The Indian tennis fan has an immense appetite for the travails of the rock stars of the sport. Sania Mirza's pregnancy, Leander Paes' many comebacks and Mahesh Bhupathi's post-retirement plans make for a rich copy. Their stature keeps them newsworthy, no matter what they are up to.
While the spotlight continues to glare on these familiar names, one man has quietly worked his way to carve a niche of substance. Divij Sharan is 32 and while you may not have heard of him much, remember that name. For Sharan is set to be a leading medal contender for the country at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Difficult to swallow? Pray, read on.
A few weeks ago, Sharan slipped past Rohan Bopanna — the other man who has been for too long in the tall shadows of Bhupathi and Paes — to be ranked the highest Indian doubles player on the ATP Tour. Given that our chances of success of Slam proportions are negligible in singles, the twosome game has come to define our winning aspirations in the sport. Currently, Sharan is ranked 39 in the world. The juggle of the points system has seen Bopanna gain ascendance again to a rank of 37. But Sharan has displayed enough prowess for him and Bopanna to come together to forge a partnership that will see them compete the whole of 2019 together. This combination has come about with sights firmly set on a medal at Tokyo. If the two click, like they did to gain India gold at the recent Asian Games in Indonesia, we can again look for a rekindling of the 'Indian Express' magic which was last seen on the Tour when Paes and Bhupathi dominated the world.
From the fringes to becoming a main contender, Sharan's tale is one of tremendous grit. It's a tale that deserves telling.
"It has not been easy, for sure," laughs the Delhi man when asked about the years of struggle. He has been plugging away on the men's circuit since 2004 and it took him nine years to break into the top-100. When he fell out of the 100 zone in the middle of the very next year, one could have been forgiven for presuming his success was an aberration, a blip into the exalted domain. It took him two more years to get back there and since then he has refused to let go. "I love what I do. Playing tennis gives me joy and I always knew that success is a matter of persistence and hard work. The journey has been long and I won't say it was always easy but the struggle had its own rewards. The losses taught me a lot even as I kept improving. I still have a long way to go and my game is still evolving."
The son of a head-hunting executive, Sharan does not come from a family with money to throw around. As of now, there are five Indians in the top-100 of men's doubles. Bopanna leads the pack followed by Sharan, Paes (63), Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan (74) and Purav Raja (90). Sharan's erstwhile partner Purav Raja – the man with whom he had the most amount of success till Raja chose to break the bond in a bid to forge another with Paes – comes from an extremely wealthy Gujarati family. Nedunchezian's family has a strong political background and is a part of the Chennai elite.
The persistence of these men on the tour is plausible as they have deep pockets to support them. Not Sharan. "It has always been a struggle to raise funds but then one makes do with what one has. My employers Indian Oil have been a pillar of support. That salary and whatever I earn in the form of prize money is my main source of funding. My parents are the whole reason I have been able to carry on but no man likes to keep pestering his dad for money. When I was struggling at around 150 in the rankings, I did have moments of doubt about carrying on. But then I am a very positive person. I don't even remember the bad bits!"
Sharan seems to have a delete and reset button; the kind that all winners in sports need. He doesn't like dwelling on the unpleasantness and that seems to be his greatest asset. While the government's myriad funding schemes are great fodder for the press in their randomness, Sharan has certainly benefitted from whatever little he got. "Funding for preparation for the Commonwealth Games at Delhi was a major help at a critical time. The Delhi government has a scheme for supporting an athlete for one major overseas trip a year. I used that most judiciously."
Sharan, Raja and Nedunchezian are beacons of hope for the aspiring Indian tennis player. Their doggedness has made our lot realise that the sport pays its own back but that it's a capricious deity that demands homage lasting over decades. "Young players need to understand that it's not easy as a lot of things have to fall into place. There is no guarantee of success and not everyone can be a Rafa (Nadal) who zoomed straight from the junior ranks to instant stardom. One gets better every year and while I have always dreamt of winning a Slam, I now know I can."
As Sharan takes on 2019 in the company of Bopanna, there is a lot for the Indian fan to look out for. After all, even Bopanna has been on the cusp of greatness for a while. No Indian pair has ever begun to prepare for the Olympic Games from a year and a half before. Tokyo 2020 will be the real test of this partnership but in the meanwhile, this is a pairing that's set to give Indian fans much joy in the year to come. "I'll keep on enjoying the journey. I like to believe I have earned it."
The writer is a senior sports writer and former national sports editor of Hindustan Times
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Updated Date: Dec 14, 2018 15:36:24 IST