Lots of problems plaguing Indian tennis, admits Somdev

Somdev Devvarman, now a government observer for the sport, isn’t sure whether challenges are being addressed “the right way.”

Somdev Devvarman interacts with underprivileged children at Sulochanadevi Singhania School on Friday.   -  Vibhav Birwatkar

While most professional sportspersons are confused about life after sport in their early 30s, Somdev Devvarman not only has a plan in place but has been implementing it for the last couple of years.

Besides his charity work, media commitments and mentorship activities, the 31-year-old is now an active government observer for tennis.

The former World No. 62 spent all of Friday morning interacting with the students of the Sulochanadevi Singhania School after inaugurating the Singhania Sports Academy. After answering the inquisitive students, Devvarman sat down for a chat on the current state of Indian tennis.

Excerpts…

How will the change in ATP Rankings system affect Indian tennis players?

I don’t think it (the change in ATP Ranking System) will affect the TOPS funding, because it is for the high-performance players.

We currently have over 50 people ranked in the ATP. By January 1, it will be somewhere around 10 to 15. Obviously, there’s pros and cons of that.

There are different ways of looking at it. One is that we don’t have that many players ranked, but the whole world is going through the same thing. It’s not that they have put out this new rule only for the Indians.

I think what they are trying to do is separate the Futures Tour from the Challenger and the ATP Tour. We are going to start off with 750 people ranked in the ATP.

The transition tour, in a sense, is going to allow a lot of people in India to look at tennis more realistically. Yes, it’s an accomplishment to be ranked 7-, 8-, 900-something in the world but it's also time to start thinking about where they are getting these points from. Are we playing the right tournaments? Are we playing against the higher-ranked players? Are we competing against the best?

It's actually going to be very useful in the long run because kids nowadays don’t believe that their education can go hand in hand with sport.

Of the pool of 50, most of them don't really want to pursue college or higher education. My parents made sure that I had a full college degree before I stepped on the Tour, so I joined the Tour a lot later than most others. I think there's a lot of value in that. I think Indian children can start thinking about getting a college degree with a scholarship overseas, keeping in mind there's life after tennis as well to consider.

So I think there are pros and cons of the Transition tour. In the beginning, it is definitely going to hurt but in the longer run, I think it helps in simplifying the choice for players who are between 17 and 19 (years of age) and thinking whether to go pro or whether to do college first and then become pro. Nobody would want to be on the Transition Tour for four years.

How much of that is going to put onus on AITA to organise better tournaments?

I don’t know. It's not like they(AITA) were doing amazing things earlier. I think they had a lot of things to improve anyway and this gives them clarity. About three years ago, we used to have more than 15 Futures (events) here and what did that accomplish? For me, it's not just about having tournaments, it's about having the right tournaments. It's more about having a vision and a structure in order to reach that vision.

You can't just randomly have tournaments and think that you're gonna have world-class players if you are not preparing them in the right way. I think this is a good thing for AITA because it will really give them an opportunity to reflect and see what work they are doing and to see if they are actually creating world-class players. AITA is having a very different conversation than what Spain is having right now, or America or France are having. The rule affects everyone the same way but the countries with better systems in place are going to benefit from this rule a lot better. Turkey, for example, at one point, had 50 Futures (events) a year, so did Egypt, but what did they achieve? What's the point of having many low-level tournaments that are organised badly? It's better to have a few really good ones. And work towards preparing our talent to succeed in those tournaments.

What is it that's missing for an Indian tennis player to succeed at the highest level? Or is anything working at all?

Not to sound negative but when you look at an organisation that's been run for 40-50-odd years and then there are many things that are wrong, I think it's very hard to say that if I change one thing about tennis in India, it would bring success. That would be far-fetched. We should be realistic about the fact that the system is broken, so you don't fix just one thing, you fix the system. That begins from leadership to plans to vision to who is making your plans to business plan to marketing and not the least, the coaching. I think there are a lot of things that are actually missing, and I don't think it would be fair to point one thing out. But the simplest way for me to say it is vision. I am not really sure what the vision would be.

Here's the thing about professional sport: at the highest level, countries are trying to do their best for their players in order to succeed at that level. If we are not doing the same things, for whatever reasons – whether it's political or internal or management or anything, we are going to be left behind. At some point, we are going to have to look in and think about what are we doing and where we need to improve at. This is no criticism. This is just how any business or a start-up evolves.

It's not about a blame-game but more of a constructive criticism as any athlete would look at himself and think of the areas he or she needs to improve in. I think the associations also need to look at themselves the same way and I am not sure if we are doing that. That's really the red flag.

You're trying to do that as a government observer. Is it like knocking on a door that's firmly shut?

Well, at least someone’s knocking. Listen, as a government observer, my job is to try and find solutions to the problems we have. I have zero vested interest in calling people out or any of that stuff. It's all about where we are now, where we need to be and how do we get there. So, a lot of times, I point out things that may not be well-received by people, but I always try to be honest and look at problems objectively. Always remember, in order to solve a problem, you need to first recognise that there is one, and that's the most basic thing when it comes to tennis in India. I can clearly say that we have a lot of them, but I am not sure if we are addressing them the right way.

Do you think it's high time sports federations in India start raising their own funds rather than just waiting for the ministry funds?

Oh, that's a big problem. But here's the bigger issue: Yes, they need to have bigger plans and they need to raise funds, but what's the point of fund-raising if you don't know how to spend it! It's not about raising five million dollars, it's about how you can utilise what you have. And if you do have 5 million dollars, how do you spend it? What are the areas that needs to be allocated and who are the right people that are in those spaces. So, I think it's a lot about that.

Funds have never been the key to have success in sport. I guarantee you that Kenya doesn't have the best marathon funds in the world, I am sure they don't. Brazil doesn't have the best soccer funding in the world. But they have systems, they have culture and through those a proper system is built. I think it's much more than just money. Yes, funding is required. Yes, infrastructure is required but so are other things. So is the importance of understanding the needs.

Personally, I don't believe that we will be a top sporting nation unless as a country we start becoming healthier. I think there's a parallel there. As we start becoming a sporting nation, we'll start seeing an improvement in India's health index alongside.

I have always believed that the top-down approach is not the only way of going about it. For example, take the TOPS funding, or the Khelo India funding. While I am very appreciative of the government's effort – that's a great sign that we have started – I think it shouldn't just be about finding two athletes and funding them, but about prodding why are there only two and not 25. Why don't we create a system where there are 25 and not just two? We have to start doing that consistently over a period of time, that's how you're going to find success. That’s what success should mean.

In my opinion, Switzerland is not a more successful tennis nation than Spain although I am sure they have won more Grand Slams because Roger (Federer) and Stan (Stanislas Wawarinka) have won a lot of Grand Slams. But if you look at what Spain and France have done over the last 20 years, that's special. They have had, at any given time, more than 10 men and women in top-100 over a long period of time and they continue to bring those people in. Switzerland haven't done that, although they have Hingis, Federer and Wawrinka. The idea of overall success should be very important but the vision of working towards that is also important.

Your views on the new Davis Cup format?

It's highly expensive, three billion over 20 years. If they can live up to those promises nothing like it, but in the recent history we have seen multiple leagues that have promised massive funding and have failed after two years and the owners and the investors have moved on. I would hate to see that happen because Davis Cup is over 100 years old and is a historical tournament. And a lot of countries have benefited from it.

There will be a lot of home and away matches through the year, which was a bit of complaint earlier on. There will be an increase in prize money, tenfold if not more than that. The first round for World Group is over USD 600,000 thousand. So that’s a huge bonus for a lot of players and countries.

A lot of nations may get a lot of funding as well, it is early to tell. Personally, I wasn’t a big fan of changing a massive part of tennis history. Davis Cup is arguably one of the biggest tennis events in the world apart from the four Grand Slams, so I wasn’t a big fan of that, but if the financial situation goes as per plan, it will be very beneficial. Time will tell.