Whither Indian tennis? This question springs to mind in the wake of India going down without much of a fight to Italy in the Davis Cup qualifiers at Kolkata recently. The down slide has been evident for some time but now it has become more pronounced and what is a matter of concern is there is no indication that the slide will be arrested.

There was a time when India were serious challengers for the Davis Cup. The team was a regular in the prestigious World Group and made the final in 1974 and 1987 besides entering the Challenge Round in 1966. Even in the 90s India were regular participants in the World Group and made the semifinals in 1993 with an incredible upset victory over France at Frejus.

In the new millennium however India have struggled to maintain their once exlated status. For much of the last 20 years India have languished in the Asia/Oceania group and have faltered time and again when just a step away from moving back into the World Group. The last time India figured in the World Group was in 2011 when they came up with a magnificent performance against Brazil in Chennai reversing a 0-2 deficit into a 3-2 victory.

The problem with India is that they just do not have world class singles players. When India did admirably all those years ago it was because Ramanathan Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan were able to pull off victories in the singles. Even Leander Paes before he concentrated on doubles notched up some amazing victories over higher ranked players in the Davis Cup.

Paes and Bhupathi have been one of the most successful doubles pairs around the circuit winning Grand Slams besides registering several notable wins in Davis Cup doubles play. But doubles gives only one point and that is why the four singles are important.

More than once when asked whether Paes’ appearance in the team would help Vijay Amritraj has said quite candidly that his contribution would be next to zero. '''We need two good players to pull off victories in the all important singles.

The victory in the doubles hardly helps.’’ Vijay certainly has a point for quite often while India have won the doubles the overall impact is nil because the singles are lost. Even in the just concluded tie against Italy India won the doubles but that hardly mattered in the overall context. Paes, Bhupathi and of late Rohan Bopanna have been excellent in doubles but with the singles players not up to the mark India really have little chance of making an impact.

There was a time when Ramanathan Krishnan was one of the leading players in the world good enough to be seeded No 4 at Wimbledon in 1962 just behind the three great Australians Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Neale Fraser. In Davis Cup play he virtually carried India on his shoulders winning both singles and doubles and steering the country to the inter zone final six times besides the Challenge Round in 1966. Even if that was in the pre-Open era it was quite a feat. In the 70s and 80s Vijay reached a high of 16 and Ramesh Krishnan peaked at 23.

For all his brilliance in Davis Cup singles play the highest that Paes reached in the rankings was 73 with just one ATP Tour title. If the competition around the ATP circuit was tough tnen it is tougher now with the result that Indian players are not able to rise very high. Somdev Devvarman India’s premier singles player in the new millennium reached a high of 62 in 2011. There was a time when Indian players were aiming to break into the top 20, 30 or 50. Now their aim is to break into the top 100.

Among the contemporary players Yuki Bhambri reached a high of 83 while the best that Ramkumar Ramanathan has touched is 111. The current leading player Prajnesh Gunneswaran has made it clear that his first objective is to break into the top 100 and he has just managed that having reached No 97 in the latest ATP rankings. But now comes the harder task – to stay there. Yuki for example could not stay in the top 100 for too long and is currently ranked 137 while Ramkumar has slipped to 133.

Non-playing captain Bhupathi made the point after the loss to Italy that India cannot hope to make significant progress in the Davis Cup without a couple of players in the top 100.