From Asian Games medals, Olympics appearance to fighting for survival: Tale of four-time national tennis champion Vishnu Vardhan

Tanuj Lakhina

Over the past year, doubles specialist Vishnu Vardhan has formed a habit for whenever he is in Hyderabad. After training, the 32-year-old would head over to the Telangana Secretariat and sit outside the Sports Minister's office. He would wait for an hour in hope and anticipation to meet V. Srinivas Goud, the state's Sports Minister, failing which he would head home.

Vishnu Vardhan stands 203rd in the ATP Doubles ranking. AFP

Vishnu Vardhan stands 203rd in the ATP Doubles ranking. AFP

With little headway into this practice, Vardhan opted to put social media to good effect. He tweeted on 25 September, "Dear VSrinivasGoud Garu. Have been trying to get an appointment for a brief 10 mins meeting/introduction with you, but it seems impossible. Request your office to help out. There should be an easier way for the sportsperson of the state to meet their sports minister." Goud got back through a direct message and setup a meeting at his place. Vardhan arrived, waited for three hours before leaving empty handed €" again.

The 2010 Asian Games silver and bronze medallist has been doing the rounds of government departments and corporates for the past year and half in trying to raise funds to keep his career going. But so far, the state government hasn't been forthcoming in continuing their support for the Secunderabad born player.

In 2017, Vardhan received support to the tune of Rs 10 lakh €" two installments of Rs 5 lakh each €" but nothing arrived in the bank in 2018 €" the year Telangana went to polls. The funds dried up and stalled Vardhan's ambition to rise in the ATP doubles ranking. Since then, the former Davis Cupper has been making ends meet courtesy his ONGC salary, little prize money from tournaments at the lower levels and his earnings from competing in club tennis  in Germany. But Vardhan has far greater ambitions.

"I'm 32 right now, it's not that I have another 20 years of career ahead of me. I do believe that there is another Asian Games medal left in me. I do believe that I can go deep into the Grand Slams in doubles. I do believe these things can happen in the near future," he told Firstpost. Vardhan aspires to compete at the Tokyo Olympics next year and finish on the podium and try and repeat the success with a gold medal at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou.

But for all that to happen, Vardhan needs to climb up the ranking charts just like he did in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, he started from 340 and finished at 116. The year after, he finished 124th with funds drying up in the latter half. "2017 was a turnaround year for me. I immediately rose from 350 into the 200 and went very close to 150 and actually ended the year in 120 which was amazing," stated Vardhan.

Vishnu Vardhan (third from left) won gold medal alongside Saketh Myneni at the South Asian Games in Kathmandu, Nepal. Source:Instagram

Vishnu Vardhan (third from left) won gold medal alongside Saketh Myneni at the South Asian Games in Kathmandu, Nepal. Source:Instagram

"I used the Rs. 10 lakhs and the performance improved as well. 2018 was great for me. I moved up from 120, played lead up tournaments to Wimbledon. I played grass court circuit tournaments in the lead up. I thought I have the support and I will do it right, let me not cut corners. I had a coach with me for 10-12 days in London to help me get ready for the Wimbledon Championships. So not only did I qualify for Wimbledon but even won a round (partnering N Sriram Balaji). We played five matches and our serve got broken only once. I moved up to 92 in my rankings. But this is August 2018 and I hadn't received any support (as agreed)."

Vardhan's association with the Telangana government began with the help of KT Rama Rao in late 2016. Then the state tennis association's president, Rao listened to Vardhan's plans of representing the state and country in global tournaments and plans of rising up the charts with support of Rs 25 lakh from the government. "I was ranked outside 300 in doubles at the time. I was just moving up in the rankings, but I really believed in myself and I approached the Telangana government and I met KTR Sir. He himself was the president of Telangana Tennis Association at that time. It was really good that a powerful minister has taken up the president's role. I told him that I just need the support for three years, I told him I will do really well in the Asian Games and make myself a consistent grand slam player."

"I told him excluding my ONGC salary and prize money, I need about 25 lakhs a year for traveling, a coach, a physio, a trainer to alternate between them. He said, 'Okay Vishnu you're outside 300 let us just start with a minimum amount. You show me that whatever you're saying if you can show me this pathway, then I will I will add the support.' And I said that's fair, let me prove something to him. That's when it was very good that he was accessible, he promised support and the support came pretty quick," said Vardhan who represented India at the 2012 London Olympics in both singles and doubles department.

The ups and downs are not new to Vardhan's career path. Having turned pro in 2008, he won two medals at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, played the London Olympics in singles and men's doubles categories, attained a career high 262 in singles before picking up a knee injury in the closing stages of 2012 which kept him out for a year and a half. After multiple stop-starts, he returned fully fit in 2014. But with plenty of mental doubts over his capability of doing justice to his career. The turnaround moment came courtesy the marathon man of Indian tennis €" Leander Paes.

"I still remember that I won the Open Nationals (in 2015) and got a main draw entry for a Challenger in Uzbekistan in October. I was in Uzbekistan and that's when I met Leander. He had come down to play a Challenger because he had to move up in his doubles ranking. That inspired and motivated me a lot. I was feeling old at that time like I was thinking my career is done, let me just play the national circuit. So these are the kinds of thoughts I had. I was still trying to do whatever best I could do. But I was not out there competing."

"So I met Leander in the tournament in Tashkent. It was very inspiring for me, seeing this guy who has achieved everything in the world, but still he's out there, he's come down to play a Challenger. He doesn't really have to do that. I was there throughout the week, I was there to warm up for his matches, I was there watching him play and he made the final. I was like when this guy is able to do that, I should be doing that (as well). He has been an inspiration for me since day one. So I was like, let me give this one shot."

With renewed confidence, Vardhan moved from singles to doubles. He played almost 20 tournaments and won five ITF Futures titles. He has since climbed up the ladder and won Challenger titles €" four in 2017 and two in 2018 €" for a combined eight trophies in his career.

But over the past year and a half, with little funds at his disposal, Vardhan has had to cut down on his travels, cut down on quality coaches and find ways to make ends meet. Even worse for a professional, he had to sit home and miss out on crucial months of action which didn't do his ranking any good. "I just stayed back in Asia and played tournaments that were close to me and not really playing the bigger tournaments which I had to play to make sure that the ranking is maintained. I just played tournaments closer to home and cheaper to get to," says Vishnu who has now dropped to 203 in the ATP doubles ranking.

"Beginning of this year, I was home. January, February and March I didn't play anything. I was just home, trying to figure out the finance. For doubles you need to play about 30 tournaments. Even if you take the top doubles players Rohan Bopanna or Divij Sharan, they're playing close to 30 tournaments in a year. That's the kind of commitment you need to put in and it's not easy. In doubles only if you're into the Grand Slams, you kind of make enough money so that you can be self sufficient. Bopanna and Sharan despite being in the top-40 or top-50 are supported by the TOPS scheme. You still require some kind of support for your coaching, for training," he added.

Financial concerns for non-cricket sports in India is not new. It is not new to Indian tennis either. Sumit Nagal decried the lack of funding despite making the US Open main draw in singles and Purav Raja reckons he won't put his kid into tennis. Vardhan sees his budget at Rs 35 lakhs for a year for costs ranging from flights, lodging, boarding, coaches, training expenses. He wishes to invest back Rs 7-10 lakhs he makes from ONGC salary and prize money thus putting in requests of Rs 25 lakhs to government and corporate entities.

With little change in his situation, the 32-year-old trained with TSG Backnang in Stuttgart, Germany this year where he played club matches and gave out tennis lessons to juniors. He spent three months in Germany and played for the club for six Sundays while taking two weekly lessons. For his services, the club paid him approximately Rs 4-5 lakhs including accommodation.

The earnings went back into the career but Vardhan acknowledges it doesn't do him justice because he's not playing the 'right' tournaments. "It's not doing justice even if I played 20 tournaments. Another downside of this is that I'm not able to have a set partner. I don't know my schedule and I'm not able to commit to players. There are a lot of players who want to play with me but then they want to do a different circuit. They want to play the right tournament. They might want to play in Turkey then come to Asia, so plenty of travel but I'm not able to commit this to them. By playing with different partners, the performance is getting affected."

For Vardhan the decisive moment in the battle against bureaucracy came while training in Hyderabad. "I met this Hyderabadi girl, she's completely deaf and has one eye. She used to come to practice every single day and was working so hard. She was preparing for the Deaflympics. It's so inspiring to see that every single day she would come with her father. The father would translate what the coach was saying. I spoke to the dad and asked 'what's happening with her? Are you getting any support?' He said that there's no support and she's so motivated to do this and I want to help her out. That moment honestly ticked me off."

"Till then I was like this is how it is going to be, it's not going to change. Looking at that I thought I'm not going to keep quiet anymore. I've been diplomatic all my life. I decided to see if there is a sports policy and what does it say. Even if it says Rs. 10,000 then you make sure the players are getting Rs 10,000. Is there a training camp? Is there some support? Is there any tournament that you're going to organise? Absolutely nothing," said a disappointed Vishnu.

In his own fight, the discussions with government officials haven't been fruitful. "The reasons are very vague. 'We are working on it', 'We're making some changes in the sports policy', 'The budgets are revised'. So these are the different reasons I've been getting in the last one year. It's not a straight 'No'. I remember in 2016 the principal secretary of the Sports Minister he told me straight, 'Vishnu you are an established tennis player, you have a job. You are making about seven to eight lakhs a year for tournaments. And we are a new state and we are focusing only on grassroots tennis. We don't want to support you and I'm going to reject your proposal.' I have no regrets because he had a valid reason. You want to focus on grassroot tennis or grassroot sport and you don't want to support a player like me. Fair enough."

Vardhan says sticking to club tennis in Germany and moving with his family would be an easy way out and an option he has explored. But like his role model Pullela Gopichand, Vardhan, who began tennis at 8, wants to give back to the sport in the country.

"He single handedly changed the face of badminton in India. It would be so easy for him to to get a job or anything anywhere in the world but he chose not to do that. He wanted to make a difference, so for me he's an inspiration. The club in Germany are very happy with me. I stayed there for three months and they can give me a year long contract. I can just move with my family to Germany and play over there. That's an easy way out for me. If I'm so inspired from Gopi sir, then what's the point?," says Vardhan who is finishing 2019 by playing big money tournaments to fund start of 2020 season.

"Hyderabad and Telangana have had a history of producing sportspersons in tennis, badminton, cricket. But unfortunately, now if they're coming out its because of the sacrifices. It is not because of the system, it is despite the system that they are coming out."

Vardhan won the men's doubles gold medal at the South Asian Games partnering Saketh Myneni €" just a few days after playing the Challenger Tennis League in Mizoram to make money. At this juncture, he has mixed feelings after winning a tournament. "I don't know the last time I booked round trip tickets I always book one way. You don't know when you're going to end the tournament. Sometimes you go to the end, sometimes you lose in the first round. When you win a tournament, you don't know whether to be happy or sad because you're taking a flight on a Sunday which is usually expensive. These are the things I don't want to worry about," he says.

For the 2007 National title winner, the season will begin by partnering 41-year-old Japanese Toshihide Matsui. It will continue with ambition to play at Wimbledon once again and maybe, just maybe the "impractical" dream of winning it.

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