After being on the ATP tour for well over two decades, I have come to believe in the saying, “Wandering one gathers honey”. Criss-crossing continents due to my vocation as a professional tennis player every season, I’ve realised our thought processes and actions come to be influenced by what we imbibe by coming in contact with different cultures and people. I’ve travelled to the far corners of the globe and have friends from all over.
Let me put this into perspective — during the course of my long tennis career, I’ve been asked many a time if India can make it in sport.
Firstly, India needs to develop an appropriate culture and having experienced it first hand, I would like to mention the kind of work done in sports in Europe and the US. Results don’t appear overnight but rather years of persistence are the key to attaining glory. The quest for excellence has to be continuous. There has to be interest created among the young generations. But, sadly, that is what is missing in India.
Barring the sporting genes I inherited, I never had things easy. Only sheer hard work and determination have brought me to the position I am in today. Belief is the other driving force in my life. Years ago, when things were not in place in terms of infrastructure and, most importantly, the right attitude towards sport, I maintained that our nation, now of more than a billion, could surely become a bright spot in the universe.
Having said this, a lot still needs to be done. But the scenario is much better now than when I started out. No one knows it more than the players themselves that there are no shortcuts to success. That’s what the administrators in the country need to understand. Unlike other walks of life, sport cannot be segregated into black or white because there are a lot of grey areas.
Handling athletes’ needs is the job of experts, and it is here that we need to get real. Instilling professionalism is what we should strive for. After all, the ultimate aim is to win medals at the highest sporting level. When I pit the handful of Olympic medals in our possession against our country’s size and huge potential, it is embarrassing to say the least.
To perform at the top level is tough, and an athlete needs to be nurtured until he/she gets there. The road is long and arduous and there will be several instances when one is struggling for form or trying to regain it. In a career span, a player witnesses more setbacks than success, and it is here that national sports federations (NSF), made up of able administrators, can make a huge difference. There are times when the attitude of the administration isn’t correct and that hampers athletes’ progress.
Experts who can chalk out specific programmes for all levels — elite, middle and junior — need to be brought on board. When it is an Olympic medal in question, people sensitive to athletes’ needs are a vital cog. Newcomers must be allowed to prove themselves. If a plan is chalked out, it must be given enough time to unfold, and lessons must be learnt from the mistakes. This is not happening at a good enough pace. An athletes’ commission is also a must to ensure that players have a voice in the decision-making process.
As the national Olympic committee, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) should set the highest standards of governance and needs to be the vital agency to promote the Olympic movement in the country. The IOA needs to work in close coordination with state associations to identify and nurture talent at the grassroots. There is a lot of potential there, one needs to tap into it.
This requires money and marketing such programmes properly will attract sponsors. Times are changing, and today, the corporate world believes sport is a strong medium to further their interests. Thus, transparency and accountability will have to be ushered in. We will need experts who can associate with specialists, who can take care of specific goals.
The facade of Indians being physically inferior to other races is often an excuse for coaches and administrators to hide behind. I guess it’s easier to play about with words than engage in serious efforts for obvious reasons. Had physique played a hand in producing quality sportspersons, the world would not have seen the magic of the diminutive Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi on the football field. Why look outwards, legendary athletes like Prakash Padukone and Ramesh Krishnan made an impact on the global stage without any special physical attributes. Yes, a strong frame does help, but it is the will to beat the so-called odds that separates a champion from the also-rans. As in life, doubts will always be a part of an athlete’s journey, but keeping at it is the only way to get ahead.
As I said in these columns some time back, and I repeat myself, “It is important to recognise that when you start out there are probably a million doing the same thing. The years bring this number down. Ten years later, there will be a few thousand, and a few hundred 20 years later. After 25 years, you will not be able to count them on one hand. Looking at the people pursuing excellence at the pinnacle of their field it gets lonelier, but you walk your walk.”
(Tennis player Leander Paes has 17 Grand Slam titles, is the fourth most accomplished Davis Cup player of all times and a singles bronze medallist at the Atlanta Olympics 1996)