There are three ways to look at the recent controversy over who will play with whom for India in tennis at the Olympics: 1. Key players have put ego ahead of good sense and country; 2. The All India Tennis Federation is slave to prima donnas; 3. There is a dearth of talent which makes 1. and 2. possible.
In the long run, the third reason is the biggest challenge for Indian tennis because in a few months this controversy will be consigned to history but unless more quality tennis players are found there is no guarantee that such melodramas will not recur. Like performing artists, sportspeople can be hypersensitive, egoistic and recalcitrant. But if there is a problem of plenty rather than the opposite, their power is reduced and becomes more manageable.
Let’s look at the situation in this city. Mumbai once produced several top-notch tennis players, such as from the Vasant and Ghouse families, but now nobody seems to make an impact even at the national level.
This is true across sports. Apart from two people from the city who are part of the Olympic contingent this year, namely hockey forward Shivendra Singh who was born and brought up in UP and wrestler Narsing Yadav, the supply pipeline of talent is drying up.
Adille Sumariwalla, former national sprint champion, 1980 Olympian and president of the Athletics Federation of India, says that to get a true sense of Mumbai’s decline, one must look at the state squad in the National Games today, compared with two decades ago. “Then, Mumbai’s athletes made up half the Maharashtra squad, today they account for less than 5 per cent.”
Sumariwalla, who coached champion athletes like Hirjee Nagarwalla and Zenia Ayrton, is unequivocal that lack of space and a decisive shift in attitude of parents and academic institutions have contributed majorly to this decline. Having lived and trained all his life in south Mumbai, Sumariwalla sees the apathy in “his side of the city” as a big factor.
“South Mumbai has always been plagued with space constraints,” he says, “nevertheless, in the old days we didn’t have to venture in to the suburbs for anything because clubs such as the CCI and the University grounds at Marine Lines were open to students to train there. Such facilities have now been withdrawn. The high emphasis on academic achievement in big schools has reduced the essence of school life and sport into a mark sheet.’’
This view is endorsed by architect Falguni Goghari, who shifted from Ahmedabad to Mumbai for better tennis training and academic prospects for her son Aashman. “But I was disappointed that there were not enough coaches or academies to attend to children above about 15, which is when tennis skills need to be honed for the higher levels of the game,” she said.
When her daughter Aboli started playing tennis, however, younger coaches luckily appeared on the scene in Mumbai with fresher ideas. “It’s a catch-22 situation,” she says, “because children give up on sports by about Class 8 or 9 so coaches are in short supply after that.”
The bigger hurdle, Falguni points out is that “schools do not always accommodate children who want pursue sport at a serious level. Some children leave regular school and try home schooling. In most cases, the child loses out academically, the parents give in and one more talent bites the dust.”
Many parents face the dilemma of having to choose between academics and sport. Given the lack of sports facilities and infrastructure as well as social attitudes, academics usually wins. Even in an elitist sport like tennis or squash, which are popular because they get you credits for admission into US universities, except for the most committed, players run out of steam after a certain point.
South Mumbai was once at the vanguard of sports not just for the city and state, but also for India. It was not just about Shivaji Park and cricket. Mumbai’s schools had active sports programmes and stellar performers in various disciplines such as swimming, hockey, athletics, table tennis and tennis.
The suburbs now provide better facilities. People who live there also seem to be hungrier for success and achievement.
Nevertheless, a city as progressive as Mumbai must overall look at school programmes for talented young sportspersons so that they do not miss out on an education even as they travel to play their chosen sport.
Models for this are available elsewhere in the world and just as Mumbai picks up the latest London or Japanese restaurant or Swedish spa treatment perhaps some investment needs to be made in and by schools for the talented and in more sports academies.
When he is not following sport, Ayaz Memon writes about the city and its different worlds