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Tennis

How curveballs are crippling Indian tennis

A country with a rich tennis history has just one top-100 player on the professional tour's singles charts.

Sumit Nagal Tennis
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Not very long ago, Sumit Nagal, India's top singles professional, hinted at quitting owing to a lack of financial support (File photo)

By

Rahul Kargal

Updated: 21 May 2024 10:25 AM GMT

In 1960 and 1961, the legendary Ramanathan Krishnan made two consecutive semi-finals at Wimbledon. Suddenly, a new sport made the news in a country that hitherto excelled in hockey and was just beginning its love-affair with cricket. Thereafter, India finished runners-up 3 times in the famed Davis Cup (1966, 1974, 1987), tennis' equivalent of the FIFA World Cup. Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan excelled in the 70s and 80s, and Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza brought laurels to the country from the 90s onwards.

The foundations for tennis’ growth in India appeared to have been firmly laid. And yet, just one Indian currently features in the top-50 of the world rankings - 44-year old doubles specialist Rohan Bopanna (ranked number 2 in May 2024).

While India produced a steady stream of world beaters in badminton over the past decade and a half, such good fortune has eluded tennis.

Why do Indians miss the train?

"Between ages 10 and 12, physical changes begin to occur in a player but the awareness just isn't there," said Kiran Nandakumar, coach and co-owner of the popular Topspin Tennis Academy in Bangalore.

Speaking to The Bridge, the former tennis professional stated that parents are utterly misinformed.

"When we tell parents that nourishment is important, they tell us that we do give our kids good food like chicken and mutton biryani. But there's a difference between good food and right food," he added.

With little emphasis on the right food and physical conditioning, by the time a player turns 15, competing against peers on the international circuit becomes a rather arduous task.

Milestones, therefore, are vital in tennis. Miss them and a player is constantly playing catch-up. That said, if one were to get there per a definitive road map, the outcomes are vastly different.

Take American Ben Shelton for instance.

The southpaw debuted on the ATP Tour at 19-years of age and two-years later is number 14 in the world. If an Indian is to replicate his success, the player needs to commit to the Challenger circuit as a full-time professional, as early as a teenager.

"In India, slowing down happens in 7th, 10th & 12th standards. In stages where we need to make a leap, our players slow down," lamented Nandakumar.

'Little faith in tennis'

The 'slowdown' occurs for a lot of reasons. Prominent amongst them are those that emanate from parents who don't see a sure shot career for their ward in the sport of tennis.

Despite tennis offering a path to potential careers as a player, physio or even a fitness coach , parents appear unconvinced.

"For them, sports offers no security the way education does with something like an engineering or another degree," said CD Ajay, a former tennis professional turned coach.

Gradually, when performances begin to dip, players begin to question themself and subsequently become hobbyists.

Thereafter, overcome with doubt, tennis takes a backseat while academics consume their lives.

A loophole-riddled hierarchy

For a sport to grow, the foundations must be strong. In Indian tennis though, loopholes appear in plenty.

For instance, several states have no state-ranking system and rely solely on the All India Tennis Association (AITA) rankings. Players at all levels need to acquire a national rank by playing AITA-approved tournaments and on the basis of this, obtain a state rank.

The problem with this system though lies in the fact the AITA rankings are a reflection of quantity and not necessarily quality. The more AITA tournaments a player plays, the more points he or she stands to acquire. And with roughly fifty-thousand rupees needed to travel for such tournaments, and do it consistently through the year to secure and maintain a rank, the financially weaker players are snuffed out at the bud.

Also, with no state representation on their credentials, securing a government job on sports-quota becomes a virtually impossible task.

Potentially unaffordable

Travel costs notwithstanding, equipment, coaching and nourishment throw more curveballs.

Professional tennis racquets cost upwards of twelve-thousand rupees at a minimum and the imported ones used on the international circuit cost even more. And one is never enough when playing competitive tennis.

Then there is the cost of securing training at a professional academy. This ranges from fifteen-thousand to fifty-thousand rupees per month (or more) for teenagers that play the national circuit. Moreover, professional tennis academies are mostly located on the outskirts of the Indian cities owing to the vast land requirements of the sport. Badminton courts meanwhile, thanks to the sport's popularity and shorter court-dimensions, are better accessible to residential areas.

With tennis not being kind on the wallet, sports like Pickleball are now experiencing rapid growth in keeping with its ease of play when compared to tennis.

Competition aplenty

"Pickleball is beating tennis quickly as the cost of training is lesser," said Nandakumar.

The academies, unable to cut down on coaching costs in keeping with rising real estate prices, are now improvising and revisiting their business model, while looking to ride the new Pickleball-wave.

On the dimensions of one tennis court (that accommodates a maximum of four players at a time), four pickleball courts can be laid where a total of sixteen players can play in one go. So clearly, tennis academy owners with hard courts are turning multi-sport entrepreneurs to stay relevant and in business.

Even as numerous challenges plague the development of tennis in India, countries like China are surging ahead. While India has just Sumit Nagal in the top-100 on the professional tour's singles charts, China has three men and seven women.

Despite curveballs aplenty, tennis continues to be played in the country and shall have an Indian representation at Paris 2024 as well. That said, a lot more needs to be done to resuscitate and then transform the game in the country.

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