Return to Play: How Indian tennis players handled the pandemic curveball
What will it take for India to produce Top-100 tennis players (singles) on a consistent basis? Can the pandemic offer the perfect opportunity to revive and transform the domestic tennis structure? We find out.
Lawn tennis is a fun sport, a popular one at the recreational level in India. However, the paradigm shifts once a junior player decides to make a living out of tennis. From known unknowns to unknown unknowns. The number of factors at play to become successful (let's say to reach the top 100) feels like a cautious drive uphill with low visibility. This piece delves into the challenges faced by two young Indian tennis players - Pranjala Yadlapalli and Mukund Sasikumar, during the pandemic. Pranjala's highest world ranking is 265 (2019), and Mukund's personal best is 229 (2019). They are currently ranked 726 and 450, respectively.
And then, the lockdown happened
As Pranjala landed at the Melbourne airport in February 2020, she was getting ready to complete her 12-week injury rehab program. In and out, she thought, looking forward to being on the tennis tour by May. And then, the pandemic happened.
"I've read and heard of several adventures in others' lives, but I could not have ever dreamt or prepared for this one in my life. I landed in Australia in February 2020 for injury rehabilitation and was here until April 2021. So, I spent 14 months in a foreign location, continuously renewing my stay visa, constantly looking for accommodation, and recovering from my injury."
Mukund was cooped up at his home in India during the lockdown, certainly a better situation than what Pranjala was facing. For a person constantly living out of a suitcase, he tried to make the best use of this time with his family. Until the frustration set in within a couple of weeks.
"I train 4-6 hours every day outdoors, including three things - fitness, tennis practice, and yoga. The only thing I could've continued at home was yoga, but it does not make sense without doing the other two."
While both witnessed strict lockdown protocols in Australia and India, they observed that the tennis circuit was getting back on its feet in Europe and the U.S.
Navigating the twists and turns
The men's and women's tours have an exemption called protected ranking (PR), which applies when a player does not compete for a minimum period of six months. While Pranjala could avail of this option during her injury rehab duration, she knew that getting back on tour was inevitable despite the pandemic.
"As things opened up in 2021, I realized that the administrative work related to travel had become complex, especially with visa applications, travel schedules, and vaccination protocols at each arrival and departure city." recalls the 23-year-old Pranjala.
Moreover, although the skies opened up again, the travel expenses had spiked since flights and hotels were operating at a lower capacity. Mukund recalls, "The airfares had almost doubled when I flew to the U.S. from India in 2021 compared to the affordable tickets during the pre-pandemic times. For a tennis player, the cost of an air ticket is the biggest singular expense competing on tour for almost 40 weeks in a year."
Moreover, from a performance standpoint, the stop-start irregularities of the pandemic took a toll on every athlete's body and mind.
"Although my physical fitness was back, I found that my tennis skills like hand-eye coordination and decision-making on-court got considerably slower due to the pandemic break, and that took me longer to regain." said the 25-year-old Mukund.
With fewer tournaments in Asia due to the pandemic, the only way to prevent the rankings from slipping further was to play more worldwide. In 2019, Pranjala had reached her personal best of 265, and by 2021 she had dropped to 900-odd at one point before pushing it back up into the 600 range by competing again on tour.
"While we Asians faced many challenges, I observed that European players drove across land borders in their private vehicles, not missing any tournaments in their region. The ranking game during the pandemic felt as though this is more about travel, less about tennis itself," observed Pranjala during her overseas visits.
The need for a Centre of Excellence
In sports, it's all about the twin engines – training and competitions. The men's and women's tennis tour has competitions scheduled almost every week of the year; hence athletes must design their training methodology in advance. A world-class training facility becomes the first prerequisite if our mission is to produce international champions.
"Ideally, we would like to keep our training base locally in India and travel abroad only for the competitions. All resources such as infrastructure, funding, coaches, and support staff need to be aligned to maximize the players' performance. Like cricket or badminton, a centralized approach to developing young players at a centre of excellence would go a long way in easing things out," Pranjala mentioned about India's domestic tennis structure.
As the sport gets more expensive yearly, it only gets more complicated for players to fend for themselves with their individual plans. "The support of my family is paramount during these difficult times also. I am thankful to two organizations, GoSports Foundation and Dream Sports Foundation, who support me through the Stars of Tomorrow scholarship programme since 2018," said Pranjala.
It is equally crucial for emerging players to play international tournaments hosted locally by India as that would allow them to gain exposure and lower their expenses.
"If we can host international events regularly, I believe that the entire ecosystem will develop faster. Although we have hosted regular events at Chennai, Bangalore, and Pune, the frequency of the events needs to be on the higher side if we intend to secure Corporate Sponsors on a long-term basis," said Mukund, who grew up watching international players at the ATP Chennai Open where the likes of 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal have also played.
The pandemic sure did rock the boat, however, can the crisis be converted into learning opportunities by the stakeholders to transform Indian tennis?
(The author is a Sports Research Scholar (PhD) at the University of Mysore)