To host big events or not?: Indian tennis’ perpetual dilemma

There are no Indian singles tennis players in the world’s top 200. In 2022, no Indian singles player featured in the main draw of a Grand Slam. The last men’s player to win an ATP singles event was Leander Paes in 1998, and the last women’s player was Sania Mirza in 2005.

Against this backdrop of sustained underachievement, India’s flagship tennis event, the ATP Maharashtra Open in Pune, kicks off on Monday. The WTA Chennai Open also debuted in August last year, giving the country a 250-point event on both professional tours.

The significance of hosting these events, however, has come into question with virtually no local presence in the latter stages of the draw. Most Indians rely on wildcards – direct entry awarded by organisers of a tennis tournament – to compete and usually bow out in the early stages.

In the past, India had shown a massive interest in an ATP event, especially when it was previously held in Chennai. Rafael Nadal played Chennai at age 17 in 2004 and would return twice, beginning his landmark 2008 season there, where he finished in the final.

With the tennis calendar more crowded than ever, and appearance fees of marquee players rising, the big names have not been coming to India to play for a few years now. And without an Indian putting on a show, the stands at the Balewadi Tennis Complex, the venue for the Pune event, haven’t been full.

Sunder Iyer, secretary of the Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association (MSLTA) responsible for hosting the event, insists that its presence on the tennis calendar is essential even if there are no Indians on show.

“The branding is important. Without events like this, India will fail to be a global tennis destination,” he said. “Additionally, through the wild cards, we are providing Indians an opportunity to play at a high level that they will not get elsewhere.”

As is customary, India No. 1 Mukund Sasikumar has been handed a wildcard into the main draw along with Sumit Nagal, the last Indian to feature in the main draw of a Major. Prajnesh Gunneswaran, Ramkumar Ramanathan, and Yuki Bhambri, among others, are also taking part in qualifying.

No local star

Countries like reigning Davis Cup champions Canada, and Italy, have proved that hosting high-profile tournaments can be good to develop the game within the region, by reinvesting the massive revenues generated from them. But without at least one exciting Indian player, ticket sales, monetisation of TV rights, and sponsorships remain too low from the event for the MSLTA to be able to redeploy money into grassroots development.

Iyer acknowledges that without a top Indian player at the event, it will be hard to make it sustainable. “We need to produce our own heroes like India has in other sports. There is no denying that,” he said.

The process to produce those heroes lies on the other end of this argument – that the resources going into hosting ATP and WTA events should go into hosting multiple lower-rung events – at the Challenger and ITF level – instead.

Vishal Uppal, the non-playing captain of India’s Billie Jean King Cup team (formerly Fed Cup), says that there isn’t a dearth of talent in Indian singles tennis, but the talent has not been honed due to a lack of competitive opportunities back home. He believes emphasis on 2-3 emerging talents, rather than the creation of a wider talent pool, may be a reason for that.

“While an ATP tour event attracts some eyeballs in India, the need of the hour is to focus on hosting more Challenger and ITF tournaments in India. We need our talent pool playing a minimum of 20 international tournaments each for men & women in India,” Uppal, who runs the Tennis Project Academy in Gurugram, a venue where he hosted two ITF $25,000 tournaments this year, said.

The players, to their credit, do take the opportunity. There were seven men’s ITF tournaments in India, and four were won by Indians, while there were nine women’s ITF tournaments with three Indian champions. Many others went deep into the draw to marginally improve their rankings for other tournaments on the calendar.

Perhaps highlighting the gulf with the international standard, the two Challengers – one level higher than ITF but a rung lower than ATP – held in Bengaluru, didn’t even see a single Indian reach the quarterfinal.

The way forward

The perils of India’s underachievement in tennis could mean that promising junior players do not see the kind of training and development required to transition them smoothly into the professional tour and eventually get them into the main draws of Grand Slams.

When players do show promise, the aim seems to be to get to elite academies abroad, either through a scholarship or by incurring large costs. Four Indian juniors are currently in the top 100 of the ITF rankings, and three of them train abroad.

Both Shruti Ahlawat and Yuvan Nandal train at the Impact Tennis Academy in Thailand, under coach Stephen Koon.

Manas Dhamne does some of his training in Italy, under the tutelage of Riccardo Piatti, who has worked with the likes of Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova, and most recently Jannik Sinner. Dhamne, 15, has also received a main draw wildcard to play in Pune next week.

There are risks, not only financial but also of uprooting a young player’s life, by committing to training abroad. And according to Uppal, coaching talent in India is of a good level, but needs support and encouragement – in terms of funding and facilities.

“There is no need to follow European or American academies blindly,” he asserted. “There are thousands and thousands of Indian kids who have gone abroad to train and have lost their way. We need to make sure, when our kids go abroad to train, there is accountability from their coaches.”

Borrow from badminton

Unlike tennis, other Olympic sports in the country have picked up significantly, and individual athletes are now bringing home international medals.

Much of India’s recent badminton boom, for example, can be credited to Pullela Gopichand, and his academy which opened its doors in 2008, bankrolled by entrepreneur Nimmagadda Prasad. Once the academy started producing top players – PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth, among others – plenty of corporate partners got involved, and the academy is now a world-class facility.

While no two sports can be exactly equated, the parallels between badminton and tennis are easy to draw. They are both popular recreational sports in India, both had historic cases of individual success, and both saw pathbreaking women break through in the 21st century. Badminton has left tennis in its wake in the country, though, due to the ecosystem of honing and creating a supply chain of talent thanks to the emergence of Gopichand’s academy.

It would be a mistake to define an academy just as infrastructure – a big training hall equipped with steady supply of shuttles and a gym, though all these are important.

What Gopichand achieved was thanks to more than mere real estate. It was the entire planning of careers – the fitness and conditioning work, sports science, tournament and travel planning, choosing the right time to move into seniors, choosing duration of training in camps and balancing it with tournament play, injury management and goal setting for highest level. This, apart from sparring on practice courts himself for hours starting with 4 am sessions and the in-match tactical coaching in big tournaments. He laid out entire pathways.

To expect a similar academy for tennis is, of course, unrealistic. But once Gopichand’s academy paved the way, others across the country also came to the fore. World No. 7 Lakshya Sen, for example, hails from Prakash Padukone’s academy in Bengaluru, which despite coming up many years prior to Gopichand’s, gained prominence after.

Private academies need to emerge and create a well-defined system of player development to make top-level tennis training more accessible and tennis dreams more realistic.

At the same time, these academies, and promising individual players, need to be sponsored by those with big pockets. Until then, barring a few exceptions, Indian tennis will not be able to come out of this period of under-achievement, and will continue to ride on the coat-tails of its veteran doubles specialists.

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