my ranking. So one cannot isolate the problem now (in the context of more tournaments).
The ATP Challengers are the way forward to get the big points and improve rankings. That’s where things happen. Make 100 points a week... 80 or 70 or 48 or 25… that will make a difference to their ranking. Even if they play 15 Futures they will go nowhere.
How do Indians match up to their counterparts in Europe, Asia and America?
There is a lot of talent in Indian tennis. Some need to be fitter for endurance, some need to improve on a few areas like getting the winning shots, like a forehand or serve. But at the end of the day, it’s all about match practice. When you play matches, win points and win tournaments, you gain confidence. It’s a mental game. The difference between a player ranked 100 and 300 is a matter of confidence.
Do you think the players will get better with good facilities... like a travelling coach? South Korean Duckhee Lee has a good team that has his father and his cousin, who's his coach.
You can find 100 excuses and I can give you a thousand reasons why we cannot produce such a player. Duckhee has medical problems and he needs people around. He has done wonderfully well. He is a great example. But to have a three-man team, how expensive will it be?
That’s where India needs Corporate sponsorship, right?
Why point out only India? In Serbia who supported all accomplished players before they made it big? In America, who supports them? So find a way to deliver and make the difference yourself.
The lack of top-rung players is not helping India’s chances to get in the Davis Cup World Group. India is ranked 19th.
We should be happy that we are winning the Asia-Oceania Group… We are winning everything. We are winning against Korea, Japan, New Zealand and Uzbekistan. Japan has Kei Nishikori; he’s top 5 in the world. Korea has unbelievable strength. Ranked 19th is not bad at all.
How can India get better?
Get more tournaments, more ATP Challengers… I have a lot of respect for these players. They go to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Europe and to Mexico, China. You have an Indian tournament and everybody is here. They all want their rankings to get better.
And more ATP Challengers is the way ahead than the ITF Futures?
Ramkumar will play the Challengers. What will he do playing the Futures? He has to play the Challengers. Ask Vishnu (Vardhan) who has been around a while. I played the Olympics with him at London. He would say Challengers. The ATP Challengers are the way forward to get the big points and improve rankings. That’s where things happen. Make 100 points a week... 80 or 70 or 48 or 25… that will make a difference to their ranking. Even if they play 15 Futures they will go nowhere.
Do you think players are seriously thinking of doubles as an option career-wise?
I think singles is the game… where it all happens. Doubles, yes, I have been able to win Grand Slams, Sania is winning Grand Slams…but I used to be a singles and doubles player. People will remember my singles Olympic medal, my singles Davis Cup record. You win a Grand Slam singles, you get $1.8 million. In doubles, $80,000. There are lot of Indian players in singles. Singles should be the priority and play doubles as well. In India we have to produce singles players we don’t have a player in the top 100.
You are still playing. Zeeshan, Mark (Ferreira), Asif (Ismail), Vasudevan and many others left the scene many years ago. What keeps you going?
I love my tennis, I am passionate about it. It’s clean, healthy, keeps me fit and I am still winning Grand Slams. People go through their career to win one Grand Slam. Last year, I won three. When you set such a benchmark, people expect you to do well. I know how to deal with expectations. After practicing for five hours in Chennai, I used to tell my father let’s do one more hour. I am doing the same now. I enjoy my tennis. I go to my workplace in T-shirt, shorts and tennis shoes.
What’s your perception of tennis now?
It’s changed a lot, the number of players in particular. I remember Ramesh Krishnan and I travelling and sharing a room at the French Open. Other than that I was always alone for many years before Mahesh (Bhupathi) came along. These days you have leagues in countries that are paying thousands of dollars for players to come. Ramesh came out of retirement to play Davis Cup because uncle Naresh (Kumar) asked him to comeback… then Zeeshan, Vasu all retired… I chose to play doubles with Mahesh because I could have companionship… Mahesh was playing only doubles… even when Rohan (Bopanna) came, he did only doubles… there were no singles for the better half of 14 or 15 years. The numbers are humungous now… India has around 30 odd players… and there are singles players. Ramkumar is 21, Sumit is 19 and Prajnesh is very encouraging.
What’s your assessment of Indian tennis now?
I think it’s in a very healthy position. On the women’s side we don’t have many. There are lots of young girls doing well to improve their ranking. The bottom line is India needs to keep encouraging the system.