A nation that has produced legends like Sania Mirza, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupati, Vijay Amritraj, Somdev Devvarman and of course, Ramesh and Ramanathan Krishnan, India has no dearth of young talented tennis players. But what does the future hold for Indian tennis?
22-year-old Sumit Nagal stunned the world with his performance at US Open this year after qualifying and playing legend Roger Federer in his first round. Nagal led a set against Federer and although ended up losing to him, gave the world No. 3 a strong fight.
Nagal has played exceptionally well, reaching a career-high of 135 this year, jumping 26 ranks up. This year, he’s reached five Challenger semi-finals, one quarterfinals, the finals at Banja Luka and won the challenger tournament at Buenos Aires.
This week, Nagal reached the semi-finals of the ATP Challenger Campinas but lost to Juan Ficovich 6-4, 6-1. This was Nagal’s third consecutive semi-finals appearance. Given the frequency and intensity with which Nagal played each tournament, he looked visibly exhausted and struggled to break Ficovich’s serve. In any case, the former Wimbledon Boys’ doubles Champion has had a great season thus far.
Ramkumar Ramanathan, the 24-year-old who reached four quarterfinals and two semi-finals of Challenger tournaments this year, is currently ranked 183. Ramanathan reached a career-high rank of 111 last year. In 2018, he reached his first ATP Challengers finals only to be defeated by fellow countryman Yuki Bhambri and his first ATP World Tour finals at Newport, the only Indian to do so since 2011 when Somdev Devvarman reached the finals in Johannesburg.
Bhambri, who is a former junior No.1, won the junior Australian Open in 2009 and was the youngest Indian to win at Orange Bowl. Bhambri has had a stellar career as a junior player and an impressive run professionally. He won two medals for India at the Asian Games in 2014 and was India’s No.1 singles player in 2018 before having a string of injuries that resulted in his absence from tennis for almost one season. Bhambri is hoping to return to tennis with the Maharashtra Open 2020.
Of course, India has brilliantly seasoned doubles tennis players like Rohan Bopanna who has won eighteen doubles career titles, Divij Sharan who won his fifth doubles title at St.Petersburg and legend, Leander Paes, with a whopping 54 career doubles titles with 18 of them being Grand Slam titles. However, the younger generation is yet to make their mark in Men’s doubles.
The most important question to ponder over is how such talented young men despite having such a successful juniors career and who have on occasion showed great potential to improve, are still at a level where only one Indian currently ranks in the top 100 singles ranking.
Nagal, after his match against Federer, called out for more support for tennis. In India, the sport watched by the majority of the population is cricket and that has its repercussions on other sports. Sports like tennis (and football as well) have much lesser support for them.
In response, Nagal has said:
“It’s really sad nobody is coming up to invest into tennis.”
Nagal is backed by Mahesh Bhupati, Indian Oil Corporation and the Virat Kohli Foundation but he says that this covers only his own expenses, leaving him to attend tournaments alone since the travelling expenses for his coach and fitness trainer cannot be met.
Speaking to the PTI from Buenos Aires where he was involved in another Challenger event, Nagal bemoaned:
“I was all alone here. No one was with me to help out.”
After his US Open loss, when ETPanache asked him about the main draw pay he received for the first round, and he said:
“It is not like it is a million. It is $58,000, which all goes back. A week here costs you at least $3,000 to $5,000. I have been here for eight to 10 weeks. It goes away fast, personally.”
This highlights the expenses borne by a player to play the very tournament reinforcing the fact that cost to cover the travel expenses for a player’s team cannot be covered with prize money. Nagal has been especially vocal about the financial struggles faced by Indian tennis players and hopes that there is more encouragement from the government and the private sector.
The top government scheme for tennis players currently is the Target Olympic Podium Scheme or TOPS which aims to assist India’s top athletes to help facilitate more wins at the 2020/2024 Olympics.
Only Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan are currently benefiting from this scheme. India’s top singles player, Prajnesh Gunneswaran, does not qualify to avail support from this scheme and is funded by his father. Gunneswaran is currently the only Indian to rank in the top 100 at 84 with a career-high rank of 75, he attained earlier this year.
The No.1 Indian female player in singles and doubles is Ankita Raina who is ranked in the top 200 in both categories. Raina most recently won the W25 Singapore in January and she is also an Asian Games bronze medallist, making her the second woman to have achieved this feat after Sania Mirza.
Raina was also dropped from the TOPS grant and is supported by a grant from the Sports Authority of Gujarat which covers her travel expenses for 25 to 30 weeks in a year according to The Hindu.
She has said:
“The biggest challenge in all these years has been to be on my own.”
The Indian number one has highlighted the positive side of this explaining that being on her own has made her “a different player, to fight all alone.”
Support for younger players is given by the All India Tennis Association in the form of the AITA Trust Scholarship programme which will award 16 promising U-14 Boys/Girls maximum monetary assistance of INR 100,000/annum. This is a wonderful and more progressive step taken by the association in this year to create a system where young talents are supported. This and hopefully more programmes such as these are introduced in India to support the growing talent this nation has.
The potential to incubate young players is enormous and with more proactive steps taken by the government or private companies, hopefully, in the near future, Indians can achieve far greater feats in the competitive world of tennis.
The big question, as Nagal and some of the rest of the players have been asking is if this is enough. Interestingly, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi alluded to the final of the recently-concluded US Open and congratulated the vanquished Daniil Medvedev for his fighting spirit. A lot of the tennis fans are wondering if it could translate into more help for Indian tennis stars following which there could be more Indian players on the global scene exhibiting a similar fighting spirit as Medvedev.