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SARAH WARIS | 20 AUGUST, 2018

What Has Gone Wrong With Indian Tennis

Paes pulls out of Asian Games


It had become a fairly familiar sight. As Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes strode together on the field, the image of a confident and dominating pair filled every tennis fan in India with pride. As they chest bumped their way to one victory over another, the hearts swelled up with an unparalleled joy.

As the famed duo stood aloft with the tiranga fluttering high and the national anthem playing, the cricket-crazy nation could finally look beyond the Tendulkars and the Dravids who had consumed more than half of their childhood years.

For a girl in her mid-twenties who was unable to witness history being made as Lee-Hesh climbed from one success ladder to another in 1999 where they reached the final of every Grand Slam, the 2006 Doha Asian Games arrived as a symbolic moment where the joy of sustained effort bore fruit with India’s doubles pair clinching Gold.

Just when a long journey of more trophies was wished for, the facade behind the celebratory wins gave way to an ugly spat where Mahesh Bhupati pledged to never play with Paes again. His commitment was questioned and even though his patriotism was never in doubt, the ugly creaks turned into huge fissures, which even after 12 years threaten to dislodge Indian tennis’ future.

So what has gone wrong?

The reasons for India’s decline in the tennis court can be attributed to two factors, politically personal and the dearth of much talent pool due with the growing expense that greets tennis players today contributing largely to it. The first reason dates back to the same pledge that Bhupati had taken after a successful 2006 Asiad and as the years rolled on, the likes of Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza too got engulfed in the unfortunate impasse.

Not only did they make their allegiance to Bhupathi clear but they also shot down opportunities to play with him, which had a negative impact on the overall progress in various multi-national events. In the 2012 Olympics, Paes was forced to partner Vishnu Vardhan though either Bopanna or Bhupathi would have been a better bet to partner the then top-ranked player Paes.

In a bid to please him, MIrza who had just won a Grand Slam with Bopanna was chosen to partner Paes in the mixed doubles event and the result was that India failed to play their best combination in either event. Since then, the flames of ire have only risen and the top-ranked stalwarts remained clear of Paes for reasons unknown.

By removing the 45-year old as the captain of the Davis Cup team as players like Bopanna and Somdev Devvarman revolted against him, the issues seemed never ending and with the 2016 Olympics panning out on similar lines, the exercise of airing one’s dirty laundry in public had reached the pinnacle. Then, Bopanna who was ranked in the top-10 before the deadline to send in the final squads had the choice of his partner in the double’s event and instead of going in with Paes, he chose Saketh Myneni instead.

Though the AITA later resolved the issue and picked the top two players as the team to represent India, the visible hatred and lack of coordination and team work deeply affected the pair’s performance at Rio. It was rather unfortunate that in his seventh Olympics, Paes stood the victim of ugly politics, with people keeping aside their national interests for personal grudges.

India’s showing in the Davis Cup too was adversely affected due to this very reason as Bopanna and Paes have kept their outings to the bare minimum. Last year, Bhupati was appointed as India’s non-playing captain and the result was that Paes was dropped from the doubles event against Uzbekistan despite being on the bench. Following this, an ugly spat ran out where the duo were keen to walk over the other, disclosing personal conversations of hatred. The latter was not picked for the tie against Canada and with India not advancing to the World Group Stage in four years, the problems seem aplenty. With a restricted talent pool, Indian tennis is on the risk of battling severe crisis in the long run.

Yuki Bhambri has been present for a long time, but he has been unable to break in into the top league and even the shock win over Gael Monfils at the Citi Open last year seemed a one-off. Ramkumar Ramanathan and Sumit Nagal had an impressive 2017, with the former defeating world number eight Dominic Thiem at the Antalya Open in Turkey but once again, inconsistencies have followed them this year. The hosting of just two Challenger Trophies too seem inadequate and with the AITA not having any plan in place to provide upcoming talent with financial aid, the going gets only tougher.

The Badminton Association of India provides financial and professional help to aspiring enthusiasts but the AITA has failed to follow suit. With equipment, training and traveling all proving to be greatly expensive, tennis is still regarded as an elite sport and unless the former and current players can sort out their issues, the future of Indian tennis looks bleak.

As Paes pulled out of the Asian Games at the last moment, stating his disappointment at being paired with Nagal, the message of low faith by one of India’s superstars would have dented the young player’s confidence miserably. In their quest for personal gain, the ‘legends’ of tennis have pushed the sport into shambles and unless mighty steps are taken, the downhill will refuse to cease.
 

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