India's doubles story: Why don't we have any singles stars? The experts speak
Leander Paes. Mahesh Bhupathi. Sania Mirza. The past two decades have seen India win glories at the men’s doubles, the mixed doubles, and in the last two years, rule the world at the women’s doubles as well.
Paes and Bhupathi came onto the scene at a time when India had been sorely lacking for tennis glories, and they ‘double-handedly’ transformed it. The two blazed ruthlessly past any opponents they faced, and the incredibly strong team bond the two shared meant their attack and defense were both near-unbreakable.
The 2000s saw the young Sania Mirza burst onto the tennis charts – and then, plagued by injury and facing a number of roadblocks, faded away just as quickly.
And then, Mirza made her comeback. She had already shown immense promise with other partners, but her career saw a significant positive upturn in early 2015, when the talented Indian came together with former World No. 1 Martina Hingis. The Swiss Miss was a singles prodigy, and still remains the youngest ever Grand Slam winner of all time.
The two won Wimbledon and the US Open last year, ended the year as the world’s top-ranked doubles players, then this year won the Australian Open together; they’ve also broken records together.
Mirza and Paes are both considered among the greatest doubles players of all time. But India is yet to stake claim to a singles ‘great’. And a look at every era of tennis, or even perhaps every decade, will yield few, if no, names that have won many singles glories.
Is that trend changing?
Juniors also picking doubles
The youngest in the group – tennis prodigies in India ranging from 12 to 14 years old – have been making waves on the ITF Futures Circuit, participating on the ATP Challenger Tour, winning WTA Futures Star titles – but they, too, are choosing to focus on the doubles rather than the singles. That isn’t to say they haven’t been good at it – a number of them have won titles already.
22-year-old Prarthana Thombare is heading to the Olympics with Sania Mirza, having already won titles with her. She’s won ITF titles this year in the women’s doubles in Montpellier and Puebla. But at 22, young for most, she is ‘older’ than the mean age by which players have already begun to establish themselves in singles tennis.
WTA Futures Star 2015 winner Karman Thandi has been another frequently uttered name in Indian tennis. She, too, has won two ITF doubles titles. The boys have shown talent too, with Adil Kalyanpur and top-ranked Indian under-18 player Vasisht Cheruku also registering wins. Cheruku has also made the finals in ITF singles events in India, a promising sign for his – and India’s singles future – but again, he has seen more prowess at doubles.
Perhaps the most successful among them all has been the young Pranjala Yadlapalli. All of seventeen, she has been more than consistent, again finishing strongly even in loss, and finishing in the finals of the Asian B1 ITF Pune Open Junior Tennis Championships in Pune, India this May.
But a look at the scenario even in Indian juniors tennis reveals a trend – a focus on the doubles, and what looks like it could be a glaring lack of singles stars.
Many other countries are not only producing consistent singles talent, but this talent has been seen at a relatively young age. Many of the best on the circuit are twenty one, twenty-two – and we have seen tennis talent in the country.
Why, then, are no Indians progressing through at Masters events or Majors, and remain relegated to the qualifiers section?
We asked the experts.
India’s No. 1 ranked player, Saketh Myneni recently progressed to the second round of qualifying at Wimbledon, and currently at 127 in the ATP singles rankings, thinks a major reason is the physicality – and that is an issue compounded by several others.
“Nobody starts off wanting to be just a doubles player,” he says. “They all want to do well at the singles.”
“But funding is difficult, and tennis is expensive. So they want to play more, because they have fewer sponsors. The prize money increases when you move up the rankings, and they need to play more for that.”
Players need to keep at the singles for a much longer time to succeed, Myneni says. “You need to keep at it, constantly keep playing to move up. You can’t get disappointed quickly, because it’s much more difficult to succeed at the singles. Yes, sponsorships are a massive part, and you need that backing until you break it.”
But money isn’t the only support needed. “Just as important, or maybe even more, is the backing of your team. Your coaches. Your family, your physios, your medico, and most importantly, yourself. Moral support from the team backing you can keep you going. The titles won’t just start coming in like that, and it’s easy to get disheartened early on.”
Moral and financial support are both key factors, he says, in backing a player to stick with their chosen discipline. “You have to stick with them, tell them they can do it, if they choose to focus on singles. Many take other routes – college – a route I took myself, and it worked better for the coaching aspect too.”
Coaching and training is another thing the Indian No. 2 thinks could use a significant overhaul. “We need to have programs that help each child focus on his or her game, skill sets, strengths and weaknesses. A lot of coaching right now is basically a generic program for players, one they all must follow and adhere to. What it needs to be is a program that sees every player’s problem areas.”
“For example, if a player has a good serve but is not as good as court coverage, the coach should help him or her with leg workouts, working on that particular issue, running, athleticism. And start from there. Specialized programs are key. You can’t just give all these young talents the same program and say they should work according to that; you’re not really bringing out their best skills like that, either.”
The lack of backing is a sentiment echoed by a former Davis Cup captain – who is now a coach, and heads one of the country’s top tennis academies with one of its most successful players.
Former player and head of the Mahesh Bhupathi Tennis Academies, Gaurav Natekar knows the inside-out of tennis training, progress and more. According to Natekar, a lack of sponsorships is the primary cause of non-success in the doubles.
Echoing Myneni’s statements, Natekar says “these kids are very talented, and one cannot say they have had no success. They’ve done quite well. The problem is, they need backing. In many ways. That backing is the difference between a player being able to sustain himself or herself even if the titles don’t come rushing in at the start.”
"It’s not that easy to keep winning there, and because tennis is so expensive, prize money doesn’t come quickly. It’s expensive to train at the sport whether it’s the singles or doubles, but in singles, because your ranking doesn’t move up as fast, the prize money doesn't increase.”
"Given that there are few external sponsorships, players are suffering – and so they stick to the doubles, because their chances of success are so much higher there. They can move up quicker, win more money, be able to break even and manage training, travel and other expenses.”
But what, then, is the solution to this issue? “There’s no one big answer, but there’s something that would significantly help. At this point, it’s our corporates who need to step up and sponsor these youngsters. And they need to stick by them until they are able to make inroads.”
“Right now, they don’t think it’s financially viable, or perhaps they don’t find that they’re getting enough bang for their buck, perhaps. Tennis is quite a big sport in India, but not as big as cricket. Corporates need to be reminded that there are other sports, other talents that need to be backed here.”
There is a big problem here, but the best at the top have suggestions on how it can really be tackled, how we can give our talents a chance to shine.
One of India’s own rising talents and a possible future Grand Slam winner, Pranjala Yadlapalli, tells us ‘it would have been impossible for me without my sponsors. It’s really important.”
When our players, coaches and those at the top can reach a consensus, maybe it is time authorities took measures to help tackle the problem at its roots.