Stuck at the base: the great doldrums of Indian tennis


South Club, Calcutta. December 1966. India, the host country, and Brazil, the more fanciful, faced each other in an intense interzonal duel to win the right to face the powerful Australians in the final of the Davis Cup (then called the Challenge Round) . The tie was 2-2 at the end of matchday three, with the decisive fifth inning going to the visitors when play was cut short just as Tomas Koch took a 2-1 lead against Ramanathan Krishnan .

For the fourth day, as Jaidip Mukerjea recounted, around 5,000 people flocked to the club; no matter the intimidating climb staring at Krishnan. It was about to get steeper, with Koch taking a 5-2 lead in the fourth set, which was one game away from putting the contest to bed. It was then that Krishnan woke up to win the fourth set 7-5, the fifth 6-2 and the match and draw 3-2.

“You won’t believe the crowd… they just jumped onto the pitch. They hugged him (Krishnan), they carried him with them, ”said Mukerjea, India’s second in the draw who teamed up with Krishnan for the decisive doubles victory. “The government declared a public holiday on this day. “

Back in Madras, unprecedented congratulations greeted Krishnan.

“There was no television back then, yet I became a national hero,” recalls Krishnan, now 84. “I went to have my hair cut and the barber refused to charge me! “

It is more than pure coincidence that Krishnan and Mukerjea went back 55 years to pick a moment that summed up the pinnacle of tennis in the country.

Such stories have disappeared from Indian tennis.

When was the last time you heard of an Indian success story emerging from sport? When was the last time you saw an Indian magician with a racket in his hand? When was the last time you heard the roar of thousands of fans bouncing off the court while watching a tennis match in the country?

Indian tennis has gone from producing Grand Slam singles semifinalists and quarterfinals to celebrating a slam first round victory once in seven years. From being a three-time Davis Cup finalist to being demoted to a lower group. From looking like a beehive buzzing with talent to a barren wasteland with scattered survivors.

“Today, and I’m sorry to say it, our tennis scene is really bad. It’s just sad, ”Mukerjea said.

Sad for a sport deeply rooted in history. Long before world tennis embraced the Open era in 1968, Indians were making their mark. Players like Sumant Misra and Dilip Bose created waves on the national, Asian and global stages in the 1940s and 1950s, which were taken to unforeseen heights by the talents of Krishnan, Mukerjea and Premjit Lall over the decade. next and more. Krishnan, Wimbledon junior champion in 1954, twice reached the semi-finals of singles at the All England Club in 1960 and 1961 and found a place in the world top 10. Mukerjea has competed four times in singles at Wimbledon and twice at Roland Garros. Indeed, the heroism of the 1966 Davis Cup was no accident.

“We were considered a leading and powerful opponent to any nation because of our performance,” Krishnan said.

India was also seen as a tennis loving nation, and this was reflected in its national tournaments. Not to mention the crème de la Indians, foreign players ranging from Roy Emerson to Ilie Nastase wanted a slice of it as well.

“We had a lot of players from Europe to play this winter. It has strengthened our base. Also, one of us Indians always played the semi-finals or the final or won the tournament, which is why the stands were packed. Tennis became more popular in India and young people were watching, ”Mukerjea said. The torch had been lit, and now it was passed on. The Amritraj brothers, Vijay and Anand, arrived in the 1970s and had as company at the highest level Sashi Menon and Jasjit Singh. Vijay reached a career world high No.18 in 1980, qualifying twice for the singles quarter-finals at Wimbledon and the US Open. The 1974 Davis Cup final, for which India gave South Africa a foothold in protest against apartheid, is part of global tennis folklore.

Ramanathan’s son Ramesh Krishnan will soon follow in his famous father’s footsteps. A three-time Grand Slam quarter-finalist in the 1980s, he scripted a stunning victory over then-world number one Mats Wilander in the round of 16 of the 1989 Australian Open and was the main architect of the 3-2 victory over Australia. took India to its third Davis Cup final in 1987. Less than a decade later, youngster Leander Paes delivered one of the last scintillating moments of Indian singles spectacle, an Olympic bronze medal in 1996 at Atlanta, before Sania Mirza shone brightly at the turn of the century as a pioneering Indian woman among the elite.

Somewhere along the way, however, the torch has fallen, at least when it comes to singles. The Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi combination was winning Slams in the late ’90s, chest thrusts and all that, injecting oomph into the doubles game. Mirza joined him and became the No. 1 in the world. Rohan Bopanna followed, becoming a Mixed Doubles Grand Slam champion over the past decade.

But the doubles boom came in parallel with a drastic drop in singles. For the past 21 years, India has only seen Mirza in the top 50 of the singles table and three men sporadically enter the top 100: Somdev Devvarman, Yuki Bhambri and Prajnesh Gunneswaran. It will take 13 years for the last Indian to progress beyond the second round in singles of the Grand Slam (Mirza, Australian Open 2008), 24 years for the last male (Paes, 1997 US Open) and six years for the last Indian. singles player to defeat a higher ranked opponent in Davis Cup.

Krishnan believes that the drop in the singles and the rise in the doubles are related.

“In my day, there were 300 or 400 top players traveling for tournaments. It now numbers in the thousands. Our players lost confidence and started playing doubles. It is a bad decision which has seriously affected Indian tennis, ”he said.

The decline in the volume and value of the domestic circuit as well. While India’s top pros have moved abroad – to the United States and Europe, in particular – through scholarships or to seek a training base and participate in international events due to the lack of of opportunities in their country, national tournaments have lost their local touch as well as the increasingly weak overseas color.

“The Indian tennis season seems to have gone haywire,” said Ramesh. “The quality of the players has declined. It coincided with the rise in popularity of television in India, which meant that viewers began to stay away. It was difficult to get the attention of the fan, who had too many other avenues. “

Indian tennis continues to struggle to find enough reasons and faces for the fan to return. “When we were playing, youngsters like Vijay and Anand started to take over, followed by Ramesh and Leander,” said Mukerjea. “You have to have your local heroes, someone you admire. Now the young people have no one. They only admire (Roger) Federer and (Rafael) Nadal. When Sania was well, the girls started playing sports. But nothing has happened since. “

And nothing can happen anytime soon.

“I can’t see in the next 10 years – I hope I’m wrong – someone make it into the top 20,” Mukerjea said. “To get to the cherry, you have to climb the mountain. We are stuck at the base.

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