Davis Cup is a tournament that is played in the spirit of camaraderie, in a sport that is largely an individual pursuit. Unfortunately though, the competition mainly serves to remind us of the ugly face of Indian tennis. The endless spats between players and administrators finds a new voice at each of these opportunities. The tie against New Zealand is the last for Anand Amritraj, who makes way for Mahesh Bhupathi as the non-playing captain for the next round. One can only hope that the change in guard helps Indian tennis turn a new leaf, reflect in honesty, and herald an era of meaningful transformation.
There are several issues that plague tennis in India. The disunity among players is a tired topic that has been documented to death. The AITA seems to be in a constant state of disrepair, preoccupied with political bickering instead of working for the development of the sport.
Then there is the issue of money – tennis is an expensive sport. Access to good quality infrastructure, shoes, rackets and clothing cost plenty of money. Even if a child were to show early promise, it will take the parents enormous amount of resources to sustain their progress.
At some point, the tennis fraternity in India needs to look beyond individual ego and work for the development of the sport. And the journey has to start with individuals before we expect institutional reform. So long as the players squabble and argue, the AITA will feed like a vulture and pass the blame.
Somdev Devvarman seems to have made a good beginning with his retirement from professional tennis. He has stepped away from the sport at a relatively young age to focus on mentoring other players. At 31, he has the experience and energy that can help Indian tennis move forward.
It is difficult to understand his open aggression against the AITA, but it is borne out of several years of personal frustration. It will be interesting to see how the dedicated young man can carve out a place for himself around a table that offers solutions.
Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna need to look beyond themselves. Each of these players has served Indian tennis with great discipline and commitment. They have a brilliant opportunity to take a statesman-like approach to play a constructive and meaningful role in fostering Indian tennis over the next decade.
On the institutional front, AITA will need inspired leadership and commitment to sport. After decades of neglect and ruin, it is perhaps time for the Sports Authority of India and the Department of Youth Affairs and Sports to take a proactive view. It is time for India to make some harsh decisions in facilitating a change in leadership and setting a new direction.
Incidentally, India is flush with tennis facilities. It would be myopic to assume a lack of infrastructure. One ride around any major city and you can see several underutilised tennis facilities. The AITA and state federations need to initiate a campaign of inclusive tennis by engaging with children at a young age. Schools, colleges and housing communities need to be mobilised to provide for a dynamic environment for sport.
The grassroots initiatives can serve to work as a feeder mechanism for an organised junior development program aimed at a structured approach towards harnessing talent. AITA needs to develop regional centres for youth development in collaboration with the states and SAI.
Former national players can be hired to conduct clinics and training camps at these regional hubs to facilitate the next stage of development. Experts in fitness and nutrition can be shared by these centres to help the physical development of children, based on a scientific approach.
The best talent from the various regions can be selected to train at a central facility managed by AITA with the help of former international players and a dedicated team of qualified coaches. The centre should also have full time team of trainers, physios and dieticians to facilitate the growth and development of players.
A third tier of institionalised support can be in the form of a team of travelling professionals – coach, physiotherapist and fitness trainer. Young players ought to unify their calendars to travel as a unit with the support team in tow. While the competitive world can be cruel, beggars cannot be choosers. Sharing resources and subordinating egos might be the best solution for individual careers as well as Indian fortunes.
The absence of an organised development mechanism is hurting Indian tennis badly. The top ranked Indian this week is Saketh Myneni. The 29-year-old is a classic example of the effort and time it takes a young Indian player to find some blossom. The 199th ranked player worked years on end to finally taste some success on the Challenger circuit over the past few years.
Rohan Bopanna, forced to sit out of the tie in Pune this week, spoke to the media in Australia about the struggles faced by young Indian players. Bopanna suggested that the lack of fitness and training facilities in India have resulted in players taking too long to mature.
Yuki Bhambri came through the ranks quickly enough. But at just 24, he has already lost two to three seasons of tennis to injury. He is trying to come back from a back injury recently, but it appears that he is already dealing with a tennis elbow now.
The 22-year-old Ramkumar Ramanathan was lucky to have a full scholarship from the Chennai tennis fraternity. But he seems to be struggling to push up the order from his current ranking of 206.
The young men do not lack in spirit, but their physical development just does not compare favourably with that of an average professional on the ATP World Tour. They also need to embrace a life of far greater discipline and dedication if they desire to compensate for it and leave a lasting imprint.
Eventually, most players are opting to live off the doubles circuit either due to a lack of resources or out of the sheer frustration of their defeated efforts in singles. AITA and others have sometimes complained about a lack of access to resources.
The growth of CSR in India is well documented. Corporates will be happy to assist, if there is a structured effort to revitalise the sport in India. No company will want their resources squandered by either greed or laziness. A united team of players and an AITA with integrity will not struggle to garner the resources needed.
The key is to invest those resources diligently for the development of the sport, providing an opportunity for young children to pursue their dreams of success on the biggest stages of tennis.
Updated Date: Feb 03, 2017 11:22 AM