The glaring gap in Indian tennis | Tennis News
India’s Davis Cup captain Rohit Rajpal underlined his “concern” ahead of India’s World Group playoff win over Denmark in March. “There is a void in Indian tennis at the moment,” said Rajpal, also treasurer of the All India Tennis Association.
Months later, as India are pushed back to the playoff stage again after losing to Norway at the weekend, that gap is even more glaring.
With the exception of Karman Kaur Thandi who ignited a spark with his first round win of the WTA Chennai Open last week to accompany his ITF title earlier, the year has been muted in Indian tennis (leaving aside the doubles recovery of Rohan Bopanna).
No Indian has made the singles main draw of a Grand Slam this season, with Sumit Nagal being the last appearance at the 2021 Australian Open. The Nagal is yet to start after hip surgery, while that Ramkumar Ramanathan, Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Ankita Raina have all dropped sharply to the point that there is no Indian in the top 200.
And yet, these are the players who continue to be selected for India in the Davis Cup or the Billie Jean King Cup. Simply because there’s no one else knocking on the door, let alone kicking it down. Three of the four guys below Nagal in the 500 ranking region are above 25. The same goes for two of the four placed after Karman and Ankita.
This turns our attention to the junior talent pool, which is not overflowing either. Only two Indians, Aman Dahiya (French Open) and Shruti Ahlawat (Wimbledon), have contested the Junior Grand Slam this season, both losing in the first round. They are the highest ranked juniors in the country, first at 100 and second at 116 in the ITF rankings.
“Need for non-glamorous events”
Where the Indian tennis ecosystem could of course correct and see more immediate results – beyond the lack of structure, support and funding – is by introducing more tournaments to the country.
“I don’t think there is a talent shortage in India. But we are not giving enough opportunities to our talent in terms of home competitions,” said Vishaal Uppal, former Davis Cupper and captain of the BJK Cup women’s team. “We need to look at improving junior tournaments and having more ITF events.”
The last two ITF women’s events in India — held back-to-back in Gurugram in June-July — were won by Indians: Karman and Sahaja Yamalapalli. Karman rose from 494 to 387 in the rankings after the win, Sahaja from 989 to 574, and six unranked Indians entered the charts after those two weeks. As hosts, the Indian boys won the Asia/Oceania Junior Davis Cup Final Qualifying Tournament to advance to the World Finals.
The quality and quantity of ITF events in India has however declined. Of the 14 ITF junior events in India this year, only two are J2 level while the others are lower (J1 is the highest category and J5 the lowest). For men and women, India has hosted seven tournaments each. Tunisia, who now boast world second-placed Ons Jabeur, went from four ITF women’s events in 2012 to 51 in 2019.
“Indian tennis needs these non-glamorous events,” Uppal said. “Our focus must be how we can get unranked players into the rankings, the 2000-1500, the 1000-750, the 500-200 and the 200-100. We need to stop romanticizing that we need to produce Grand Slam champions. We need to get people into Grand Slam tournaments first.
“Run 20 men’s and women’s tournaments every year and you’ll start to see a difference in three years. There will be more higher ranked players,” he added.
“A better image in two years”
The pandemic has created a bigger hole due to the lack of tournaments and the prolonged hassle of travel, especially in parts of Asia. “We lost a whole batch and we saw how they are doing. Those who are now in their twenties and don’t have ATP or WTA points have to start from scratch,” said Balachandran Manikkath, one of India’s top coaches.
This again turns our attention to juniors and talents like 18-year-old Dahiya, 19-year-old Ahlawat and 14-year-old Manas Dhamne to step up in the next few years. “Challenges like lack of funds and home tournaments remain, but these youngsters need to be guided carefully, in terms of mapping their ladder of progression, what tournaments they attend, at what level, who they train with. , etc. They need time,” Manikkath said.
“By the end of the next year or two, we will have a better idea of our next talent pool coming out,” he added. “This current gap, well, it is there. And we can’t close it now.