CHENNAI: It’s been a harsh 18 months or so for India’s tennis players ranked outside the top 300 or so. While the ones ranked inside the top 300 — Prajnesh Gunneswaran, Sumit Nagal and Ramkumar Ramanathan — have managed to play tournaments because of their rankings, the ones who depend on the ITF World Tour meets to pick up rankings points have struggled for a variety of reasons.
Covid-19-related quarantine norms, visa issues, travel costs during a pandemic and a lack of events in India have hit them hard. As tennis players are typically ‘freelancers’, in that they do not have annual retainership and make money only when they play, the lifestyle over the last 18 months or so has hit them hard. Take for example the case of Sidharth Rawat, India’s No 1 ITF-ranked player at 213. He’s close to giving up tennis as a profession.
Without a European visa, the last event he played was in the US in August. His next big test is a fair reflection of where his mind is at it. “I started studying for my UPSC exam just as the lockdown started,” he tells this daily. “In fact, my exam is on October 10.” He won’t play again till a hat-trick of ITF events in India in November. There are three M15 events in Indore (Nov 8-14), New Delhi (Nov 15-21) and Gurugram (Nov 22-28). Even if Rawat wants to continue plugging away at least for the time being, a few of his compatriots on tour have already decided to to give up the ghost. “I know a few of my friends who have decided to discontinue or have already discontinued and have left to pursue Masters abroad. People who have ATP ranking points have taken this decision but that’s just the reality of the situation.”
Here’s a small sample size of how badly the pandemic and costs of travel in the pandemic era upended their lives. Arjun Kadhe, the third best Indian on the ITF tour according to rankings, played 22 events on the circuit in 2019. This year? Six, thanks to the second lockdown earlier this year. In Europe finally after spending the entirety of the summer in India thanks to the lockdown, he will look to better his rankings. There is also Manish Sureshkumar, the 22-year-old who is ranked No 2 on the ITF tour. He played 19 events in 2019 but has only clocked 11 so far. Even if he plays the next two months, he won’t be able to make that match that mark.
Injuries too haven’t helped. Aryan Goveas, the fourth Indian on the ITF rankings list, has played just eight tournaments in 2021, four of which where in India. “I have been injured, that’s why I haven’t played but, yes, there is no denying that the lockdown has been hard. I wanted to use that time productively so I completed my studies.”
For players like Rawat, the three ITF events in India in November will act like an oasis in the desert (there are three more ‘home’ ITF meets in early 2022). For a change, they don’t need to shell out lots of money to access the competition. The question, though, is these few and far inbetween. If this status quo continues, there could be a brain drain from tennis.
Upcoming ITF Men’s events in India
M15 Indore Nov 8-14
M15 Delhi Nov 15-21
M15 Gurugram Nov 22-28