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India’s service and bare returns in 2022

Express News Service

Expectations in singles tennis in India is rock bottom. Losses are the norm, wins are a pleasant surprise and the transition to doubles from singles is expected. Before delving into the specifics, one thing is clear. For a combination of reasons — genes, a lack of a good coaching programme, expenses involved, dearth of competitions at home and the absence of a good structure to name a few — the country is handicapped at various levels. The ones that make it through — in the Indian context, this means breaking into the top-100 and/or winning a couple of main draw matches at a Major and/or picking up several ATP or WTA tour wins over a few years — break down because of injuries.

Even with all these caveats in place, the first six months of 2022 has been a torrid phase, something that should be put through the incinerator and never to be spoken of again. Just when you thought the expectations couldn’t go any lower, Monday changed that perception. In the first round of Wimbledon qualification at Roehampton, both Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan lost. It’s the first time in years that no Indians will be in action in the next rounds of the qualification process. Forget making the second round of a Major, right now it’s so bad that they can’t even make the second qualification round.  

Heck, that isn’t even surprising considering all the singles players, combined, have won one tour-level main draw match in 2022. In fact, truth be told, they haven’t even made the cut to play in the main draw via rankings. At the Pune Open, Arjun Kadhe, Ramkumar and Prajnesh Gunneswaran were handed wildcards (Yuki Bhambri used his protected ranking to make the cut).

Ramkumar, who’s had lots of success as a doubles player in 2022, has seemingly forgotten how to win singles matches on a consistent basis. Including qualifiers and main draw matches at the tour level, he has played four and has lost the lot. At the Challenger level, he has lost nine matches at the first time of asking. That he remains India’s best ranked singles player is an accurate portrayal of the year the others have had. Maybe, he’s also doing the time honoured tradition of jumping to the doubles circuit? His doubles ranking, this time last year, was 124. Now, it’s 71 (he’s always maintained that he sees himself as a singles specialist).

Worryingly, all of the above-mentioned players are 24 or above with a couple of them pushing 30 or above. Davis-Cupper Nandan Bal is of the opinion that the country has to start identifying kids as young as 16. “We have already started doing that, we invited a few of the top-ranked juniors to train with the Davis Cup squad,” he said. “But the big thing the juniors need now is ITF meets. Progressing to the Challengers and the tour level is fine but all these kids need 15s and the 25s ($15000 and $25000 events). We had a few of those in India and it coincided with there being 4-5 players in the top 200 or 300.” Since the beginning of 2018, India have hosted 15 ITF events (for perspective, Spain has hosted more than 100 in the same timeframe). He also admits that the state of singles in India is ‘of concern’. “We need to shift our attention towards the ones coming through.”

It’s been a familiar refrain. After Finland upset India in the Davis Cup in 2021, both Rohit Rajpal (captain) and Rohan Bopanna sounded a clarion call. “To go forward we need to go back to the drawing board. We need to look at the next bunch of guys. We need to have better players, better strategies,” was Rajpal’s verdict post that loss.

Promising players are aplenty but there’s something that prevents Indians from developing. Here’s a story from 2017. After making waves in the lower tiers in 2015 and 2016, the last edition of the Chennai Open saw them hand a wildcard to then teen, Casper Ruud. He lost in the first round but before long, he was a prominent fixture at tour level events. Earlier this month, he reached his first Major final. When Ramkumar was young, the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA) used to track his ranking via ‘best Under-21s’. He was inside the top 15 in this metric. Now? Less said the better.

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