For years now, I have been asked this question with monotonous regularity: Who next after Leander and Mahesh to consistently represent India at the Grand Slams? “No one”, has been my standard answer. Sadly, the system that breeds talent does not exist in our country.
We have always had the talent; over the last 30 years, India has given the tennis world finesse in the form of Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan, speed in the form of Leander Paes, and power in the form of Rohan Bopanna.
So, when people argue that Indians don’t have the necessary ingredients to make it in tennis, it’s a bunch of hogwash.
As far as I can remember, we consistently had the best juniors in the world — Zeeshan Ali, Leander, Sandeep Kirtane, Rohit Reddy, Nitin Kirtane, Yuki Bhambri — but no one ever went on to challenge the top players in singles.
I have been very vocal about the fact that our Association has had the resources, and opportunity, but has failed miserably to develop a system that identifies talent at the grassroots and supports him till he becomes a professional player.
Tennis superpowers such as Spain, France, USA and Germany have had it for years, and now Asian neighbours such as Japan and China have invested in not only building a system bottom up, but also hired the right experts to make it a success story.
Today, Japan has four men’s players featured in the top 100 and the Chinese women have won multiple Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles.
We, as a country, are very proud of our achievers, but fail to ask questions when the administration doesn’t deliver, Most sports federations in our country seem to have the same issue — lack of accountability —, yet the power stays within.
Earlier, when I asked the question, I was told big countries get funding from their Grand Slam events, Well, then, what’s the excuse for China, Japan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Taiwan doing better than India.
Tennis is one of the most competitive global sport today and the conversion rate of talent failing would be over 99 per cent.
The key ingredients
The three key ingredients needed to become a top-10 player are head, heart and legs. Unfortunately, if a kid has only two of the above, he or she will become a very good player, but greatness demands all three.
In a country such as India, where it is easy to play the numbers game if we have a grassroots system in place, we would constantly breach new limits on the world tennis stage. I know this because we have tried this privately.
We did a pan-India hunt and handpicked a bunch of kids. In the group was 10-year-old Sumit Nagal, He came from a very modest background in Delhi and was willing to do what it takes to make it big. Besides, he had a sense of the game and hunger to win.
This year, at 15, he became the youngest qualifier at the US Open Juniors. Unfortunately, due the lack of a SYSTEM in India, I have had to send Sumit to Canada.
I beg, borrow and steal from passionate tennis lovers to fund Sumit’s coaching, training and travel requirements. He’s already got an offer from Tennis Canada to play for them fulltime. Luckily, his parents have been supportive all along and Sumit is well on his way to possibly becoming the next flag-bearer of Indian tennis.
Time for change
There is so much more to say on the demerits of how our federations are run. However, it’s the private sector that will step up to the plate and deliver. It has been done recently and will only get better. We can all expect to go fully grey if we wait for the federation to make changes.
Sania Mirza, in my opinion, is one of the most gifted stroke-makers in the game, and if we had the right system and experts in India, she would have been a top-10 singles player. I hope, as we go down the line, we learn our lessons and things change. And so does the system. Our sports minister, Mr Maken, is trying his best and God bless him for that.