What's the story?
In case you didn't know
Paes is undoubtedly the greatest tennis player in India's history and is considered one of the best sportspersons that the country has ever produced.
One of his greatest achievements was winning the bronze medal in the men's singles at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games as it was India's first individual Olympic medal since 1952. The win instilled a belief in all other Indian sportspersons that they could also bring glory to the country at the big stage.
Although the singles game was not Paes' forte, he always raised his game multiple notches when representing his country. Whether it was the Davis Cup, Olympics or the Asian Games, the Indian jersey would always get the best out of him.
Apart from one singles title and a massive upset win over Pete Sampras on grass, all of Paes' major wins in the professional circuit are in doubles. He has won 18 Grand Slam titles- 8 in men's doubles and 10 in mixed doubles.
The tennis legend announced that 2020 would be his last year on the professional circuit and is hoping to represent India in a record 8th consecutive Olympic Games at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Heart of the matter
In a recent interview, Ali has admitted that it will be a tough job to find a successor to Paes in Indian tennis. He opined that with tennis being an expensive sport, it becomes difficult for Indians to make a mark on the professional circuit unless they have strong financial backing.
“There are several factors behind what makes it so difficult for a singles player from India to make his mark —starting from the financial aspect. Tennis, along with golf, are the two disciplines where a player has keep on playing for nine months in a year and plough back his or her earnings into the game. It’s hence a very tough proposition unless the youngster comes from a very secure financial background”
He went to add that the lack of ATP tournaments being staged in India is compounding this problem as all the good players move on to collegiate tennis in the United States where they end up leaving the sport entirely.
“There is a distinct lack of sponsorship in India for tennis — be it in terms of supporting the tournaments or funding the players in the initial years. We also lose a big percentage of the quality players to college tennis, most of whom eventually stop pursuing the sport as a career"
“There was only one Mahesh (Bhupathi) in the last 25 years, though Somdev also did well for himself at a later stage. However, they were more of exceptions than the rule”
He observed that although government and corporate support for Olympic sports has increased significantly over the last few years, it has not produced the desired results in tennis.
"Yes, their support has yielded results, especially in disciplines like shooting. However, you will have to appreciate that while in a sport like shooting, there are a series of medals in each of the categories. Compare this to tennis where you have got a limited number of medals in Olympics while you are up against the likes of a Federer or Nadal"
He elaborated that even when Paes had won the medal at the Atlanta Games, he was up against the top tennis players in the world and it was his brilliance that won him the medal.
“When Leander won the bronze in 1996, the gold and silver winners were Andre Agassi and Sergi Bruguera, respectively. This will help you to appreciate the enormity of the challenge in tennis"
While Paes will be looking forward for a chance to play at his 8th Olympic Games, there is a tough road ahead for Indian tennis. With Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza also in the twilight of their careers, the future of tennis in the country doesn't seem too bright.
It would be great if Paes, just like his peers - Bhupathi, Bopanna and Sania, comes up with an academy after his retirement and is able to produce world-class tennis players. However, that would definitely not be a one man's job and will require a lot of support from the government and the corporate sector.