Unthinkable that 2 players opted out of Pakistan Davis Cup tie: Zeeshan Ali | Tennis News - Hindustan Times
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Unthinkable that 2 players opted out of Pakistan Davis Cup tie: Zeeshan Ali feels this generation values ranking more

ByAratrick Mondal, New Delhi
Dec 02, 2023 09:18 AM IST

Amid Nagal withdrawing from Pakistan tie and Mukund reportedly taking the same call, Zeeshan feels this generation prioritises rankings ahead of national duty.

Davis Cup was once the soul of world tennis. Playing and representing the country in one of the oldest and most historic tournaments in world sport was once a matter of pride. It was equally important as participating in a Grand Slam. But those were thoughts of the era to which India tennis great and Asian Games gold medallist Zeeshan Ali belonged to, he feels. In the wake of Sumit Nagal, India's top singles tennis player, opting out of the February clash against Pakistan in Davis Cup and Mukund Sasikumar, the India No. 2 in singles, reportedly following the same route, a baffled Zeeshan reckoned that the present generation puts more weight behind improving their ATP rankings than putting themselves forward for national duty. Bemused for sure, disappointed as well, but the India Davis Cup coach was quick to outline the changing times and the need for adaptability from AITA (All India Tennis Association) on the matter.

Zeeshan Ali stressed on the importance of playing more Challengers event than rue a lost home ATP and WTA event
Zeeshan Ali stressed on the importance of playing more Challengers event than rue a lost home ATP and WTA event

Speaking exclusively to Hindustan Times Digital, Zeeshan also talked about the need for a programme to unearth singles talent in India similar to Rohan Bopanna's 'Doubles Dream Project' and stressed on the importance of playing more Challengers event than rue a lost home ATP and WTA event. Here are excerpts...

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Q) Rohan Bopanna had kicked of a certain doubles dream project with the initiative to empower deserving Indian doubles tennis players. Do you think such a programme is of utmost need in singles category for Indian players given how the likes of Sumit Nagal, Ankita Raina, Karman Kaur Thandi have performed this year?

Well, obviously it is very required. And the National Tennis Center, which is a project that started by the AITA, aims to work in that direction, obviously, because of Covid and all of it's kind of not taken off as we expected it to. But that's what the plan is going forward, working on the player development program on the grassroots level, because, yes, you're absolutely right. There are no top singles players in the country at this point in time. And while we have seven players in the doubles who are in the top 100, but then again, doubles is something that players can play even at a later stage of their career.

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I think there's no single tennis player or a junior U12, U14 player that starts playing tennis thinking he wants to be a number one doubles player in the world. Everybody is looking to obviously focus more on singles. Obviously it is tough. You need to have the right kind of program, the right kind of team, and most importantly, the right infrastructure that needs to be provided and the support that needs to be given in terms of getting a good team together, right kind of coach, physio, nutritionist, all needs to be in place. So there is a lot that goes into producing a top singles player, but we've done it in the past and there's no reason why India cannot produce more singles players going forward as well.

Q) These Indian players have been hampered by the loss of a home ATP and a WTA event. I remember Nagal in Pune regretting that why there aren't more such events. But now there aren't any at all. How difficult does that make it for the players?

Well, see, the thing is that while you might have such a big event, but are players really equipped to play a big event like that? I mean, do they really have the ranking to play events like that? Most of the players who get into any of these tournaments because they get a wild card. Very few of them actually make it through the qualifying. Yes it is good for tennis in the country because it gives the public tennis playing community an opportunity to watch if there are some top players coming into the country because that's really not happening anymore. But apart from that, I think given the current tennis scene in India at this current time with the kind of players that are there in terms of rankings and all that, I think it would make more sense to have maybe 10 challengers rather than having one ATP 250 or $300,000 event. I mean, yes, that is good, but I think that benefits the foreigners more than it helps us.

Given the current situation and the current ranking of Indian players, I think to help them move up from, let's say, a 400 or 500 in the world, to get into the top 200 or 250 playing challengers is probably a better idea. And having more of those in India would probably benefit our players a lot more currently. Going forward, if we have, let's say 5 to 8 players who are in the top 150 in the world, then for sure having a big ATP event would then help them break into the top hundred if they end up doing well in events like that.

Q) Taking your attention to Davis Cup now. A few years back you had said that you only get about 7 or 10 days to get things into motion for Davis Cup. But this time you will have a major task of filing that Bopanna gap. You have 4 months for the Pakistan tie. Is that enough?

Yes, obviously we will definitely miss having Rohan in the off. He brings in a lot of experience. He's obviously been doing extremely well. So having him in the team definitely more or less guarantees that one point that we need out of three. Of course, it also depends on who we are playing against. We've had Rohan in the team and we played against Denmark. We played against a couple of the other teams in the last couple of years and that hasn't really gone down very well for us either. In mean but most importantly in Davis Cup, it's five matches, and four out of the five matches are singles. And that's where we're going to get the maximum number of points in terms of three out of five points is what's required.

So I think more importantly, we need to have better singles players representing India in the Davis Cup. And of course, Davis Cup doubles is at this kind of point in time is kind of taking care of itself because like I said, we have a lot of players to choose from in terms of representing India in doubles. In Davis Cup, we've got seven players in the top hundred, so there's no dirt of choice over there.

Where we are struggling at this point in time is to find the right singles player who will represent India in the upcoming days. Come okay, and final question. You have been a coach for almost two decades now.

Q) Tennis has changed through the course of your coaching career. Has it become more difficult to implement a certain long-term plan for Davis Cup than it was before probably in the Paes-Bhupathi era?

Davis Cup has always been something that's been very close to our heart right from the time when we were growing up. If you ask any tennis player and I don't think that just goes for Indians, I think it's worldwide if you ask any tennis player what their goals and dreams are, one would obviously be to win the Grand Slam, and the other would be to represent their country in Davis Cup.

I really don't think much has changed from the time when the Krishnans were playing, and then there was myself, Leander, Mahesh, and then, of course, now with the current generation of players. The only thing that seems to have changed is when we were playing, Davis Cup meant a lot to us. In today's day and age, it's a lot more picking and choosing whether the players want to participate or not, whether they're giving more importance to ATP ranking over a Davis Cup. That seems to be a huge shift in thinking from, let's say, even 20 years ago to now. So that's something that obviously we are struggling with at this point in time. We have a match against Pakistan that's coming up, and two of our top players have already conveyed to the AITA that they will not be available to play Davis Cup. That was something that was unthinkable 20 years ago. But then this is the new, younger generation. They have a mind of their own and they have certain priorities.

They obviously feel that improving their rankings in ATP might be more important to them than, let's say, playing a Davis Cup for the country. So it's sad, but then that's how the times are right now for me as a coach and Rohit as the captain. And the AITA has to understand that and kind of go with the times. And obviously, certain conditions, certain criteria needs to be put into place in terms of selections for Davis Cup, which I'm pretty sure that the AITA is working on at this time.

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