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Tennis: The (Un)forced errors of India

Tennis: The (Un)forced errors of India

Dr. Balraj Shukla

Updated: 23 April 2021 6:27 AM GMT
A couple of months back, India's former No.1 tennis player Somdev Devvarman, threw a barrage of questions at the All India Tennis Association (AITA). The questions held a critical view against the funding and the functioning of the AITA. A few former and current Indian tennis players on tour did come out in support of Devvarman. Let us run through the entire saga and the stories surrounding it and ask ourselves whether lawn tennis has come to a standstill in India.

"I want to ask (AITA) what is your vision for Indian tennis and how will you accomplish it. Leave the government aside, they are not tennis experts. Do you think you have done a good job? I don't want to attack anyone. I am just asking straight-forward questions."

This particular question was asked by Devvarman after the government slashed down the funding for the Centre of Excellence (COE). It was Devvarman who had initiated the project of COE with a goal to train 300 budding players at an annual budget of Rs.2 crores. After he retired, Somdev had become the government observer for lawn tennis in India. Hironmoy Chatterjee, Hon. Secretary General of the AITA hit back Devvarman with a plausible counter. Few months back, Somdev threw a couple of questions at AITA. "The entire responsibility of the Centre of Excellence (COE) was with government observer Mr. Somdev Devvarman," replied Chatterjee. "It is for him to convince the government (to not reduce budget) and not us as he is paid by the government to decide and recommend. The COE, decided during (then Sports Secretary) Mr. Injeti Srinivas' time was budgeted for Rs 20 crore. Rs. 10 crores were to be funded by the government and remaining 10 was to be arranged through corporate funding. After Mr. Injeti was transferred, Mr Rahul Bhatnagar (current secretary) felt the budget was high which needed to be reduced. We have no role in budget cut. If his vision is so great why can't he implement the same now that he is the government observer, entrusted to do so." This isn't the first time that someone has spoken against the AITA when it comes to funding the players.
Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, who was a part of the 2019 Australian Open Men's doubles draw has also voiced his opinion on the matter.
​"Unless you are a Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray, if you want to be a workman on the circuit, it takes about four to five years till you can be realistic of getting into the top-150. It's hard to say that you've made it in tennis unless you get there in that amount of time. Only then are you making money. And still, it's just meeting your expenses and probably making a $100,000 (Rs 60,00,000) per year if you are inside the top-150 for a good amount of time. The AITA helped me in my juniors, but I haven't got anything since. And that's when the real test of your tennis career starts."
Headed in the right direction, the Indian duo of Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan and Purav Raja. Neduncheziyan's statement indeed raises eyebrows. The AITA was started eight years before the establishment of Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI). Yet, such has been the impact of cricket in India that it has been often tagged as a religion for the masses.

Tennis on the other hand never made it large in the country with the second largest global population. Taking a bit of a burden off the AITA's heavy basket filled with criticism it is important to see the financial scenario for a single tennis player.

A player who is within the Top 50 in the global rankings has an annual expense of $2,00,000-$5,00,000. Somdev, who ended his career with the highest ranking of No.62 had won only $1.4 million in a career that lasted for nine years. One of the major reasons why India has failed to produce a noteworthy singles tennis player in a long time is the way in which a Top 50 player has his expenses distributed. Of those $2 million, an average Top 50 player would spend $0.75 to $1.5 million on a coach. The rest of the money is spent on physios, travel, food and equipment. For an Indian player to be able to stand tall with these expenses, he/she would need the required financial backing. Headed in the right direction, the Indian duo of Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan and Purav Raja.
Also Read: Headed in the right direction, the Indian duo of Jeevan and Purav
This funding has visibly been absent and the most obvious evidence is the rankings. As of the first week of March 2019, eight Indians are in the Top 500 and only one manages the Top 100. The highest ranked Indian player is Prajnesh Gunneswaran, who currently seated at No.97. The second-best Indian tennis player is Ramkumar Ramanathan, who is ranked No.136. Women's tennis in India draws an even worse plot. India's top ranked female tennis player is ranked outside the Top 150 in the world. The second-best falls outside the Top 200.
Recently, Ramanathan shed some light on the financial conditions of a singles tennis player in India.
"One of the industry norms for a coach is 1,000 a week as fees, travel and stay expenses and 10-15 percent of the prize money. But it varies depending upon the scale of the tournament."​ Based on his statement, it is worth considering the schedule that Ramanathan follows annually. At an average, the Indian ace plays 20 tournaments in a year which can vary from the qualifiers of Wimbledon to the smaller events in China and United States of America. It is estimated that he would earn $78,000 per year. However, out of this, $33,000 would be the share of a coach (if he had one with him in all those tournaments). Additionally, a physio or trainer is also required ideally. This means that an expense of INR 1 crore should allow him to comfortably travel alongside a trainer. When asked, Ramanathan said that INR 50,00,000 would be "a good budget."
The highest ranked current Indian player is Prajnesh Gunneswaran. The budget that Ramanathan has asked for is not an impossible task to carry out. If not everyone, Karti Chidambaram definitely believes so. Chidambaram, a businessman and a politician and the former Vice-President of AITA says that India can easily afford to fund the players but the AITA hasn't shown the will. Chidambaram, who is currently the President of the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association says that players like Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan should deserve a funding of INR 20,00,000 per year. "You need to spend about Rs 3-4 crore a year on about six players," says Chidambaram. "Its doable. Yuki was a huge opportunity wasted. He was the world no. 1 junior and junior Australian Open champion. Any country with half a tennis federation would call him and say Hire whichever coach you want and we will pay for him. What did the AITA do? They don't have any program to nurture talent." One of the biggest challenges that India currently faces is these internal conflicts between former players, active players and the governing bodies. The cold war between Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes is no news to anyone in the country right now. The latter on the other hand has always gained spotlight when it comes to the selection of Davis Cup team. But during the time when Paes himself was a budding player on tour, his father Vece Paes is said to have had night sweats during those days. In order to keep Paes active on the sport, Vece had to borrow INR 5,00,00 from six of his colleagues. Moreover, in order to avoid Paes' talent drain into the waste, a foreign coach was hired for him. It was in 1990 when Paes' admission into the Davis Cup squad helped his father take a breather. The story of Paes definitely is not a conventional one. Despite being a multiple time doubles slam champion, Paes had failed to make his mark on the singles circuit. A logical reason for that can be yet again attributed and traced back to the moolah.
Dr Vece Paes, father of Leander Paes in a candid moment. (Subhankar Chakraborty/HT Photo) Adding to the woes of the AITA is the latest ranking overhaul in tennis. On 1st January 2019, the ATP Futures circuit was replaced with a World Tennis Tour. This new addition is a transition tour that can help players efficiently traverse from the lower echelons to the higher ones. This came with a price. A price that was too hefty for the AITA. Nearly 3000 players (men and women) were stripped of their rankings and given ITF rankings. The tour level rankings lied with the ones in the Top 750. Many Indian players have been trapped inside this net. However, Somdev Devvarman believes that this rule can be a blessing in disguise for Indian tennis.
Also Read: What it's like for a sports fan to be in Melbourne in January
"One way of looking at it is that we have lost 60 odd- players and that's a blow for Indian tennis," says Devvarman. "But the other way is asking what the other 60 players (are) doing, because none of them have won a point in Challengers, only in Futures. So what were we really accomplishing when we had 75 players but are not really improving? Those 60 players don't make any money. They are playing in a system where it is impossible to make money but they are spending it and have false expectations of playing professional tennis at the highest level. This new system ensures that people are thinking that if we are not making the Challengers, then maybe we are not good enough to be ranked and I think that is very fair. In the long run, in my opinion, this system is going to give these kids, and more importantly their parents and the coaches, a sense of reality. This is not to be negative or blunt, I think it needs to be realistic."

In the wake of the rule changes, Somdev further emphasized on two crucial elements of Indian tennis: Coaching, and the tournaments held in the country.

"What has having 500 extra ITF (certified) coaches accomplished? The sport has evolved but the Indian coaching system has not. Everything is pointed at us getting left behind which we are and nobody seems to understand that we just haven't got our basics right. About three years ago, we used to have more than 15 Futures (events) here and what did that accomplish? For me, it's not just about having tournaments, it's about having right tournaments. It's more about having a vision and a structure in order to reach that vision. You can't just randomly have tournaments and think that you're gonna have world-class players if you are not preparing them in a right way. So, I think this is a good thing for AITA because it will really give them an opportunity to reflect and see what work they are doing and to see if they are actually creating world-class players." In accordance with the new schedule released, there is further deterioration and degradation seen in Indian tennis. In 2019, the men will have only one challenger event that will take place in Chennai. The women on the other hand who played seven ITF tournaments in the country will only see one ITF $25,000 tournament which will be held in Jodhpur on 28th January. In response to the downgrade, the AITA stated that it plans to setup more ATP Challenger events so that players can be benefited with the ranking points. Financially, this will take a humongous effort. "The idea is to start an Indian circuit and get at least 25 State associations to host smaller events," says Sunder Iyer, AITA Executive Committee Member. "We can then select the top seven or eight players and send them abroad with a coach and physio to play transition tournaments."
Indian Davis Cup team pose for a photo before their Davis Cup tie against Italy earlier this year. And just when you would think things couldn't get any worse for Indian tennis, another situation ices the cake of errors. National broadcaster, Doordarshan, has had an agreement with the AITA since 1997 for telecasting the Davis Cup matches. However, Doordarshan had not be living up to its end of the deal and had not shown those matches live. The last agreement between the two parties was signed for the time span of January 2017 to January 2022. Doordarshan also failed to confirm whether the upcoming Davis Cup tie between India and Italy would be aired or not. Thus, the AITA had to take the matter to the high court. Situations like these create a negative response towards the sport in the minds of the people. In a nation where lawn tennis has not prospered the way it should ideally have, the Doordarshan-AITA debacle was an unwanted happening. Eventually, the jurisdiction gave its decision favoring the AITA and Doordarshan had to air the matches live. There was no joy whatsoever for the viewers as Indian failed to win its qualifying tie against Italy.

Indian tennis is in a complex. A complex whose solution needs to be as efficient as oiling a noisy door.

Channelling the currency in the right departments sits atop in the priority list. Having said that, the hour calls for not one but multiple platforms like COE where a player can bloom with the right amount of water and sunlight. In a developing country like India, parents need to be well aware of the hustle it takes to see their child join the highest league of players. The last Indian man to win a a tour level singles title was Leander Paes who lifted the trophy at Newport in 1998. The last Indian woman to lift a singles title was Sania Mirza, who won the Hyderabad Open in 2005. Since then, Mirza faded away from the singles circuit and drifted her focus to the doubles category. She now holds six major titles in doubles. But ever since her drop out from the singles circuit, the Indian scenario too has come to a standstill in the mono category. This very fact sums up the way India has been focusing on tennis. The Indian Premier Tennis League (IPTL) was also one valiant effort to promote and encourage Indian tennis players. However, that event too folded owing to financial crisis. Two decades hence, India still seeks glory in the singles category even at the ATP 250 and the WTA International events. What is to become of this mesh is anyone's guess.
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