Asian Games 2018: Indian tennis stars get ready to prove their mettle with another strong show at showpiece event

Even as the tennis world at large is gearing towards the last Grand Slam of the year – the US Open, a group of Asian players is chasing the clink of medals in Indonesia’s oldest city, Palembang, this coming week. The Asian Games doesn’t quite feature high in the pecking order of the sport, but it still gives the competitors a shot at national glory.

 Asian Games 2018: Indian tennis stars get ready to prove their mettle with another strong show at showpiece event

File image of Ramkumar Ramanathan. AFP

Traditionally, tennis has been one of India’s strongest sports at the Games. They have won 29 medals, including eight golds, since the sport was included in the continental competition in 1958. And the Indian team is expected to put on another successful show in Palembang, when the event gets underway on 19 August, despite the absence of the country’s top singles player, Yuki Bhambri, and the talismanic Sania Mirza.

With Bhambri choosing to skip the Games to give himself enough time to prepare for the US Open (begins 27 August), Ramkumar Ramanathan will be India’s best bet at the men’s singles event. Ranked 118 in the world, Ramkumar might well be one of the seeded players in the depleted men’s draw of 64. With the US Open scheduled so close to the Games, a lot of the top Asian players, like Bhambri, have decided to save themselves a trip halfway around the globe just before the season’s last major. Two of the biggest absentees will be Japan’s Kei Nishikori (world rank 23) and South Korea’s Hyeon Chung (25), who shot to international fame earlier this year by reaching the semi-final of the Australian Open.

Japan, the most successful country in tennis at the Asian Games, in fact, has chosen to field a completely fresh squad. Even 2014 champion Yoshihito Nishioka will not return to defend his title. Even the lure of a direct entry into the Olympic Games for the singles winners has not been enough to attract top players.

In the event, Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin is likely to be the top seed a cut above the rest of the field. At 78, he is the only top-100 player entering the Asian Games.

“Istomin will be the favourite,” said coach of the Indian men’s team, Zeeshan Ali. “Ramkumar may also be seeded. But it will be a close competition because everyone after that is almost at the same level.”

Along with Uzbekistan, who is pretty much a one-man show, China is the only country who will go in full-strength. Their top-four male players, led by the 169-ranked Ze Zhang, will travel to Indonesia. Also making the trip is teen sensation Yibing Wu, who had stunned India’s Ramkumar in the opening rubber when the two teams clashed in Davis Cup earlier this year.

However, Ramkumar has enjoyed a good run of form in the last few weeks. He became the first Indian since Somdev Devvarman, in 2011, to make the finals of an ATP tournament when he made the title round of the Newport grass-court event. The big-hitting Indian, who has now developed a deft net game, also reached his career-high ranking of 111 last month. He could once again follow in Devvarman’s footsteps by gunning for gold. Devvarman is the only Indian player to win a singles event at the Asian Games – he beat Istomin to win gold at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou.

Even though India has a really strong singles contenders in Ramkumar and Prajnesh Gunneswaran (ranked 161), doubles department is once again likely to be India’s forte. In Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna, they have two of the most experienced players in the draw.

The former has quite a reputation to keep. Paes had won India’s first singles medal at the Asian Games: a bronze at the 1994 Hiroshima edition. He has since gone on to bag three gold medals in men’s doubles (1994, 2002, 2006) and another in mixed doubles (2006 Doha, with Sania Mirza). At 45, he may not be Mr Quicksilver anymore, but he is still quick enough to catch opponents out. Initially, Paes had been paired up with greenhorn Sumit Nagal, but Ramkumar has shown interest in teaming up with the veteran. Coach Ali, though, said they would be finalising the teams once in Indonesia, taking fitness and form into consideration.

The 38-year-old Bopanna, meanwhile, will be keen to grab his first medal at the continental event. There’s an added incentive for the player to do well in Palembang. Despite his achievements on tour, including the mixed doubles title at the 2017 French Open, Bopanna has repeatedly been ignored for the Arjuna Award. Things came to a head last year when Saketh Myneni (mixed doubles gold with Mirza, men’s doubles silver with Sanam Singh) was given the national sports award ahead of Bopanna on the merit of his Asian Games performances in 2014.

If fit—the Indian has been sidelined by a shoulder injury the past month—Bopanna is likely to team up with Divij Sharan. The left-handed Sharan, who won the men’s doubles bronze with Bhambri at the last edition, has been a revelation this season. He progressed to the quarterfinal of Wimbledon last month, in the company of New Zealand’s Artem Sitak, and is currently ranked 38 in the world.

India’s prospects are not quite as promising in the women’s field.

The inexperienced and young (average age 21.66) team will sorely miss the experience of soon-to-be-mom Mirza. But they will also have to battle a considerably tougher field as a lot of the top Asian female players will compete at the event.

In singles, top-ranked player Ankita Raina is the only one who has participated at the Games before. She has grown leaps in the past 12 months, reaching a career high of 181 in May. The 25-year-old will also take heart from her performances at the Fed Cup earlier this year when she won all her three singles matches to help India stay in the in the Asia/Oceania Zone Group I.

The 20-year-old Karma Kaur Thandi (ranked 197) comes in with a lot of promise but may find it difficult to blast past some quality competition. China’s Shuai Zhang (ranked 32) and Qiang Wang (53) are likely to lead the charge. The crafty Luksika Kumkhum (93) from Thailand and Uzbekistan’s Sabina Sharipova (124) also pose a daunting challenge.

But the Asian Games, in the absence of any palpable pro tour gains, is designed as a launch pad for young talent and might prove to be just the right platform for the Indian women to prove their mettle.

Indian Team:

Mens: Ramkumar Ramanathan, Prajnesh Gunneswaran, Sumit Nagal, Leander Paes, Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan.

Womens: Ankita Raina, Karman Kaur Thandi, Rutuja Bhosale, Riya Bhatia, Prarthana Thombare, Pranjala Yadlapalli

Updated Date: Aug 17, 2018 14:56:42 IST