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Where are India's young tennis stars?

While the US Open celebrated a new generation of young stars, India's young players have been squeezed out by covid-19 and a lack of funding

Rohan Bopanna, at the age of 41, is India's top-ranked male doubles player.
Rohan Bopanna, at the age of 41, is India's top-ranked male doubles player. (AP)

The US Open, which concluded last Sunday, was as close as tennis has gotten to a new world order in the last two decades. Emma Radcanu defeated Leylah Fernandez in the first all-teenage final of the 21st Century, while 25-year-old Daniil Medvedev, from the first batch of ATP’s Next Gen, bested Novak Djokovic in the men’s final.

Meanwhile, India had a total of three representatives in the main draw: Rohan Bopanna (41), Divij Sharan (35) and Sania Mirza (34), all of whom played in the doubles draws. For the third major on the trot there were no Indians in the juniors—girls or boys, singles or doubles. Dev Javia was the last Indian to compete in the junior Grand Slam, when he got a wildcard entry into last year’s French Open. The Australian Open did not have a junior tournament this year due to covid-19 health and safety concerns.

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Junior tennis players in India already face an uphill battle since they have to travel abroad for International Tennis Federation (ITF) events to earn vital ranking points. The pandemic has turned this into a losing battle. “I would say that covid was one of the main reasons our juniors didn't get a chance to play any of the Slams,” said Zeeshan Ali, India’s Davis Cup coach and head coach of the National Tennis Centre, which was launched earlier this year. “Unfortunately our juniors didn't get a chance to travel abroad to play the ITF junior tournaments and their rankings dropped considerably.”

The Grand Slams have a draw of 64 in singles for juniors. This means players have to be ranked in the top-90 to be in the reckoning. But according to the latest ITF rankings, no Indian player is in the top-100. Nishant Dabas, 17, is the highest-ranked Indian boy at 113 and Shruti Ahlawat, 15, is the highest-ranked Indian girl at 241. “It’s really a big challenge to play ITF Tournaments outside India,” said Koti Reddy Maruri, whose daughters Reshma (18) and Suhitha (15) are India No 2 and No 3 in ITF junior rankings.

Suhitha and Reshma Maruri.
Suhitha and Reshma Maruri.

“The restrictions are really complicated travel planning due to multiple covid waves, time- bound RTPCR Tests, country specific quarantine rules, flight availabilities, bubble-life. Costs doubled and tripled and there were unpredictable last minute tournament cancellations. Reshma was targeting to break in to top-100 by end of 2020 in ITF Juniors and get a chance to play in 2021 Junior Grand slams, but covid spoiled her plans.”

Maruri is a businessman and the sole earning member of the family, and he’s trying hard to keep the family dream of producing two professional players afloat. Keeping two players on the tour, which includes expenses for training, travel and accommodation, requires upwards of  80 lakh per annum. Junior players also cannot travel alone, which means either a parent or coach has to accompany them, doubling the travel costs.

Shruti Ahlawat is India's highest ranking girl in the ITF rankings.
Shruti Ahlawat is India's highest ranking girl in the ITF rankings. (Courtesy Indian Tennis Daily)

“The past one and a half years, and the coming one year or so is going to be difficult for the juniors,” says renowned coach and AITA (All India Tennis Association) selection committee chairman Nandan Bal. “A lot of these kids depend on sponsorship to travel. That is also going to be a major problem because a lot of industries are hurting. A lot of the CSR activities are now focused on primary health and covid relief, rightly so. Sports is fairly way down the priority list. To be ranked high enough to get into the Slams, you have to play at least 25-30 weeks. Somewhere along the way, (getting) those  25-30 lakhs, which were not easily available (to begin with), are also going to be difficult now.”

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Though tennis is an incredibly rewarding sport at the highest level—18-year-old Raducanu earned $2.5million for winning the US Open—it is a struggle at the lower levels. Juniors don’t receive any prize money, which means parents have to self-finance or rely on either the national federation or private sponsors to help their child pursue the sport.

The AITA is infamous for its indifference to its players, juniors or otherwise. In a small step forward, they announced scholarship of  1,00,000 each for 16 players in July 2019 and have launched a high-performance National Tennis Centre in New Delhi early this year. Private sponsors, who have given Indian sports a face-lift, still shy away from tennis. Bal explains the simple maths involved: “Even if you sponsor 2-3 players you are looking at spending a crore a year. To expect results, you have to sponsor them for at least 3-4 years. So you’re looking at investing about  3-4 crores in three players, in the hope that one of them will become a Slam main draw player. On the other hand, if you look at Olympians, with that kind of money you can take care of 20 people. Your chances of getting a medal winner out of 15-20 athletes are more.”

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Maruri believes that, like all athletes in India, tennis players have access to funds from sponsors only after they reach a certain level, but that there is little support to help them get there. The reason that players have to depend on sponsors is that they have to travel at least as far as east Asia to compete in higher-ranking tournaments. The ITF junior tour is played across six levels of tournaments—JA (Grand Slams) and J1 to J5. In 2021, India is scheduled to host a total of 11 ITF junior tournaments—none of them above J4.

“India doesn’t have enough junior tournaments,” said India’s Billie Jean King Cup captain Vishaal Uppal. “And not enough quality tournaments. Ten to eleven tournaments are too less for a country with our population. Plus J4 and J5 are the lowest grade tournaments, which means you can’t make a Grand Slam rank on that alone. The AITA has been pushing for more tournaments but it is up to the ITF to sanction them.”

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Uppal believes the domestic circuit is also not vibrant enough. Some of the national Championship Series (CS) tournaments, even at the Under-18 level (the highest age-group level in tennis), don’t conduct matches in best-of-three formats, which is the one used worldwide. Up until the quarter-finals, the format is best-of-15 games (Tie-breaker at 7-7). For the quarter-finals and semi-finals it is best-of-17 games (Tie-breaker at 8-8) and the final is a best-of-three affair. “Winning is an art,” added Uppal. “How will they learn how to play and win three sets if they don’t do it now?”

The most persistent problem, in Indian junior tennis, Uppal believes, remains age-fraud. “When an honest under-16 kid plays someone who is 18, physically more developed, they get beaten by them easily and get demoralised. Unfortunately, there is no scientific, fool-proof way to prove a players’ age and disqualify them from national tournaments.”

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The pandemic may have been the final straw for the Grand Slam ambitions of tennis juniors this year, but there are age-old systemic issues that continue to hurt Indian tennis. This past weekend, India went down 1-3 to a lower-ranked Finland team in the Davis Cup World Group I tie. Startlingly, they were unable to win a single set in any of the first three live rubbers.

After the match, Bopanna reiterated that he was 41, and yet there was no one even remotely close to pushing him out of the Davis Cup squad. “We need to make that change. We just need to have a good structure in India. We need to have a good junior system for the younger generation,” he added. Like the lack of players at the juniors Slams, India’s bleak Davis Cup result is another reminder that tennis in the country is desperate for some young blood.

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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