Each time an athlete turns down the call to represent the country, a major hullaballoo breaks out. Accusations are bandied about and the individual is labelled a traitor to the national cause. Putting self before country has been a prickly issue the world over and the best of athletes have had to face the ire of irate jingoism when they’ve chosen career over flag.
Perhaps in advanced nations with intensive infrastructure, where the government invests significant amounts in nurturing athletes from also-rans to world-class potency, the nation has a right to feel offended. But in a country like ours, it really does not make too much sense.
I know I am inviting the kind of rabid condemnation that every contrarian to jingoism has over the years when I say this but then somebody has to say it the way it is --- given the insignificant amount of support that Indian tennis players get, the country has no right over them. There, that’s out of the bag and in case you want to rip this paper apart and spit on that little wickedly smiling picture of me, I pray for your patience to read on.
It takes crores to make a tennis player. The sport is unique in its format that demands over 30 weeks of travel to different parts of the globe even in the formative years. It is imperative to have access to a world-class coach, a travelling coach and a trainer. Without this kind of a troika of brains, players keep floundering on the verge of breaking through without really making that final leap.
That’s the kind of situation that the talented Yuki Bhambri finds himself in. Bhambri, for instance, gets next to zero support from the national federation, hardly anything from the government and has played only 12 tournaments this year on account of injury. The 22-year-old is in a lean patch and desperately needs monetary help to get back into the winning groove. What’s the nation doing for him right now?
The way international tennis is structured, it is imperative that a player breaks into the top-100 to have a decent chance of earning enough money to sustain travel on the tour and life beyond it. Below that is the netherworld of being eligible to play smaller grade tournaments with their limited prize money. These barely cover the humongous cost required to build a tennis professional.
The issue in the case of players like Leander Paes, Somdev Devvarman and Rohan Bopanna is that if they play the Asian Games, their rankings slip out of the comfort zone that allows them direct entry to the biggest-purse events. Frankly, they just can’t afford to continue playing if that happens. So, if they choose to skip the Asian Games to ensure their professional careers stay healthy, are they really villains? And if these top guys are not going to be there then who does Sania Mirza play with to ensure a medal? After all, a player of her calibre wouldn’t just go to the Games to sit in the stands and applaud.
Once players announce that they would rather pursue their careers and livelihood than go gung-ho chasing medals for the country in an event like the Asiad, shrill nay-saying voices emerge. I just wish this cackling was as strong when tennis players need funds to build their fledging aspirations. First consider them national assets and invest in them and then claim them to be national products who must put the nation before self.