Why Indian tennis is seeing a player revolt

Indian sport simply does not believe in player associations. Cricket doesn’t have one, Wrestling doesn’t, and neither do shooting or athletics or any other sport in India. Part of the reason for the lack of player associations is that the associations have never believed in empowering the players to do anything more than bow to the officials in power. So precarious is it, that anything more and the associations might have a revolt on their hands.

In tennis, perhaps, they already do.

And it makes sense to avoid a revolt because that’s when the skeletons come rolling out of the closet. So the associations did the best thing possible – it got the big players over to their corners – gave them the money, the power and the facilities even as the struggling players, the ones who need the associations to back them up the most, languished largely forgotten.

So when 11 of India’s top tennis players excluding Leander Paes decided against playing in the Davis Cup, the All India Tennis Association was still not worried. It didn’t quite imagine that the players would ever manage to stay together long enough to become a threat to their monopoly.

Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna have a huge role to play. Reuters

Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna have a huge role to play. Reuters

But with the formation of the Indian Tennis Players' Association (ITPA), the players have shown the determination to become part of the decision making process.

“See, Tennis does not need AITA,” said Manisha Malhotra, one of the founding members of ITPA. “In most other sports, the associations are responsible for sending the list of the participating athletes for tournaments. But in tennis, the players don’t need the association except for the Davis Cup, the Olympics, the Fed Cup and the like. They can send applications on their own. And any which way, most of the players in India have come up on their own or via the US College system.”

“We don’t want to fight the AITA, we are not rebels but we do feel that we can point them in the right direction in many cases. In a certain sense, we believe that as tennis players we have to strive to make the system better.”

And what does better mean? Does it mean more tournaments in India? Does it mean more funding for players? Does it mean the chance of a wild card in major tournaments?

“For example, in March, we will have a US $25,000 Challenger event at Bangalore. Now, it sounds very good to have that sort of event but does it help India’s players in anyway? A $25,000 attracts higher-ranked players and it greatly reduces the chances of our players making an impact – most of them crash out in the first round itself.”

The Challenger event at Bangalore in 2012 was won by Donna Vekic, who is now ranked 92 in the world. India’s best players, however, are nowhere close to even 300. Sania Mirza, who hardly plays singles anymore, is ranked 380. Kyra Shroff comes in at 475, Rishika Sunkara is 545, Rutuja Bhosale 601 and Prerna Bhambri 639. They simply don't have a chance.

“So instead of having a $25,000 event, it would make so much more sense to have them play in $10,000-dollar events. They really need a chance to play and a chance to build up their confidence too. It’s as simple as that but does the AITA understand that?,” wonders Malhotra.

In the United States, for example, the players association plays a vital role in the development of players – it advises the United States Tennis Association on young players who need funding, who should get a wild card, the schedule and the kind of tournaments it needs to have. This is the role that ITPA wants to play as well.

At the end of the day, if Indian tennis really wants its players to achieve something it needs to be inclusive, not exclusive.

“It might be easy to say that ITPA is just about the tennis players. But we hope we can show the path to others sports as well. Players need to have a stake in the running of their sport as well. Sometimes, they are the ones who know best and sometimes, the association should recognise the fact as well.”