"Some of India's best tennis talent is getting wasted at the grassroots" - on the realities of tennis with Indian ace Saketh Myneni
Myneni is currently recuperating from injuries that will cause him to miss the Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan.
Saketh Myneni is perhaps India’s biggest active singles player on the ATP World Tour. India’s No. 3 singles player, Myneni is currently training in the United States, but he hasn’t played since the Australian Open early this January.
Currently struggling with an injury to his foot and on the mend, Myneni is taking it slightly easier as he gets back to full fitness. Speaking to Sportskeeda in his role as an ambassador of Zeven, a multi-dimensional sports brand, Myneni said, “You can’t push it; (that) only makes it worse. I can power through it, but it’s important as an athlete to listen to your body.”
A constant fixture on India’s Davis Cup side, Myneni will sit out their April tie against Uzbekistan in Bengaluru, India, something he tells me is “extremely disappointing.”
“I would absolutely love to play the Davis Cup,” he says, “it’s one of my priorities. But after the February tie (India played New Zealand in Pune in February), my injuries got worse. I knew if I went on, I would do more harm than good, and so I shifted my focus to recovery.”
The art of self-improvement
Myneni has been putting his body through the wringer, he reveals, something that saw great results – key especially at the 2016 US Open, where the tall Indian made his way through qualifying to face – and nearly defeat then World No. 49 Jiri Vesely in the first round of the main draw.
His serve has improved drastically ever since, and it's something Myneni had hoped would happen – but not something he worked solely in mind with. “I have been working a lot on my physical strength. Weight training, core, all of the stuff everyone does in the gym. And that’s improved my serve so, so much. The power itself I can attribute to the change in my fitness.”
But there are other aspects, he says, that are just as important – aspects all players should look out for. “You need to look at your accuracy,” he says, “and while you can do the physical work, it’s just as important to look at the numbers. You need to look at the stats and understand your own serves better, so you know what to work on.”
Although some fans and serious followers will follow the statistics, not many look at the fine print, and the points players score on their first and second serve. Myneni feels all players, at every level, should make it a point to look at those numbers, highlight their problem areas, and then know what to work on.
That will help significantly, he says, on breaking up bigger goals into smaller ones. “You then check your own progress periodically,” he says, “and that will help you focus on the small things. The big things will fall into place that way.”
For all the valuable lessons Myneni has for youngsters, he does feel that the infrastructure for India’s immense tennis talent is not enough to support it.
“We have a really long way to go here, and it hurts because we have so much talent but it does not have the support it needs. The kids I see, read and hear about in India, they are very talented – but they don’t have facilities, they don’t have the guidance they need.”
This is not a new phenomenon, Myneni says. “It was even worse when I was a junior, around 2000 or so. There has been some improvement in the past fifteen years, but we’re not where we should be, at all.”
How could that be remedied? “We’ve always needed more tournaments,” he says, “and we’ve got quite a few in recent years, but they are not remotely up to world standards. The facilities are behind, and interest is lacking. It’s been growing in the past few years, but just not quick enough.”
There has been one integral change, he says, in children’s – and parents’ attitudes. “Before, it was such that parents didn’t believe kids could have sporting careers at all. It was always a secondary thing, like ‘what else are you going to do?’
But there is a lot of talent, he says, at the grassroots level, that is not at all exploited. “It needs to be so much bigger,” Myneni says, citing stories of young players from poorer backgrounds who have struggled to make it up the ranks in tennis, but persisted nonetheless – one of them going on to win the 2016 National Championships in New Delhi.
“Look at that guy, his insane determination. His talent is off the charts, I had a chance to speak with him and he is so, so committed to his work, to practice. So many like him lose their way somehow, and their talent is wasted.
“For all of those guys who made it, think of the many, many more who didn’t. It’s a really sad statistic to think of, honestly, but it also shows you the stark reality of what it’s like.”
The wasted talent in the country, he feels, is a big reason why there are not more big stars from the country. “Educational reasons, financial reasons... there are so many causes why these talented kids fall by the wayside, and their talent is wasted.”
There are ways to not waste that talent, but they are not being employed – or simply not fast enough, Myneni says. “We need courts. We need structure. We need plans to be concretely drawn and followed, which is not something that is happening as of now.”
“I’m not saying we need ‘fancy’ facilities,” he says, “just basic ones. We need courts. We need public courts that everyone can access irrespective of whatever their situation is. They need to have somewhere to play, somewhere to practice, even if it’s by themselves.”
His own future plans
With his game so vastly improved, it’s a no-brainer that Myneni is choosing to work through the singles. “I absolutely love to play the game,” he says, “and that’s the most important. Your love, your passion should never fade. That’s the biggest thing to keep you going.”
A growing number of fans have begun to follow the sport, and Myneni hopes that his successes will contribute to that awareness. Unlike a number of other players, the talented Indian says he will play “both singles and doubles, Indians have a great court awareness in the doubles and it’s practice, and fun, and playing the game.”
He could even see a mixed doubles future pairing with Sania Mirza, he says, with whom he is close friends off the court. “The friendships with your colleagues and teammates are so important – that gives you an understanding, a playing chemistry, and a bond as a proper team.”
Currently training in the USA, the Indian men’s No. 1 hopes to be back in action soon – and replicate his Davis Cup and Grand Slam successes in the near future.