CHENNAI: Indian tennis has not had it this good in a long time. The country has a guaranteed 250-level event in both tours (WTA and ATP). Indian tennis has not had it this bad in a long time. After featuring in at least one Slam a year over the last few years not a proud record but still something to cling on to that streak has been consigned to the dustbin. When the first round began in earnest at Flushing Meadows on Monday, this was confirmed. Not a single men's or women's singles player featured in the first round of a Major. In. All. Of. 2022.
It's also a fair reflection as to the state of men's and women's singles players in the country. Without Sumit Nagal's wild card at the 2021 Australian Open, India would have completed two full years without a single representative in the sport's showpiece.
While sportspersons in other fields have repeatedly set historic feats in the recent past, in tennis, the history aspect is still being brought by trendsetters and trailblazers of the previous century. One of those, Vijay Amritraj, is still baffled by the fact that he was the last Indian men's singles player to play on centre court at Wimbledon. "For me, it always means so much to be able to tell a child or a kid that 'listen, sport is going to teach you more about the world than anything else.
Do it just for yourself. You bust your chops to be the best you can (be). That's why, the last men's singles guy to play singles on centre court at Wimbledon is still me, before any of you were born. It's embarrassing. That's my point. At the danger of repeating ourselves, the sad part is it's one thing if we had absolutely no talent, no facilities, no sponsorship, no coaches and so on. All that's there. When we left India for the first time, we had three pounds. You had to win in the afternoon to be able to eat at night."
While the 68-year-old, who was once ranked inside the top 15, is sure of the commitment of the players now, he wants to see all of them give their undivided attention and focus towards singles. "It's hard to say they don't have the commitment because they do," he said. "Look at being the next (Roger) Federer, (Rafa) Nadal, (Novak) Djokovic or (Andy Murray) rather than saying 'I ended up getting to the doubles quarterfinal. Nothing wrong with that because it's terrific money. There's nothing negative but that can't be the focus."
At some level, that seems to be the focus for a majority of the men's singles specialists in 2022. Ramkumar Ramanathan, still one of India's leading singles players, is increasingly eyeing the doubles circuit. Ranked No 70 (239 in singles), he has played in a lot of doubles events on the circuit, even at the Challenger level, this year. He has also won doubles titles at the Tour level at just 27, it feels too early to be making the transition. Yuki Bhambri, one of only four Indians to have been ranked in the top 100 this century (Somdev Devvarman, Sania Mirza and Prajnesh Gunneswaran are the others), is another who is eyeing the doubles route. His doubles ranking has gone up from 890 to 129 since January 1, 2022.
What pains Amritraj the most is the empty tennis grounds. "Unless we have players in the top-50 eventually, we are not going to be doing well in the Davis Cup. Or Fed Cup. We need to have them kids so much better which means it's 1000 forehands a day, 1000 backhands a day. I do not like coming to India and seeing tennis courts open between 9.00 AM and 4.00 PM. My point is why have so many courts free between 9.00 and 4.00? It's hot but..."
The one message he has for upcoming players is the one non-negotiable he had during his playing days. "Bust your chops to be the best you can be."