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Why Indian tennis is going through a period of intense crisis

A Davis Cup debacle, low ranked players and a general institutional apathy has hamstrung tennis in India

Sumit Nagal in action at the Bengaluru Open 2023.
Sumit Nagal in action at the Bengaluru Open 2023. (PTI)

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Away from the searing mid-day sun, in the air-conditioned player lounge at the tennis stadium in Balewadi, Pune, on 27 February, Sumit Nagal discussed his tournament schedule with the event head, Sunder Iyer, ahead of the ATP Challenger in Pune. They go a little back and forth over how best they can manage five matches in the next six days. Five matches, that is, if Nagal were to progress to the final. “Will be nice to have an Indian winner,” he quipped.

Nagal’s tone masked just how desperate Indian tennis is for a win. Three years ago, India had three singles players ranked in top 200 of the ATP (men’s tour) rankings. Today, nobody is in the top 300.

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Pune hosted the last event of the Indian swing—which comprises three $100,000 ATP Challengers, the first two of which took place in Chennai and Bengaluru. With a decent pot of prize money and a total of 300 ranking points at stake, Nagal was the only Indian to record any main draw wins. He made the semi-final in Chennai and the second round in Bengaluru and Pune. This disappointing show comes close on heels of the Davis Cup loss to Denmark last month, which resulted in India dropping down to Group II of the premier men’s team event for the very first time.

“It's not easy to take a loss,” Sasikumar Mukund, who was ranked India No. 1 at the end of 2022, says about the Davis Cup defeat. “The guys took it hard; Yuki (Bhambri) really felt it, so did Bops (Rohan Bopanna). We lost to two teams, one of which had a US Open finalist and one has a current top 8 player. It’s not a shame to lose to those two teams. But I think each one of us, including me as the sparring partner, is responsible for it. It’s the collective damage from many places.”

The pandemic, and injuries to two of the leading players—Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Nagal—have been the major reasons why Indian men’s tennis has lost ground. Nagal underwent hip surgery in November 2021 and is just about feeling like his old self again. Meanwhile, Gunneswaran has been bogged down by a wrist injury.

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“Personally, I’ve been struggling,” says the 33-year-old Gunneswaran, who is India’s top-ranked player globally, at 313. “I did play a full season, but I was just never 100 percent. I guess I was kind of kidding myself into believing that it was still good enough for me to perform. As far as the Davis Cup goes, Sumit played really well. But I also feel we all need to pull our weight and get better. Ram (Ramkumar Ramanathan) hasn’t done well, I haven’t done well… all of this has contributed in putting pressure.”

Ramkumar Ramanathan in action at the 5th Tata Open Maharashtra.
Ramkumar Ramanathan in action at the 5th Tata Open Maharashtra. (PTI)

While the tennis tour has been back since August 2020, the effects of the pandemic still linger. Travel has become more expensive. Also, before the Covid-19 outbreak, Indians would rely heavily on tournaments in Asia, especially China, to take points and crawl up the ranking ladder. But they now have to travel much further, to either Europe or USA or South America, to compete. While players receive hospitality during the weeks they are competing, they have to pay for their lodging outside the tournament dates.

“I went bankrupt going to South America (last year),” says Nagal, who was sidelined for eight months due to the surgery. “Since Covid, I don’t have any support. But, if you don’t play matches, you are not making money. At the same time, I still have expensive bills to pay, because I was still training, trying to get the hip back in shape. If I’m injured, no coach is going to say, ‘Don’t pay me!’

“It’s been tough. Nobody wants to help. Whatever I’m making I’m surviving on that. The expenses have gone at least 15-20 percent higher. If you go deep in Challengers it helps, but if you don’t, prize money of $3,000-4,000 is not going to cover even three weeks.”

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Each of India's top tennis players have seen better days.
Each of India's top tennis players have seen better days.

The tournament structure in tennis makes it one of the toughest sports to break into or to live off. Players have to travel all around the world to make ranking points and prize money. And that, as Nagal says, is an expensive proposition.

At the recently-concluded Dubai Open, World No. 1 Novak Djokovic questioned the sports’ sustainability once again. “1.3 billion people watch it, yet we can’t have more than 400 people living from this sport, both men and women,” the 22-time Grand Slam champion said. “We have to do a better job, we have to create a better system for them (lower ranked players) to make a living, at least break even.”

According to Mukund, who reached a career-high of 229 in late 2019, only if you are ranked under 230 can you break even. Everyone above that, which includes all the Indians currently, lose money to just do their job. “If you do everything right, taking a coach, physio, fly business when you can, especially the long-haul flights, it takes about 80 lakhs to 1 crore per year,” he says. “A good coach will cost at least 1,000 Euros a week, that is without his travel and lodging costs. If you are top-150, you are earning 2-3 crores so you can probably afford it. Anything below that, you start compromising.”

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Compromises come in the form of travelling alone, without a coach or a physio, or any companion. It means flying economy and still expecting to be in a good enough shape to compete the next day. “It does make a big difference having a coach with you all the time,” says Prajnesh. “First of all, I don’t have to make the same mistake four times before I realise it. Tennis is a game of small margins. When you do all the right things, they add up. Once you keep getting one percent better, before you know it, you are 10 percent better.”

For the Indian players, the task is cut out as they have very little to no support from the national federation or corporates. Some of the Indian players compete in club matches, mainly in Germany, to keep their dream on track. The three state associations that hosted the three Challengers this February and March—Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra—have been the only ones consistently working towards bringing more tournaments to India. But Gunneswaran believes India needs about 20 quality tournaments to start being competitive at these events.

As an expensive sport, played mainly by upper middle class or the elite, and very little Olympics success expected in the near future, tennis has not received the boost that some other sports have in the country. Only two men’s tennis players—Bopanna and Ramkumar —are included in Sports Authority of India’s flagship programme Target Olympic Podium Scheme.

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“It is what it is,” shrugs Nagal, who, at 25, knows there is very little he can do to change the indifference of either the corporates or the national federation, neither of which help even the cream of the talent on tour. “AITA (All India Tennis Association) says they have no money. The answer was the same ten years ago.”

Despite the lack of support, Nagal, the last Indian to win a Grand Slam singles main draw match, is showing sparks of a comeback. He was the silver lining in India’s Davis Cup campaign against Denmark, winning his match against August Holmgren and running top 10 player Holger Rune close in the reverse singles. In the past month, he has earned 59 ranking points and risen to 379 in the rankings after starting the year at 509.

But the bigger picture remains ‘Project 61’. Inspired by Japan’s ‘Project 45’, which groomed Kei Nishikori to be the country’s highest ranked player, Nagal wants to go one better than Somdev Devvarman’s ranking of 62: India’s highest men’s ranking this century. “That’s the goal,” says Nagal. Smiling, hoping.

Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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