Contrary to popular belief, India have always had a rich tradition in singles tennis. While Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza kept the Indian flag flying high in doubles and mixed doubles segments of Grand Slams, it was Ramanathan Krishnan, Ramesh Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj who made it big in the singles events including multiple semi-finals and quarter-finals appearances in Slams.
As can be seen, the names in the singles departments exist from the previous century. But when you get the G.O.A.T Roger Federer a set down on the Arthur Ashe Stadium at US Open, the world is bound to notice. Sumit Nagal was the protagonist in the story. He later went on to lose the match in four sets but not without forcing Federer to have a few words of praise for the Jhajjar born.
But Nagal's eye-catching performance also brought a very important aspect " lack of Challenger level tournaments in India " in focus. It was Nagal's good performances on the Challenger circuit that propelled him into top-200 for first time in his career and later into the main draw of US Open. There's only one Challenger tournament " KPIT MSLTA Challenger Pune " which now features on Indian tennis calendar unlike before. What it does is that it forces the aspiring tennis players to completely rely on the expensive and extremely difficult route of playing majorly in Europe/USA to break into the senior level, especially in singles.
Leander Paes, someone who had a great start to his career in the singles department before moving to doubles, resonated a similar view, however, he added that travelling around the world prepares the youngsters to play "different styles".
"The more tournaments (Challenger) we have the better," Paes told Firstpost at the sideline of Tennis Premier League event. "It will be great to have more of them. But at the same time when they travel to Asia, Europe and America that's also great. They get to see those players, like in Europe you have the grass-courters, in America the hard-courters and in Asia you have a mix. So travelling the world playing, you also get to play against different styles, so your own level improves."
Speaking about Nagal's performance on the night against Federer, Paes said the youngster "handled himself very well" despite the "daunting task" of playing against the 20-time Grand Slam winner.
"It was a fantastic performance," Paes said in the media briefing. "I have seen Sumit (Nagal) for many years now. Even before he won the junior Wimbledon doubles, I had worked with him in Canada. I practiced with him in Toronto, worked with him on court."
"The real challenge for Sumit is going to be to sustain that quality performance. To qualify for US Open is fantastic, I have been there myself, but to play Roger Federer on the main court is a very daunting task and I thought he handled himself very well."
Along with Sumit, Prajnesh Gunneswaran was another Indian tennis player who grabbed the attention by making it to the main draw of all four majors in 2019. However, as Paes pointed out, sustenance and improvement of success is the real challenge for these athletes. The 46-year-old also had his take on what the singles players need to be more consistent but he also added that more money needs to get into the sport in India to help athletes afford staying on fruitful tours where they can compete with the best on regular basis.
"What is really needed is the passion and perseverance to keep improving but the real difference between the 100 in the world and top-10 in the world is the physical and mental attributes. Everybody can hit a serve decently well, everybody can hit a forehand and backhand well but the difference is the confidence in winning, physically and mentally is a big difference."
Paes was in Mumbai to promote the Tennis Premier League (TPL), a private franchise league, which will hold its second season later this year. Paes, who spoke about giving back to the game, holds a stake in the Mumbai Franchise.
The second season will feature top Indian tennis players including Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, Saketh Myneni, Purav Raja, Vishnu Vardhan on the men's side. On the women's side there will be Ankita Raina, Pranjala Yadlapalli, Rutujua Bhosale and Riya Bhatia.
Sighting the examples of IPL and ISL, Paes said the TPL should have a similar impact on Indian tennis.
"When you have so much young talent in the country, it's important to promote the sport of tennis," said Paes "...in tennis, it's very important to have youngsters coming to play with national starts. This year I am very happy to have the Davis Cup players, professional players of the country, the No 1 women's player of the country coming to play in the league."
Elaborating on his role in TPL, Paes said: "My role in the league has enhanced every year, my job in the league is to promote it. As far I am I am concerned, it is my responsibility, having played for 30 years on the tour, to come back and serve the game. This is one such vehicle where I am helping Kunal Thakkur (promoter) to bring in national players, to bring in Davis Cup players, to bring in our international players who are playing on the international circuit " to promote the circuit, to bring in corporate India to come in and help."