Divij Sharan and Purav Raja - the Indian doubles pair who everyone missed in 2016
The pair's successes went largely unnoticed through the season.
While there might not have been too much to write home about in the singles format for tennis fans in India, there surely were a couple of bright spots on the doubles front. One obviously was the continued dominance by Sania Mirza on the WTA Doubles Rankings.
But the other was the relatively less noticed performances of the Indian pair of Divij Sharan and Purav Raja, also known as "DiPu" in the tennis circuit, which went largely unnoticed.
A stellar 2016
Raja and Sharan won a staggering four titles on the ATP Challenger Tour at Segovia(Spain), Surbiton(Great Britain), Manchester(United Kingdom) and Pune(India). They were the second most successful team on the Challenger Tour, only behind the Australian pairing of Matt Reid and John Patrick Smith, who managed to win five titles.
To go along with their Challenger titles, the pair also won the ATP 250 event at Los Cabos(Mexico), making the semi-finals of three other events – at Atlanta(USA), Gstaad(Switzerland) and Newport(USA). These wins gave the two over 1200 ATP points, catapulting them to their career high rankings – 61 for Divij Sharan and 65 for Purav Raja
But in spite of all their successes, there was hardly any media attention drawn to the pair.
The reason behind this could be the fact that with all the doubles success that our country has been able to witness in the past couple of decades, through the outstanding results of stalwarts like Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and current doubles No. 1 Sania Mirza, the bar has been set too high.
The general notion among many, including fans of the sport, is that of the doubles game being too easy. While it is obviously less taxing on the body than the singles game, on an absolute level, it is as tough as any other sport. It demands great reflexes and quick movement, and requires players to be in top shape, both physically and mentally.
Raja and Sharan are themselves surprised and disappointed with the lack of attention and appreciation from their own countrymen.
“We are not hungry to be in the limelight. We are simple, but there’s evidence that nobody knows we are ranked 60 in the world. Outside India, if you are 60-70, people know and support you. They will give you whatever you want. They understand your achievements," Raja said.
Sharan, who plays left-handed, said, “Sometimes the lack of acknowledgment obviously hurts. A little bit of respect would make us feel better.”
Both have made wholesome changes to their approach whilst in a match. They have become significantly more aggressive in their approach, and have been using the tactical I-formation in their game quite frequently.
This technique has contributed immensely to their surge in the rankings this year. While Raja started the season ranked 93, Sharan has made even greater progress, having started the season at 134 in the men’s doubles.
But to make even further progress, the pair admit they need a coach and a trainer to travel with them for tournaments. Both have been without a coach or a trainer all these years, reaching this stage completely independently. This, they say, is largely due to the significant expense of a traveling tennis team.
How did they come together?
This is not the first time that the two are playing together. The pair had joined forces for the first time in November 2012 and garnered impressive results in the 2014 season, their first proper season on tour together, which included their first ATP 250 title in Bogota.
But a string of poor results in 2014 forced them to consider splitting up, which they eventually did. Post their split, they were unable to find stable partners. While Purav did decently well with Frenchman Fabrice Martin, Sharan kept changing partners, playing with Saketh Myneni and Yuki Bhambri on occasion.
But they soon realized that they were unable to find as much as success with other partners, as they did playing with each other. That led the pair to the decision to recreate their left hand-right hand combination in April this year, and the results are evident.
The road ahead
The two will hope for good performances in the Grand Slams next year, as their ranking now should be more or less sufficient to make it into the main draw directly. They should also be able to make the main draws of Tour events directly next year and will start their season at the Chennai Open, beginning from the 2nd of January.
With the declining form of the aging Leander Paes & Rohan Bopanna, Divij & Purav are going to be potential flag-bearers for our country on the ATP World Tour in the coming years. The next season is going to be really crucial in their development as a top pair.
Both have just entered their 30s and will be 34 by the time the 2020 Tokyo Olympics come along. While dreaming of a medal might be a long shot now, we should definitely keep an eye out for them in the 2017 season.