Downward spiral: The continuing struggle of Indian tennis

Welcome to Game Points, a newsletter on Indian sports by The Field.

Downward spiral: The continuing struggle of Indian tennis

By Shahid Judge

For 21 years in this century, India was one of the destinations where the international tennis season opened. The ATP 250-level event India hosted in Pune – earlier in Chennai and New Delhi – was the biggest tournament held in the country.

It was an opportunity for Indian players to earn wild card entries into the singles main draw and for fans to see some of the biggest names in tennis. Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Carlos Moya, Daniil Medvedev and Marin Cilic have all made appearances over the years.

Starting this year however, the tournament has made a permanent move to Hong Kong. In many ways, India losing hosting rights for its biggest and most consistent international tournament reflects the alarming decline of the sport in the country.

Tennis aficionados fondly remember the elegance of Vijay Amritraj’s game. The big, booming Mahesh Bhupathi serve, the cat-like agility of Leander Paes at the net, and the fiery forehand and steely resolve of Sania Mirza.

Today, the country’s No 1 singles player Sumit Nagal is in a standoff with the All India Tennis Association. Nagal has refused to play the upcoming Davis Cup tie against Pakistan, and the sports body retaliated by declining to send Nagal’s nomination for an Australian Open main draw wild card.

Rohan Bopanna now remains the only Grand Slam winner from India still competing. But just a few months short of his 44th birthday, he is in the twilight of his career.

Granted, India has seven men’s doubles players in the top 100 rankings. But the singles scene, with no player in the top 100, has not been inspiring. It is not the players alone who can be blamed.

Since the days of the great Ramanathan Krishnan in the 1950s, tennis has been a self-sponsored sport for Indian players. It is a thoroughly professional sport where Indian players earn mainly through prize money, with little or no help from the federation.

That lack of support is, as 2009 Chennai Open finalist and former India No 1 Somdev Devvarman asserted, one of the many reasons why there is a trust deficit between players and the sports body. The tour is more physical and more financially demanding than ever, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for Indian players to do it on their own.

In the great sporting boom that India has enjoyed in the past 10 years, tennis has been left behind.

From being three-time Davis Cup finalists, the team had dropped down to the lower World Group 2 level in 2023 for the first time. And there seems to be no clear-cut candidate to take up the path Mirza had paved in the women’s game.

It took a great deal of investment, training, planning and support – the bulk from government funds – to provide India its first athletics gold medal at the Olympics. Perhaps a little more, even a touch more empathy from the federation, could help tennis get back on its feet.

Until that happens, the first week of January will remain a week for Indian tennis where something feels missing.

Fun fact of the week: December 28 marked 36 years since Viswanathan Anand became India’s first chess Grandmaster. He has since won five World Championships title and continues to be the No 1 ranked player in the country. Since Anand’s groundbreaking achievement in 1987, the number of Grandmasters in India has risen to 84 – the latest being R Vaishali.

Here's a recap of the top stories from this past week

Write a comment ...

Game Points by The Field

In the vast canvas of Indian sports, The Field provides a micro-level view across Olympic disciplines. It's not just the Games every four years that matter, every day, every month, every year does. Click the "Follow" button to receive our newsletter directly in your inbox.