Double trouble for Indian tennis

Jaideep Ghosh

FILE: Leander Paes with Somnath Devvarman.  Photo - PTI

FILE: Leander Paes with Somnath Devvarman.
Photo – PTI

The irony surrounding Indian tennis is that we win when not expected, but we lose when definitely not expected. The Davis Cup World Group playoff that was concluded at the R.K. Khanna Stadium in New Delhi on Sunday was an example of how things are with Indian tennis now. There are a lot of assumptions and gameplans and precious little to back them up with.

When India took on the Czech Republic, everyone was expecting the home side to win the doubles. That being a given, the team could start planning as to how to pull off two wins in singles to give them three crucial points. It so happened that Yuki Bhambri predictably lost to Lukas Rosol on Friday morning. But then, Somdev Devvarman brought the hosts right back into the rubber with a fine win over Czech number one Jiri Vesely. Everyone was ecstatic. We had won one bonus match and once we won the doubles, surely we could lap up another singles on Sunday!

Perfect plan. But there was just one problem. India didn’t win the doubles.

Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna went down without a whimper to Radek Stepanek, an erstwhile doubles partner for Paes, and young Adam Pavlasek, in straight sets. Which meant India now had to win both singles. That was never going to happen.

India’s inability to qualify into the World Group wasn’t new. But this loss proved decisively that things need to change if they want to be viable in the Davis Cup in future. The doubles pair of Paes and Bopanna is getting old and in any case they don’t play together enough to be a viable combine all the while. That makes the singles look worse than it is.

“It’s always great to get to play for the country,” Paes said before the tie. “You only get to do that a few times in the year, especially now, when in the Asian Group, I stay away and allow the youngsters to get a chance. But when it comes to the World Group or playoff, I always put myself forward.”

Fair enough, but that in itself is the problem. India cannot depend on Paes and Bopanna for that matter, can go on forever and changes are needed. The change critically needs to be in the attitude as well, since you need players who are good enough in singles as well as doubles.

“That was a huge surprise, an unexpected and bad surprise,” Indian team captain Anand Amritraj said, referring to the doubles loss. “It was probably one of the worst performances by an Indian doubles team in a very long time, especially against a team that was good but certainly not the best in the world.”

So what ahead?

“We have two good youngsters in Saket Myneni and R. Ramkumar,” Amritraj says. “Saket has played doubles before and he is a heck of a doubles player. Ramkumar is 20 years old and is coming up. Those are the two closest to Yuki and Som. “But after that I don’t know. I haven’t had a chance to look at the 17 and 18-year-olds. I have to look at the Futures events and stuff to check to see what is coming behind Ramkumar.”

All that said, India will still struggle if every player worth his salt shifts to doubles way before required.
“As I have said always, when kids start tennis in India, there shouldn’t be any thought of doubles. I mean, if you haven’t made it as a singles player and you are 30 years old, then maybe. “Tennis is supposed to be a one-on-one game. It is not like cricket or hockey Singles is what really counts.
“For a 20-year-old to think that he will be a doubles specialist, that;s nonsense.”

Every sport has a time when it faces change. India have been depending on Paes to be the deliverer for close to 25 years and he has delivered, like few could. But there has to be a time when it will all stop, and that time is close. So for India to be viable as a tennis entity, there have to be changes. Sure, they will lose more than win, initially at least, But it wasn’t ever going to be a cakewalk, excellence never is. But emotional attachments and hero worship aside, look ahead.

Change is the only constant in life. And tennis.