More Challengers the key to raising Indian tennis

By Veturi Srivatsa 
New Delhi, March 1 (IANS): Years ago, Michale Ferreira, one of India's great cueists, and badminton stalwart Nandu Natekar wondered whether they were putting their hard-earned money into a bottomless pit to make their sons tennis players.

Both wanted an honest answer from the late Sumant Misra, a former national champion who was at that time overseeing the junior tennis programme of the All India Lawn Tennis Association (AITA), which has now dropped lawn from it. He did not have the heart to tell Ferreira that his son may not make it big as a tennis player because of his suspect temperament.

All that Misra would diplomatically tell a worried Ferreira was that his son's destiny was in his own hands. Ferreira told this writer that he understood what Misra was driving at and he knew exactly how to deal with the situation.

There were other eminent sportsmen who wanted their sons to play tennis for reasons not difficult to seek, but none of their progeny really excelled.

Things have come a long way in the last 20 years. Today more and more players are willing to take up tennis and meet the challenges to grab the opportunities. More and more youngsters are game for roughing it out as

We now have quantity to find quality. Ramanathan Krishnan, easily the best known Indian tennis player before the Amritrajs, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi made good, always said India should first promote quantity to find quality players.

Krishnan did not find the situation alarming. "India will always find one or two players to carry the Indian flag forward”. He also wanted the state and tennis administrators to create infrastructure to attract youngsters to play the sport. Thanks to the National Games, practically every state now has decent tennis stadiums, though not all states are active. Sadly even traditional tennis centres are not doing their bit.

Around the time, Krishnan's son Ramesh was at his peak, Paes, son of hockey international Vece, and Bhupathi, son of a decent tennis player Krishna hit the courts. For over two decades the two have motivated a generation of tennis players. Joining them were Nirupama Vaidyanathan and Sania Mirza who have shown women players that they, too, can hold their own in big time tennis.

Still, players found the Bhupathi-Somdev Devvarman method of learning tennis at home and getting scholarships to US universities to climb up the ladder. Slowly things have changed and promising players are now spending to go to well-known tennis academies overseas to fine-tune their game. The latest sensation Ramkumar, who knocked out Somdev at the Indian Open, is training and playing overseas.

Though the tennis administrators were a tad slow in keeping pace with the rising tennis standards, they have started sensing a possible boom. One of the first things Shiv Prakash Misra did on taking over as captain of India's Davis Cup squad in 2008 was to request AITA, and also the sports ministry, to make room in the calendar for at least six-seven Challengers a year to keep Indian youngsters on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) loop.

The huge gap between the ATP Tour events and the start-up circuit, say between Futures and ATP events, needed to be bridged and here the Challengers come in. But then it was not easy to find sponsors in a cricket-mad country where tennis is seen as an elitist sport.

Challengers at home are the first step for Indian youngsters to garner points before they could venture out to play overseas. Home Challengers help a lot of players in more ways than one, saving on travel and boarding and lodging expenses of playing abroad. A far cry from the days of Nandan Bals and Enrico Pipernos being asked to scrounge on a couple of pounds of allowance to try and qualify for Grand Slams in the days of foreign exchange squeeze.

All of a sudden, there were three Challengers in February and that helped Somdev and the most promising of young talent, Yuki Bhambri. After Paes, the two became the only Indians to win Challengers at home.

More importantly, Somdev in no time had a quantum jump on the ATP charts. From around 100, he got to 78, thanks to his victory in the Delhi Challenger. Yuki, who won the Chennai Challenger, is slowly but surely
pushing himself towards the top 100 from his current rank 146. A few more Challengers in the country this year will help more players on the fringes like Vishnu Vardhan, Saket Myneni, Sanam Singh, Sriram Balaji and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan.

The players still need to play a lot more overseas, but their route to Europe and the US can be straight, eliminating the stopovers in Asia and Africa as is the case now.

AITA president Anil Khanna sees it all as a silent tennis revolution, the seeds of which were sown a decade ago by way of age-group tournaments, highly motivated coaches' education, recognised by the International Tennis Federation (ITF). Add to these the 40 weeks of ITF and WTA tournaments and the edifice is in place.

Khanna says he is able to convince the government the necessity of its funding the $10,000 Futures as promotional tournaments and picking tabs for board and lodging as it does with training camps in other sports.

Another thing the AITA would do well is to revive the national circuit to help beginners before they are exposed to the ITFs and WTAs. Years ago, the state units used to be very active in holding state championships regularly and today barring Bengal, Delhi, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu the others are dormant.

All state units should be galvanised to take the sport back to places like Lucknow, Allahabad, Dibrugarh and small but highly patronising towns in coastal Andhra to name a few.

Mahesh Bhupathi's International Tennis Premier League should take a cue from the cricket IPL to promote Indian players, too, by insisting on adding a couple of promising juniors to rub shoulders with the big stars. That can do wonders to Indian tennis.


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