20 December, 1987. That was the last time India played in the final of the Davis Cup, the premier men’s team competition in tennis. 6 March, 2011. The last time India competed in the World Group, the 16-team crème de la crème of Davis Cup nations. 4 February, 2023. The first time India dropped down to Group II in the Davis Cup. This is the timeline of how India’s tennis legacy has eroded, decade by decade, year by year.
The Indian team was handed a tough prospect this weekend: That of beating Denmark, spearheaded by World No. 9 Holger Rune, to hold on to their place in World Group I. Despite a spark of resilience from Sumit Nagal, India went down 2-3 to the Danes at the indoor hard courts of the Royal Stage in Hillerød. Given what was at stake, it was a rather tame performance from an Indian team that, on paper, had more depth than their opponents. So, for the first time since Davis Cup became a tiered competition, with promotion and relegation in 1981, India finds itself in Group II.
“Hundred percent it is a wake-up call,” said Nandal Bal, former Davis Cup coach and the chairman of All India Tennis Association’s selection committee. “There are a lot of lessons to be learnt from this tie. One of the first lessons is that we now need to start looking at our 17-18-year-olds and give them more exposure; make sure they are playing at a much higher level.”
Though India has reached three Davis Cup finals, they have never been a superpower in the sport. All these years they have relied on individuals—be it Ramanathan and Ramesh Krishnan, Vijay and Anand Amritraj, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi or Somdev Devvarman—who have made it on their own, to punch above their weight and give India a fighting chance in an increasingly competitive sport. But as the heroes have left and the heroics have dried up, the rot in the system has been exposed.
India now stands at a crossroads of a glorious past and an uncertain future. The present seems bleak. In November, for the first time since 2005, India did not have a single player ranked in the ATP top-300. The last time an Indian man played in a singles Grand Slam main draw was Sumit Nagal at the 2021 Australian Open as a wildcard entrant. This year’s Australian Open was the first time since 2017 that there were no Indians in singles, in either the main draw or the qualifiers. Prajnesh Gunneswaran, 33 and ranked 306, is currently the country’s No. 1 men’s player while the 42-year-old Rohan Bopanna is the top doubles player.
Despite the ageing ranks, India had a more solid, experienced squad against Denmark in the World Group I relegation tie, held on Friday and Saturday. Rune is one of the most exciting young talents in men’s tennis and the only player to have beaten Novak Djokovic on a hard court in the last five months. But he is 19 and can be erratic in his play. Also, he was the only quality player among a squad of journeymen—Denmark’s second-highest player was ranked 484. This meant that even if India were to lose the two singles rubbers against the Scandinavian side, they had a more than equal chance in three of the five matches.
In an attempt to make sure that Nagal got a shot at Denmark’s vulnerable No. 2 singles player, August Holmgren, on the opening day, the team left its top two players, P and Ramkumar Ramanathan, on the bench. The strategy paid off as Nagal rallied from a set down to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a thriller, but it said a lot about the dwindling confidence of the team. Then came the decisive blow: India opened the second day with a loss in doubles.
There was a time in the 1990s and 2000s, when Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were in the team, that India walked into a Davis Cup tie virtually 1-0 up because of the duo’s doubles prowess. The team can’t even bank on that anymore. Bopanna and Yuki Bhambri, India’s fifth doubles combination in the last five ties, lost 2-6, 4-6 to the scratch pair of Rune and Johannes Ingildsen. Nagal pushed Rune in the first reverse singles, even held two set points in the opening set. But the fiery Dane found a way through, winning the match 7-5, 6-3 to give Denmark an unassailable 3-1 lead.
“Nobody likes to lose,” says former India Davis Cupper Vishaal Uppal. “But that’s the nature of sport. You have to pick yourself up and fight back harder. Sumit’s performance against Holger Rune was encouraging. But Davis Cup is a stage where people generally over-perform. That hasn’t happened in the last few years; when people rise above. I think that is the missing ingredient.”
The mood in the camp was sombre as the players tried to grapple with this new low. As the ones taking the field, some responsibility rests with the players, but now more than ever, they seem like the embattled soldiers of a broken regime. They also are probably the only ones who understand what it takes to survive in a global sport like tennis.
The path to Davis Cup glory became a whole lot tougher for India when, in 2021, the tournament did away with the continental zones. So, the Davis Cup Finals (erstwhile World Group) is now at the top of the pyramid, with lower levels starting at World Group I, instead of an Asia-Oceania Group I in India’s case. But the heightened challenge has been lost on the administrators, who have nevertheless thronged to the away ties—India has exclusively played Scandinavian countries since the change in format.
The team once led by its elite players, like Krishnan, Amritraj, Paes and Bhupathi, is now captained (non-playing captain) by Rohit Rajpal. He didn’t break into the top-500 in his playing days, and his Davis Cup career lasted exactly one dead rubber. Rajpal is primarily a businessman and holds the position of the honorary treasurer of the All India Tennis Association (AITA). While there is only so much a non-playing captain can do, Rajpal’s taking over the role is indicative of the AITA’s apathetic attitude. The federation seems to be more interested in holding on to power than creating champions.
“We (as a country) have to take some responsibility,” added Uppal. “Tennis is getting zero support in the country. You cannot not support a wider pool of athletes, but demand that they win medals and trophies. India isn’t a poor nation anymore. Smaller countries like Tunisia and Egypt are doing 40-50 ITF events, while we are struggling to put together 10. We have to create more opportunities for a larger talent pool. Out of that talent pool let players emerge, let them push each other to become better.”
What Uppal suggests is neither novel or revolutionary. Those in the know have been calling for more tournaments, at all levels, and better sports science support for its players for over two decades. It remains to be seen if Indian tennis, after the crushing Davis Cup blow, takes steps to rebuild, or continues to live in its house of cards.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.