Why do Indian tennis players find it so difficult to cross the bridge from juniors to seniors?
Back in 1954, a 17-year old boy named Ramanathan Krishnan hailing from Nagercoil won the prestigious Wimbledon junior title and thus became the first ever Asian to have accomplished such a feat. In another part of the world, an Australian lefty Rod Laver was making headlines too; Laver won the junior Australian and US Open titles in 1957.
Both Krishnan and Laver progressed swiftly and made it to their respective national teams to face off in the Davis Cup tie held between India and Australia in 1959. Krishnan prevailed over Laver in four sets that day.
When their careers came to a close, Krishnan’s best finish was semifinalist (twice) at Wimbledon while Laver went on to become World No. 1 and won 11 Grand Slam titles.
60 years later
Indian players who rose to the World No. 1 ranking in juniors include Ramesh Krishnan, Leander Paes and Yuki Bhambri. Another legendary player Vijay Amritraj won 18 singles titles on ATP tour playing against the likes of Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors to reach a world ranking as high as 16.
So what then is so different and challenging about reaching the peak on the senior rankings that it has not been possible for an Indian yet? Are Indians missing a trick here in spite of the rich talent that is available?
Transitioning from juniors to seniors
An athlete’s journey in any sport from the junior level to the senior level involves a steep learning curve. A junior athlete usually competes within the narrow confines of their age group (U-14, U-16, etc), so at best one would play an opponent 2-3 years older.
This certainly is a protective environment and rightly so during the formative years. “Playing away from India and adapting to conditions in Europe during this transition period was challenging. On the contrary, it didn’t seem that way for local players since they were closer to the base with additional support resources. Also, the junior circuit in Europe is played at a higher level due to the larger talent pool, so it was a tougher adjustment initially," says Harsh Mankad, former India No. 1 player.
During this transition, junior players also need mentoring from former players to gain confidence for the next stage of the challenge. Harsh recalls, "When I got selected to represent India for Davis Cup, I was 21 and received guidance from former players like Ramesh Krishnan. Had this learning started from an earlier age, it would have prepared me better for the ATP Tour, especially when I played against opponents like Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Murray. Today’s youngsters can benefit immensely from the knowledge and experience of former India players, right from junior days."
Grooming the Next Gen
It is a given that elite athletes need quality infrastructure, coaches, support staff and financial support. India has come a long way in all these aspects. However, the transition to the senior tour can be demanding for a different reason – the body and mind of a youngster are still maturing at this stage.
One such emerging youngster is Adil Kalyanpur, who hails from Bangalore and is currently training at the Rafael Nadal tennis academy in Spain. "Besides the skill training, fitness and nutrition, the fundamental difference that I observe is that a European junior tennis player is made to understand early on that the long-term goal is to succeed in the senior circuit. Winning a junior title is only an indicator that they are on track as per the overall plan," says Arjun Gautam, a former national player who currently travels with Kalyanpur as his Mind Coach.
In earlier times pursuing a career in sport was considered risky, but we have progressed a fair distance in that aspect. "Although I came from a sporting family, I still worried about my ability and financials once I chose to become a tennis professional back then. As a coach now, I try to educate the parents on the need for a long-term plan regarding their child’s tennis career," recalls Harsh, the son of cricketer Ashok Mankad and tennis player Nirupama Vasant.
With meticulous planning in this transition period that involves physical, mental and skill training, there is an opportunity for Indian junior talent to scale the elusive summit. After all, the peak is only a couple of steps ahead of where Ramanathan Krishnan reached at Wimbledon years ago.