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Wild cards and Indian tennis' wild choices

It’s an exciting week ahead for Indian tennis, with Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna competing in the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals. And back home, India will host its highest-profile international women’s tennis event in 4 years, with the WTA Royal Indian Open kicking off in Pune on Monday.

A few years ago, India was home to 2 WTA events, but there have been none since 2008. The WTA Royal Indian Open is not part of the main WTA circuit, but is part of a new $125,000 WTA Challenger series that is being introduced for the first time this year. Only 2 events were sanctioned as part of the pilot and the AITA, which has been doing a fabulous job of hosting ITF events for men and women across the nation, managed to secure the rights to hold one of them (the other one is being held this week in Taipei).

The event will feature 2 top 100 players and all the top 8 seeds are inside the world’s top 150 (not too shabby, when you consider that the main WTA season concluded last week and most players have already begun their off-season). And there’s also a marquee name in Andrea Petkovic. The German was ranked no. 9 in the world just 12 months ago, but after an injury-plagued season, which saw her skip the French Open, Wimbledon and the Olympics, Petkovic is now ranked no. 140 in the world and applied for a wild card to enter the event. The German is a popular figure on the tennis circuit and her Petko-Dance and Petkorazzi videos have their own cult following. Other names to watch out for include 42 year old Japanese veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm and 16 year old Croatian Donna Vekic.

Kyra Shroff (FILE PHOTO)

But missing in action will be 20 year old Kyra Shroff, India’s highest ranked singles player at no. 524 (that’s if you discount Sania Mirza, who is currently ranked no. 275, but is unsure if she will ever play singles competitively again). Kyra, or for that matter any of the Indian girls, is not ranked high enough to gain direct entry into the event and needed to depend on a wild card. Each tennis tournament has a few wild cards for local players, upcoming juniors or players not ranked high enough, but who can help increase the marketability and visibility of the event.

For the WTA Royal Indian Open, organizers had four wild cards. One of these deservedly went to Petkovic and another was awarded to the winner of the National Championships (Prerna Bhambri was the winner of the nationals in New Delhi last month. Bhambri is 20 years old and ranked no. 671 in the world). The decision to award a wild card to the winner of the nationals is a good idea to encourage players to support domestic events, and is a practice followed in many countries across the world.

That left two wild cards at the discretion of the tournament organizers. But instead of offering one to Kyra, the tournament organizers decided to go with 16 year old Rutuja Bhosale, ranked no. 704 in the world, and the U-18 national champion Prarthana Thombare, ranked no. 946 in the world.

When I spoke with tournament director Sunder Iyer, he defended the organizers’ decision, saying that they were trying to provide an opportunity to more juniors and youngsters. A fair point. But in an era, where the age that tennis players peak, is getting older for the men and women, Kyra is certainly not over-the-hill at the age of 20. And her status of being the top ranked Indian to apply for a wild card (180 places above Bhosale and 422 places above Thombare) should have been taken into consideration.

In a strongly worded letter to the All-India Tennis Association, Kyra’s father Firdaus has accused the AITA and Maharshatra State Lawn Tennis Association (MSLTA) of ignoring his daughter “several times over in the past few years for no reason.”

“When a wildcard in our own country, where Kyra is ranked No 2, is not given, what more can one expect from you all? You have given me talks about the 2014 Asian Games, 2016 Olympics and the Fed Cup next year. But do you really think it will happen?” wrote Firdaus.

Another interesting point to note, is that Rutuja and Prarthana are both supported by the Laqshya Foundation, an NGO whose mission is to “nurture budding talent in sports, provide holistic support to enhance their performance, create awareness in different sections of society to promote sports and see India shining in the global sports arena.” And Laqshya Foundaiton is also involved in organizing this WTA event. When asked about this, tournament director Sunder Iyer said that Rutuja and Prarthana were selected on their own merit (For reference, Rutuja at 16 years of age, is one of only 2 Indians born in 1996 or after to have a WTA ranking, sports a 5-1 record in Fed Cup for India, reached the doubles semi finals of the junior Australian Open in January, and also has achieved her ranking of no. 704 through just 5 events whereas all the Indian girls ranked above her have played between 8 to 12 events) and the fact that they are also supported by Laqshya, had nothing to do with their decision. Sunder further stated that another of Laqshya’s players, 18 year old Ankita Raina, who at no. 600, is ranked higher than Rutuja and Prarthana, was offered a wild card only into the qualifying draw and not the main draw.

And here’s where things get more interesting. According to Sunder, Kyra was offered a wild card into the qualifying draw but she declined that after being snubbed for the main draw. 4 players from the 16-player qualifying event secure spots in the main draw, which means one has to win a maximum of 2 matches to earn your main draw berth. But only 10 players entered the qualifying draw or were on-site in Pune. That’s 6 spots wasted because a bunch of Indians girls (Besides Sania, India has 22 players in the latest WTA rankings) did not consider it worthwhile to show up. Across the world, several players do not show up at the qualifying sign-in, giving a chance to players from the home nation or those on-site to squeeze through. Had Kyra accepted the wild card into qualifying, she would have been seeded 3rd in qualifying and with the lack of players to complete the 16-player draw, she would have needed to win only one match to get into the main draw. What’s more, a first round loss in the main draw earns a player 1 ranking point as per the WTA site. But if a player gets into the main draw through qualifying, she earns 6 ranking points.

Depending on which way you look at it, Kyra may or may not have been treated unfairly. But perhaps the best way to silence her critics would have been to play the qualifying draw and earn her spot in the main draw. For the rest of the Indian girls who will be competing in Pune, let’s hope the WTA Royal Indian Open provides them a launch pad into bigger and better things in 2013.

(Please note that we were not able to contact Kyra Shroff for her side of the story)

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