Can Indian tennis see a new dawn ?
Even as the sports pages in the print media were filled with cricket and football stories of various hues, there was this significant happening that perhaps tennis fans would never have missed and perhaps rued thereafter. We are talking of the India-Finland Davis cup tie that was held in Espoo in Finland. There was a time when a Davis cup tie involving India was a much looked forward to the event for sports fans because such was the way Indian players demanded attention. Besides, India has a proud history to look back on in the Davis Cup. The country had finished runner-up thrice 1966, 74 and 87. Of course, in 1974 against South Africa India conceded the tie after refusing to play the final in protest against that country's apartheid policies. But if there is one reason why things have gone awry in recent times then an example was provided in Finland when India crashed out 1-3 to go out of the World Group stage and slip into the playoffs again. In short relegation and that is an apt reflection of the Indian tennis scene today.
India had begun its 2021 campaign with a 1-3 defeat to Croatia in the qualifying round and this tie against Finland was with the hope of making it to the qualifiers of next year's edition. That meant a victory was mandatory but despite looking at a seemingly level playing field ended in defeat for India. Clearly, rankings seem just numbers for on the court it is form and intent that is the key. This was underlined in the match involving 165th ranked Indian Prajnesh Gunneswaran and his 419th ranked opponent Otto Virtanen. Considering Prajnesh's experience at the international level, many thought he would give India a good start for, his opponent had just one Davis Cup match win to show. But in less than 90 minutes, Virtanen settled the issue. As for Ramkumar Ramanathan, things however went according to rankings with the higher-ranked Emil Ruusuvuori sailing past. It was thought that the strong doubles pair of Rohan Bopanna and Ramkumar Ramanathan would stem the rot and perhaps help India see the light at the end of the tunnel but then that was not to be. In short, it was disappointment written all over for the Indians and time again to rethink what lies ahead. “A larger pool of players”, believes captain Rohit Rajpal will be the key to the future.
What a far cry from the halcyon days of the eighties and earlier! We had the Krishnans, Ramanathan and his son Ramesh and the Amritraj's, Vijay and Anand then to give a shine to India's international campaigns, both individually and collectively. Aside from the top show in Davis Cup, Krishnan had twice made it to the semi-final of the Wimbledon (1960 and 61) while Vijay and Ramesh entered the quarterfinals at both Wimbledon and US Open. Before professionalism set in, Krishnan was ranked 4 in the world and when the sport turned pro, Vijay and Ramesh had career-high ATP rankings of 16 and 23 respectively. Krishnan, Jaideep Mukherjea and Premjit Lal were the players to watch in the 60s. Soon Vijay, Anand, Sashi Menon and Jasjit Singh appeared on the scene to keep India's stock high. Then came Ramesh and before long Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi too surfaced. Even in the 90s India's Davis Cup campaigns were in the World group and the highlight in this period was the famous upset win over France in 1993 which brought India into the semi-final. Things have not been the same thereafter.
True Paes and Bhupathi emerged as top doubles players in due course, winning Grand Slam events. Paes did extend his career but there was little to show that newer talents were there to take on the mantle. In particular, singles was where India suffered as the country slipped out of the Davis Cup World Group and languished in the Asia/ Oceania group for years. In the current setting, there is no doubt that players like Ramanathan, Prajnesh, Yuki Bhambri and Sumit Nagpal are talented but they have made little headway in the international circuit. Yuki in fact is a 2009 junior title winner at the Australian Open, the fourth Indian after Krishnan, Ramesh and Paes to achieve the distinction of winning a Junior Grand Slam. As coach Zeeshan Ali put it in a newspaper interview, the current players need to reach beyond what they are capable of as Paes did repeatedly. He talked about how the Finland player Virtanen played like a top-100 player and that made the difference.
One thing is clear. The current Indian players need more exposure in quality tournaments of higher grades around the world. The pandemic restrictions have not made things easy for them with tournaments getting scrapped or there being difficulty in participation at times. But possibly there is also another theory that India has to go beyond the cities to unearth talent in smaller towns and so-called remote areas. Ramesh Krishnan recently submitted in a social media interview that the tennis system the world over and not just India had changed. He mentioned how established nations like Australia and the USA struggled to unearth quality players and how there was the emergence of newer nations like Serbia and Switzerland. Fifty years back, any talk of Switzerland and tennis would have evoked laughter, he said but “we know we have one of the greatest players hailing from there.’’ Ramesh said like the way cricket benefited from a talent search beyond the major cities, tennis should also spread its wings over a wider horizon.