By Manisha Malhotra
For Sania Mirza, the international circuit seems like a lonely place at times. For a long time now, she has been the lone Indian to trudge around the WTA circuit – the results haven’t always been positive but at least she’s there competing with the best players on the planet.
And that’s more than what can be said for the other women tennis players from India.
On Monday, Sania Mirza reached the semifinals of women’s doubles competion at Roland Garros. Predictably, she is the sole Indian woman left in the tournament. And once again we are forced to ask ourselves: After Sania, who?
When Sania first arrived on the scene, she took Indian women’s tennis by a storm. The number of enrollments at tennis centers around the country went up manifold. There was a buzz around the courts; everyone wanted to be the next Sania. But then what happened?
When you have a lot of people flocking to the courts, the need of the hour becomes picking the right players and giving them guidance. And that is where our tennis federation had failed. They have neither been able to capitalise on Sania’s popularity nor have they been able to groom anyone.
Tennis has a long history in our country but up till now, all the tennis champions have been products of their own hard work and family support. The “system” present in the country has not been able to produce a single player and that should be cause for great concern.
While many sports federations lack the funds due to their sports having no visibility, tennis doesn’t have that problem. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi are stars, Somdev Devvarman has had a very good year, Sania regularly competes in Grand Slams and even Rohan Bopanna has been doing very well. AITA was also granted significant sums of money for development before the CWG 2010 and yet there is no bright talent in the horizon.
India even had to turn to the “old timers” in Nirupama Sanjeev and Rushmi Chakravathi for the Commonwealth and Asian Games. Nirupama was a very successful tennis player who retired, got married, had a baby and comfortably made the team after four years. What does that say about development?
The best tennis player after Sania, is Poojashree Venkatesh who is ranked a paltry 546 and has been hovering in that mark for a long time. An interesting fact is that in our national rankings there is a player who is still ranked in the top 10 and that after she has been retired for over a year now!
While it is easy to be an arm chair critic, it is unclear why the AITA doesn’t tap into the knowledge that the previous champions have and create a system which will develop not only players but coaches as well. While there may be a lot of money in the game, there is no progress for its players. It is time that we create an international model of development and start assessing coaches on the results they are producing.
We still have a big group of girls ranked between 400-600 in the WTA rankings, so it would be good to start with them as prime focus. If we can pick out a few players in the younger age group, we could still perform a salvage operation.
It is easy to send people abroad for a couple of months a year but till we come up with our own system there will be no sustainable progress and we will have to only pray for one bright spark to live up to her talent.
While the tennis scene now has good infrastructure and a fair amount of international tournaments, it is time to take a step back and analyse how we create and nurture the players so that by the time the second week of a Grand Slam comes along, we have more than one woman playing.
Manisha Malhotra is an ex-professional tennis player who is now the CEO of the Mittal Champions Trust where she spends her time nurturing sportsmen and tries to extricate them from the mess called Indian sport.