At the beginning of the year, India's Yuki Bhambri defied the odds and overcame three tough challenges in the qualifying rounds of the Australian Open to qualify for the main draw.
He put on a spirited fight against Marcos Baghdatis in the first round but went on to lose. However, in the coming few months, he reached the 3rd round of the Indian Wells Masters, defeating Lucas Pouille in the second round, and putting on a stern fight against the big American Sam Querrey in the third before losing.
He followed that up with a decent performance in the Miami Masters as well, where he lost to Jack Sock in the second round. Shortly after the two Masters, he went on to win a Challenger tournament in China.
Looking at his performances in the first half of the year, Indian fans were extremely hopeful of his performances to come over the remaining part of the year and were highly positive about the growth of Indian tennis in the singles arena.
However, as fate would have it, his body did not allow him to keep that level up for too long. Constant injuries did not allow him to participate at the highest level and thus, he went on to lose in the first round of almost every tournament he took part in. Now, at the end of the season, he is out of the top 100. It’s been the story almost every year. The same issues occurred with Somdev Devvarman as well a few years ago.
If we take a closer look at things, the last time India produced a top singles player in tennis was more than three decades ago in the form of Vijay Amritraj. Three decades ago!
Before Amritraj, it was Ramanathan Krishnan, who had put India on the world map in the singles arena, constantly challenging the top players and defeating them as well.
Leander Paes did so too for a while when he extraordinarily won the bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. However, he moved to doubles soon after given the numerous hardships involved to stay alive in the singles circuit.
Sania Mirza, on the other hand, achieved some success on the singles circuit for a few years, but she too, was forced to focus solely on doubles after constant injuries put her on the back foot.
There are a few more players like Ramkumar Ramanathan and Prajnesh Gunneswaran, who have been putting in the hard yards but have not been able to perform well on a consistent basis.
Reason For India Not Able to Produce a Top Singles Player
Firstly, in order to continually challenge and play singles at the highest level, having a support team is the top priority. This team needs to be looking after the player's fitness and help improve his performances on the court. Tennis being an individual sport and being the physically demanding sport, players need a team behind them to help them overcome mental and physical challenges.
We have seen how, in certain cases, injuries or mental breakdowns of sorts have put a halt to a player's career.
Case in point – Juan Martin Del Potro and Novak Djokovic. Del Potro was out of action for a few years due to a recurring wrist injury and was close to quitting the game as well.
And more recently, Novak Djokovic's slump in the first half of this year was due to his lack of focus and motivation. However, it was their respective teams which helped them recover and got them back into the game.
India's top tennis player, Rohan Bopanna, too, is of the notion that having a support team is extremely necessary.
"I think the support team is a very, very important part of any professional sport. Ram and Yuki, they totally deserve to have a coach and trainer traveling full-time and that will not harm them in any way. That will only help them get better and improve their game," he said on the sidelines of the Australian Open this year.
However, along with being a physically and mentally challenging sport, tennis is an extremely expensive sport as well.
According to a recently retired Australian tennis star , it costed him between $250,000 and $315,000 a year to fund himself and stay alive on the circuit. He did not play a lot of singles towards the end of his career, hence that cost would be significantly higher for a top singles star.
Now, since the Indian singles tennis players have not done anything extraordinary on tour so far, they do not have the bandwidth to afford a coaching staff. The money they earn from tournaments is used for their personal and travel needs.
Here comes the problem of government or private funding. Players do not receive enough backing from the government to satisfy all their needs on the circuit. There are a few private organisations who have taken up the responsibility to fund a few players, but this too is not enough.
"“Even for me, I am paying for my own coach, my own trainer. At the end of the day, those are the necessities I need as a tennis player. I need them here to watch matches, give me feedback constantly.”" - Rohan Bopanna
Another problem is that there are not enough professional tournaments taking place in India. There is just one ATP 250, which takes place in Pune and a few Challenger tournaments in 3-4 cities around the country. Due to this, a lot of Indian tennis stars are missing out on getting enough match practice and the sport is not getting the promoted the way it should be.
Finally, the infrastructure of tennis in the country is not great either. There are not enough courts in the country to play on. A majority of the courts belong to exclusive clubs, for which, one has to spend a lot of money to play on.
How Do We Resolve These Problems?
Well, most importantly, players require funding and backing, whether it is from a public or private organisation. If we want to see a future champion from the country, the players would require an entire team behind them, working hard to help them strive and achieve success at the top level on a consistent basis.
We have seen how sports like kabaddi and badminton have grown over the past few years and this has only been possible due to the constant backing and support which was given to the sport.
In addition, a higher number of tennis institutes should be formed as well, which could help nurture kids right from a young age and get them interested in the sport.
Furthermore, a higher number of tournaments are required in the country, which would see an increase in the number of local players participating, and thus increase the pool of players in the country. It could start off with a few more Futures tournaments and soon as the popularity increases, move on to Challengers, and hopefully another ATP tournament as well, along with the Pune Open.
These are just a few things which could help get India on the singles map of one of the most popular sports in the world. There are a whole bunch of youngsters who are slowly rising up the ranks and they will need as much support they can get in order to realise their dream to lift a Grand Slam up one day and make the nation proud.
(The author is a freelancer sports journalist who has have covered events around the world, including the Australian Open in 2018. His area of interests includes tennis and cricket.)
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