"8 years of effort is needed for an Olympic medal prospect in Indian tennis"
Discussing the state of Indian tennis, former Olympian and ace tennis player Nirupama Sanjeev, suggests how India's performance can improve at the Games.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics is nearing its end. India has had its own share of glory and setbacks. While the glories keep us upbeat, the setbacks keep us cautious of the road ahead. One such event where we haven't been able to make a mark at the Olympics is Tennis.
Sumit Nagal, Sania Mirza and Ankita Raina were the three players who represented India in the ongoing Olympics. While Nagal lost in the second round to second seed Daniil Medvedev, the Raina-Mirza duo fell in the opening round of the women's doubles event despite being in a favorable position in the match.
If these tennis results sadden you, what should in fact be a matter of concern was the massive confusion saga between the Indian players and the AITA that ensued just when the Tokyo Olympics commenced.
Followers of Indian tennis could see the lapse in communication that was exposed by this rift. The Bridge got in touch with India's former Olympian and the first Indian woman in the modern era to win a main draw singles match at a Slam, Nirupama Sanjeev.
A former Top 150 player, Nirupama Sanjeev is now a mother, a coach and a commentator. She opens up on her relation with the AITA back then, the Olympics plan, professional tennis and the way India's governing bodies need to tackle the challenges.
- You were one of the most successful singles players in India in your days. How important and efficient was your communication with the AITA?
I would not say it was terrible. I was able to reach them almost most of the time. I knew if I had to play for India, I had to keep the communication going. There were a couple of instances when it was not that great.
But the majority of the time my communication with the AITA went fine and everything was quite smooth. Most of the time there were delays in getting stuff done through them but then you accepted things as they were during those days.
- Compare your playing with those today. Do you think the functioning of the AITA has plotted an upward graph or has it slumped?
I have not dealt with them on a daily basis. I honestly don't know how they are in terms of functioning with the players of today. Now having said that, have they made a lot of progress in terms of what a governing body should do for tennis? I will be upfront and say, they haven't done enough.
Their viewpoint is that conducting tournaments and workshops are the main functions of a national body.I completely disagree with it. These are all money-making arrangements. You pay for these things. And it's okay. I am not against them. It's good that they are there. But that's not the only role of a national governing body.
You need to think about how you are growing and popularizing tennis around the country. Are you growing leagues? Are you growing grass root levels? Are you really helping at the junior and sub-junior level? Are you doing anything for the development of that sport? Are you doing wheelchair tennis? Are you doing cardio tennis? Do you have a game plan or strategy to introduce the sport and accountability for the same?
I mean there are so many things that can be focused on from a national body perspective which I don't think they are taking into consideration. It's a very small area they are focusing on. I think the whole of India should come under one body. Every state association should be answerable to the AITA as to what they are doing for tennis in their state.
I don't think we have anything on that scale right now and I don't think they are doing enough. I am reading about how Odisha changed the face of hockey in their state and the entire nation. So it's surely doable.
- From Rio 2016 to Tokyo 2020. How do you rate the performance of Indian tennis players? What are the gains and what have been the losses?
I think we are on status quo. We do have some of our boys who do travel out a little bit more, again probably on their own dime. I don't think anything has changed honestly in terms of our tennis. It's still Sania Mirza on the horizon. She is the only one who is playing still. We have Ankita Raina that's knocking on the doors of Top 100 and couple of other girls a bit lower.
But I don't think we have anything in terms of support for them to be doing things together and go travel as a team. Same thing for the guys. Ramkumar and Prajnesh are really bright prospects. But unfortunately you need to have a very high ranking to get into the Olympics.
I mean Rohan with a ranking of 38 couldn't get into Olympics. So that tells you how difficult the qualification of these Games are. So unless we have at least 5-10 players almost of the same rankings and almost playing the same tournaments, and we are able to develop them into going higher and higher, I don't think we can expect a whole lot going forward even with Paris.
So I think it's important to start focusing on the 14-year-olds right now if you are looking at 8 years down the line wherever the Olympics is going to be. So you have to put in 8 years of effort to look at an Olympic prospect 8 years from now.
I learned that from the Chinese people when I was living in California in 2000 and they were talking about the Olympics which was 8 years later. I was stunned. So we are very bad at planning and I don't think we think that far ahead. But it's time to do that now.
- One of the most common lines heard after the Olympics is that in a country with a population of over 1 billion, India is still unable to produce enough medallists. How would you respond to them?
I mean our entire focus until this point has mainly been about education and there's nothing wrong with it. Please don't get me wrong. But we have to look at sports in a professional way.
Now what we have to do I believe is that the sports ministry and people below, need to sit down, look at all the different sports that are going to be there in Paris and start looking at what are the prospects, what all sports we can participate in 8 years down the line and start preparing for that. We don't have a systematic approach. We just throw people in.
Of course things have gotten better. Badminton association is doing great in India compared to other sports associations. There is some progress in that. Hockey is also doing great. But we have to look at every single sport and make sure we can make it as professional as possible. Take into account the strength of athletes and we need to have some accountability.
Most of the people in these high ministries have never played a sport and they don't know what it takes. Some sports persons may have played but they don't have the acumen or the professional approach as to how to get these things going.
We need someone to put a plan together about what we are going to do 4 years down the line, 8 years down the line, 12 years down the line. It's not surprising that we have a population of a billion people.
But tell me how many people in that billion actually play a sport. So if you compare that out of the billion, the amount of people actually playing any sport, even at grassroot level, is very very less in India.
So we need to get more people involved in any sort of game or sport and the schools need to do a better job of actually teaching important and basic sports to all these kids. I think that's the best way forward.
- We are seeing our athletes make the qualifying or main draws at slams in the singles category. But after a certain stage we see them routinely fall out of the competition? What factor(s) has/have hindered us the most?
So each case is different. Each player has different reasons as to why that happens. Sania Mirza was able to gain benefit from the fact that there was a tour event in Hyderabad when she was there. We need more such events for the boys hosted in India so that they can make a jump at home and get into other tournaments easier.
Because playing the quality players all the time is not easy. It is also not ideally the ideal situation for these guys (Prajnesh, Ram, etc.). So the best way going forward is to have higher tour events in India and it's time they got this and a subsequent boost in their rankings.
The other reason is also that some of them don't have enough people travelling with them. They need to have physios with them at this level. Sometimes they also need to focus on mental conditioning as well and I don't think that is stressed enough these days.
Everything has to be looked at if you are playing at the professional higher level. If you are top 200 in the world, you need to focus on every single aspect to make sure that you can optimize yourself and play the best tennis also.
So I am not hundred percent sure if everybody has the means to travel with the coach, trainer, etc. All these things make a difference because the other players on tour are travelling with them.
- What aspects in training do you think coaches in India should focus on in order to ensure their players fare better overseas?
When playing abroad, when a player is competing at international levels, it's the minute things that make all the difference. Firstly, our biggest nemesis has always been fitness levels, we got to train right. Not train hard.
Secondly, if everyone is playing almost at the same level, scouting opponents is very important to give a game plan or strategy to the player. Scouting can happen only when the coach is there. Thirdly, the mental training required to compete at that level. A coach has to guide the player to take into account all these aspects.
- Not much has been talked about former Indian players getting into tennis commentary. You have shared the panel of experts with Vijay Amritraj on ESPN and Star Sports. Do you think we need more Indians (not necessarily former tennis players) who can narrate the story of our tennis stars on air?
See the thing is on air, there is only so much that commentators can say. It's very hard for us to just go and take the plight of our Indian players and just talk about it. I mean we can to some extent, but I don't think that's the only thing that can help them. I definitely feel it will help to have more Indian commentators.
Though, commentating is a tough field as not everyone can go into it and make it interesting. Because it's not just about tennis. You have to talk about training routines, etc. So it would be nice if there are more Indian commentators.
But I understand it's a tough life because now with Covid, there are barely any tournaments and it's very hard to quarantine for two weeks before you can do something. So you know it would be good if there are more Indian commentators, but I am not sure if that's possible right away.
- I personally loved your concept of "losing and learning how to lose" that you previously mentioned in one of your interviews to The Bridge. Two years hence, how do you think our athletes are implementing this motto?
Thank you for that comment. The thing about learning to lose is that if you are so worried about the result of losing, it just doesn't allow you to play better. When you go into the court, you just have to imagine that there is a 50% chance that you are going to lose, doesn't matter who is on the other side of the court.
That's always the odds. So you have to go in with that attitude and say that 'if I lose, I lose. But I am going to give it my best and do whatever it takes to try to win and if it doesn't happen, it is what it is.'
It's also got to do with having the right kind of mind-set and it varies from player to player. For example, there are some players, who if you tell them, 'don't put pressure on yourself and just go in and play,' you will find that they basically are too loose and they are not focused enough to perform. Some people want to have the pressure which makes them play better.
So it varies in each individual, but in general, learning to lose I feel has helped me tremendously in the sense that if you keep being tight about something that is not in your control, it's very hard to perform at the highest level.
I feel in Tokyo or in the last couple of years, it's very hard to know what exactly the players are going through behind the doors. So I have to see how they are doing mentally and playing on tour. I haven't interacted with them on a personal level to see what they need help with.
- A professional player, a commentator, a coach. Which part of your tennis career has Nirupama Sanjeev cherished the most?
I really enjoyed my time as a player but it came with its own set of challenges. I didn't have the money to travel at that time, I was on my own, I didn't have my family with me. So as much as I enjoyed competing, there's a side of it where it was not easy and I didn't have a plush life.
Commentating kind of fell into my lap and I did it. But I think I was 25 or 26 when I was commentating. I think I would be a better commentator now then I was because I know I can analyze things so much better and I am older and hopefully wiser.
Coaching is a very difficult role. I am good at it, but the problem is, you need to have a right student as well who is able to understand what you are saying and be able to follow what you are saying and respects you.
So all three roles are equally enjoyable, but it comes with its own set of challenges. But if I have to pick one, I would have to say I would pick my playing days over anything.