Youngsters bring a few proud moments but system fails them
By Amanpreet Singh
New Delhi, Dec 23 (PTI) Indian youngsters' surprise wins over top singles opponents worked as a balm even as the system continued to fail the players in 2017 during which Rohan Bopanna joined the Grand Slam winning club and Sania Mirza's slide from the top began.
Indian tennis moved at its usual pace as there was neither great success nor depths of despair. It just hung in the middle, thanks to unswerving spirit of the youngsters.
Yuki Bhambri, Ramkumar Ramanathan and Sumit Nagal challenged their own limitations and got sporadic success.
For them to be consistent and to realise their full potential, they need that little push from those who run the game in the country but unfortunately it appears that priorities of the administrators lie somewhere else.
In the entire season, India hosted just two Challenger events -- in Pune and Bengaluru, both last month. Yuki won Pune Challenger and Nagal triumphed in Bengaluru. The result was a massive jump in the rankings of these two players.
Laid low by injury, Yuki started the year below 500 but worked his way to 114 in singles with his consistent efforts. Nagal was 356 at the start of season but jumped close to 90 places after winning the Bengaluru Open and is now 223.
The Pune final was fought between the country's top two singles players with Ramkumar -- now ranked 142 -- losing the final to Yuki. This shows if the system puts together something for players to exploit, their growth gets a push.
The question is why can't AITA raise funds to host at least five Challenger tournaments. It's difficult to raise money for a game like tennis in India but then MSLTA has been doing it consistently with corporate and government support.
MSLTA hosted six women's events, including a WTA tournament, apart from the men's Challenger and a Davis Cup tie against New Zealand in February.
And, there were only nine ITF men's Futures (entry level) and six ITF women events in the country.
The AITA has remained a mute spectator to the players' needs and has not done more than a few meetings with sports ministry and demanding funds from it. The ministry rejected the demand, saying being a parent body it was AITA's responsibility to raise funds for hosting tournaments.
Despite not getting much support and tournaments at home, the Indian youngsters brought up a few proud moments. Yuki stunned world number 22 Gael Monfils at the ATP Citi Open in the US and Ramkumar gobbled up world number eight Dominic Thiem at Antalya Open in Turkey.
It may be argued that those performances have not been repeated but these two Indian players have shown that they surely are top-50 material, if supported well. If they are provided with travelling physios and coaches, the chances of repeating those performances would be bright.
All top players have an entourage travelling with them. Recovery is as crucial as preparation in today's tennis.
Bopanna, who has mostly played in the shadows of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, finally had his own glory moment when he lifted the French Open mixed doubles trophy with Canada's Gabriela Dabrowski.
He became only the fourth Indian to win a Grand Slam title and has been consistently in the top-20 in doubles players rankings, winning three ATP titles, including the Monte Carlo Masters.
Another player who silently took good long strides was Divij Sharan. The Delhi southpaw is now the country's second- highest ranked player in doubles at number 47.
Despite having to part with regular partner Purav Raja, he kept putting out strong performances. He won the ATP European Open apart from two titles and two runners-up finishes on the Challenger circuit.
Sania Mirza, who had an extraordinary run alongside Martina Hingis in 2015 and 2016, not only lost her top rank but dropped out of top-10 by the end of the season.
After splitting with Hingis, Sania struggled to get a regular partner until she settled with Shuai Peng with whom she reached the US Open semifinals.
The 31-year-old went without a Grand Slam title in 2017, changing eight partners through the season. She is now struggling with a knee injury and has already pulled out of the upcoming Australian Open.
Among upcoming women players, Zeel Desai and Karman Kaur Thandi are the best hopes while Ankita Raina has been steady.
Indian tennis' eternal man Paes is still going on at the age of 44 and ended the season with back-to-back Challenger level titles. He mostly plied his trade on the second-tier Challenger circuit, where he had two runners-up finishes but success at big stage continued to elude the old war horse.
More so, he faced embarrassment when new Davis Cup captain Mahesh Bhupathi did not include him in the playing team after being included in the six-man squad for the tie against Uzbekistan in Bengaluru in April.
What followed was an ugly episode, where Bhupathi made public his chat Paes, insisting that personal feud was never behind his exclusion. The Bhupathi-Paes saga meant that the winner of 18 Grand Slam titles was not included even in the squad for the next World Group Play-off tie against Canada.
Paes needs one more victory to reach the record of most doubles wins in Davis Cup history. He is tied on 42 wins with Italian Nicola Pietrangeli. Whether that will happen or Paes will have to be content with a shared record, only 2018 will tell.