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The lone warriors of Indian tennis

  • As a nation, India ignores the intense backing a tennis player needs to succeed in international singles
  • Tennis players past and present weigh in on the need to put in systems that help Indians be successful outside doubles

Sumit Nagal in his first-round match against Roger Federer at the US Open in August
Sumit Nagal in his first-round match against Roger Federer at the US Open in August (Photo: Getty Images)

It was 17 November and the last match of the KPIT-MSLTA Challenger was being played in Pune. Four Indians—Purav Raja and Ramkumar Ramanathan against Saketh Myneni and Arjun Kadhe—were battling for the doubles title. Even as the crowd picked its favourites and cheered them on, one could hear the murmur of a misperception that continues to this day: that Indian tennis players are good at doubles, but struggle to make a mark in singles.

Despite a record 22 Indians featuring in the main singles draw of the event, which offered a total prize money of $50,000 (around 35.5 lakh), none had made it to the final. Ramkumar got the farthest, losing in the semi-final.

Ramkumar Ramanathan at the quarter-finals of the Murray Trophy in Scotland in September
Ramkumar Ramanathan at the quarter-finals of the Murray Trophy in Scotland in September (Photo: Getty Images)

But India’s apparent lack of singles success cannot be judged against their much better performance in doubles. For not only does this view underestimate the nuanced art of doubles, it also betrays ignorance of just how much work goes into the making of a modern singles player.

Somdev Devvarman at the Indian Wells Masters in 2011
Somdev Devvarman at the Indian Wells Masters in 2011 (Photo: Getty Images)

“Singles is tougher any which way you look at it, physically, emotionally, financially," says former India No.1 Somdev Devvarman (career-high 62 in world rankings) over the phone from Chennai. “I don’t think most people in India, even in the tennis fraternity, know how hard it is— the kind of sacrifices you have to make, the lifestyle that you live. It’s very, very challenging and difficult. And a lot of times if you are not taught to do that at a young age, it’s a very steep learning curve."

For one, very few sports emphasize the individual as tennis does. As soon as they join the pro tour, players are left to their own devices, made to play week in and week out across the globe for the much coveted ranking points, and whatever prize money comes with them. There are currently 1,940 ranked players on the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) men’s tour; you have to be in the top 200 to even start making some money.

In August, Sumit Nagal created a sensation at the US Open by taking a set off Roger Federer in the opening round. But earlier in the season, Nagal, who started 2019 ranked 361 in the world, had $6 left in his pocket when he was flying from a tournament in Canada to another in Germany. Ask him how much he needs to play and compete well for a full season on tour (anywhere from 20-30 tournaments) and Nagal says, “$150,000." That’s what he would need to do “everything right", which means having a coach and a trainer in the intensely attritional world of singles tennis.

India’s highest-ranked player currently, in either men’s or women’s singles, is Prajnesh Gunneswaran, at 125. But tennis is the second-most watched TV sport in the country, according to research and analytics firm Ampere Analysis’ survey in May. People are bedazzled by tennis giants like Federer and Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, with little to no knowledge of how far India is from the tennis dream.

“People have a weird vision of how Federer became Federer," says Indian doubles specialist Raja. “He has gone through unbelievable training at the age of 12-13. He got everything that was required at the right stage. He has become this freak of a tennis player. People think it is talent, but his talent is maybe 2% of the magic."

It takes a village to make a singles whiz. In India, though, it is still a lone battle. There is no national training centre, no coherent plan to harness talent, no cohesive funnelling of talent or channelling of funds to help tennis players in the developmental stage. The states are left to their own devices when it comes to raising funds and providing qualitative training.

“When Vijay (Amritraj) and I were ranked No.1 and No.2 in India, the extent of support we had is we would get one ticket during the summer to go play where we wanted," says former India Davis Cup captain Anand Amritraj, who reached a career high of 74 in 1974.

“The boys from Tamil Nadu—Prajnesh, Ramkumar, Sasikumar Mukund (India’s No. 1, 3 and 4, respectively, in the world rankings)—all three have done it pretty much on their own. Vijay and I did it on our own, so did the Krishnans (Ramanathan and son Ramesh). It’s all individual effort, effort by the parents, it has nothing to do with the federation (All India Tennis Association)," the 67-year-old says. “We had to do it on our own, but at the time there were only about 600 ranked players; these boys have to compete with nearly 2,000."

It is not easy competing against nations that pour money into the juniors system and have a streamlined pathway, if not to Grand Slam success, at least to help their players make a career out of tennis. When Devvarman, India’s highest ranked player since former world No.23 Ramesh Krishnan, was coming up through the ranks, he had a bank of knowledge earned through his US collegiate years of playing to fall back on. Around the same time, another Asian star, Kei Nishikori, had the support of the entire nation. Nishikori was Japan’s “Project 45", the player they bet on, and poured money and effort into, to better their previous best Shuzo Matsuoka, who peaked at 46 in the world rankings.

“The ironic thing is that Nishikori did all of his training, 14 onwards, at the IMG Academy in Florida," says Devvarman. “But the thing about ‘Project 45’ was, in trying to get Nishikori over the line, the systems were already set. So now if you look at Japan over the last 10 years, there have been many who have broken into the top 100."

Nishikori, a counterpuncher like Devvarman, not only broke into the top 45 in 2011, he soared as high as No.4 (March 2015) in the world. In the last 10 years, four Japanese players have broken the top-100 barrier and two more have been in the top 50.

“That’s testament to the work a country has put in order to get excellence," says Devvarman, 34, who retired in 2017. “Japan’s success is not accidental. They are not any bigger or stronger than us, but there’s a system. Now you are seeing that with Korea. You are seeing players coming out from Asian countries that you never saw before because of very focused training and junior development programmes that just don’t exist in India."

Given how ad hoc the structure of tennis in India is, it is not surprising that there has been only a trickle of success in singles. Since Devvarman, two Indians have breached the top-100 mark: Yuki Bhambri and Gunneswaran. The 25-year-old Ramkumar, who reached the final of the Newport ATP last year, and Nagal, are inching there.

This year’s US Open marked another minor success for India. Nagal and Gunneswaran, 30, competing in the US Open marked the first time since 1998 (when Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi played at Wimbledon) that more than one Indian featured in a Grand Slam main draw. But they are all shining exceptions of individual ambition rather than the rule in Indian tennis.

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sports writer based in Mumbai.

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