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Tokyo 2020: India’s qualification chances in Tennis

Tokyo 2020: India’s qualification chances in Tennis

Prasanna Haritas

Published: 10 Feb 2020 9:12 AM GMT

Tennis has rich history as an Olympic sport. But the sport stopped being part of the Summer Games after 1924 and only returned as a medal sport in 1988.

India have been actively taking part in the Olympic tennis competitions since 1924 when a six-member team participated in the Singles, Doubles and the Mixed events. But the country could only fetch its first medal in the sport when Leander Paes won the bronze medal at Atalanta 1996 Olympics in the men single's event. It was truly an historic moment in every sense as he also became only the second individual medallist from independent India after wrestler K.D. Jadhav.

Since Paes' medal India came to be recognised as a force to reckon with in Tennis at the Olympics, albeit in the doubles events thanks to the pairing of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi which became popular as the Indian express. The duo have brought India many laurels at the ATP tours over the years. But, still the wait for that elusive next medal at the biggest stage of them all continues.

There have been numerous reasons for India's limited success post 1996. The main one being several ego clashes among players which created an environment of uncertainty specially during the London and Rio Olympic games. The ego clashes affected the way the players combined for doubles and the morale of the entire team on whole. There were bitter exchanges of words in the media with one player accusing another of being venomous at one instance. All this certainly did not help to focus on the bigger task at hand, one to succeed as a country at the Olympics.

Still there have been some instances where Indian doubles teams came close to a medal but only to miss out by a whisker. In 2004 Paes and Bhupathi combined in the men’s doubles to reach the last four but lost to a German pair in the semi-finals. Yet, all was not lost as they got a chance to have a go at for the bronze medal but eventually lost a tightly fought contest to a pair from Croatia. In 2016 Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna reached the semi-finals of the Mixed doubles, but they too went down in the last four to Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram from the USA. In the Bronze medal play-off, they lost yet here again, now to a Czech Republican pair. In the same year Somdev Devvarman and Vishnu Vardhan represented India in the Singles competitions of the Olympic Games.

Also Read: Is India’s mixed doubles chance in tennis in Tokyo 2020 over?

Tokyo 2020 being a new challenge, it is time to dig into India’s qualification chances and finally the possibility of winning a medal this time-around.

Qualification in the singles still seems a tough path with only the top 56 in the world with a maximum of four players from each country automatically qualifying.

Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Sumit Nagal are the highest ranked Indian players but they are ranked well outside the top 100 to stand a chance of making it to the top 56. While Gunneswaran is a senior in the team Nagal is only 22 and is making major breakthroughs in the ranking at a young age. He surely has a bright future and we should definitely see him as a contender for Paris 2024.

And as always for India, all the focus is on the double’s competitions be it the Men’s, Women’s or the Mixed category. The qualification criteria is a bit complicated for the double’s events. The draw consisting of 32 teams will comprise of teams consisting players who are in the top 10 in the world. The next 14 slots are then allocated to the teams considering their combined doubles rankings. Remaining slots are allocated to the singles players who want to participate in doubles as well with one slot reserved to the hosts. The mixed doubles event does not have a qualification criterion, but the entrants should be participating in either one of singles and doubles competitions and should have combined ranking among the top 16.

In the men’s doubles, the weight of expectations this time around will solely lie on India’s top ranked doubles player Rohan Bopanna. The 39-year-old had to partner with Paes for the 2016 games after after major controversies. But the pairing earned him limited success. The pair couldn’t cross the first-round hurdle. It would be interesting to see who he will choose to partner for the Tokyo games. Bopanna did team up with Divij Sharan, India’s second highest ranked doubles player in 2020, in few of the ATP tournaments in the 2019 season gaining mixed results. Paes has made himself available until the Olympics, but he will have a very tough path to qualify compared to his compatriots. Bopanna is currently ranked 41st while Sharan is at 53rd place in the world with room for improvement in the next few months as the deadline is only on 8th June after which the qualifications will be decided. Purav Raja who is ranked 91 is the 3rd Indian in the top 100. Paes is ranked at 117 which makes his path incredibly difficult unless either Sharan or Bopanna decides to partner him, and their combined ranking is good enough for them to qualify for what could be Paes' mind-boggling eight Olympic appearance.

In the women’s doubles there will be high expectations from Sania Mirza. The Hyderabadi has made an incredible comeback after a maternity break. Mirza's game at the moment gives an impression as if like she never left. Mirza won the Hobart International title which was also her first tournament since her return to professional tennis. WTA which gives a special ranking to athletes returning from a maternity break puts Sania Mirza into world number 9 currently. With this she should already qualify in the Women’s doubles event for the games and has an option to choose a partner. She will be hoping to return to her peak fitness in the next couple of months and gain some crucial game time experience.

Mixed doubles could prove to be a tricky scenario. There is a still a lot uncertainty whether a combined ranking of India’s best ranked male player --Bopanna -- and Mirza would be enough to land them in the top 16.

India have not seen the same build up for Tokyo 2020 as some of the previous editions of the Olympics. While qualifications can still be a bit tricky, there is still a lot of hope at least in doubles. Paes has already announced this will be his last season, so he should be striving his best to make one last travel to an Olympic village. It could very will be last Olympic appearance for Bopanna as he nears 40s. Mirza’s story has already been incredible one so far. An Olympic medal could justify her illustrious career.

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