If one is compiling a list of the best male tennis players of this or any other era, what names come to mind most readily?
Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer. Going back in time, it could be Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Go even further back and one finds Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Rod Laver.
None of these legends played doubles, at least not exclusively. This rather arbitrary grouping of greats may seem a bit unfair to those who ply their trade solely in the paired format of the sport, but it can’t be denied that unqualified greatness can only be achieved through excellence on the singles court.
It thus makes the decision of some of India’s premier contemporary tennis players – such as Yuki Bhambri, Arjun Kadhe and Saketh Myneni – to solely pursue doubles from now on quite disappointing. Granted that they are at a stage of their careers where they have to take a pragmatic view of the road ahead, but the move betrays lack of ambition and seems more dictated by the monetary bottom line and the urge to have a steady and decent paycheque with less wear and tear on their bodies.
While conceding that hardly anyone starts playing tennis with an eye on doubles from the beginning, Bhambri has admitted that the format is less taxing physically and involves less running, at least side to side, and matches rarely go over the 90-minute mark. There is less court to cover and less accuracy required with the aisles not considered out of bounds. There’s also less elite-level competition, at least in the early rounds of regular tour events, often guaranteeing a return on their travel and accommodation expenses. It’s also easier on the mind as one has a partner to bounce ideas off on court, in stark contrast to singles where one has to solve problems on their own when the going gets tough. It’s easier to rise up the rankings in doubles than in singles, where there are talented players emerging around the world all the time.
They would prefer to make the switch now than regret at the fag end of their careers, when they would not be in a position to make a viable living through doubles either. Tennis is a sport where one has to spend one’s own money to move around the world and compete, but not everyone has pockets deep enough to fund that, especially when returns aren’t forthcoming. It’s no fun going through qualifying rounds every week, and losing in the first round of the main draw when one gets a wildcard.
The decision can be compared to several international cricketers these days declining central contracts with their boards to become freelancers to play in franchise leagues mushrooming around the world. Or golfers turning their backs to the daily grind of the regular tours for the big and assured cheques offered by the upstart LIV league. Most of the players opting for these options realise that their best days are behind them and would like a big payday before ending their careers. It offers a better financial incentive with a less hectic schedule and more time to spend with the family.
Struggling to make an impact
Quitting a singles career to focus on doubles is not a feature only of men’s tennis. Sania Mirza made the switch and reaped rewards in the form of Grand Slam titles and a World No. 1 ranking. The reasons for forsaking singles may be similar – injuries, wear and tear, and inadequate institutional support – but at least she made her presence felt before doing so, rising to be ranked among the top 30 and even being seeded at a Major. Her male counterparts, despite showing promise as juniors, hardly made an impact at the top level. There’s nobody currently in the top 200 of the ATP rankings and no Indian featured in the singles main draw of a Grand Slam last year.
Apart from the three names who have decided to shift to doubles full time, it’s not inconceivable that the likes of Ramkumar Ramnathan, Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan and Sriram Balaji could make the move in the near future.
It’s in this context that the initiative by doubles specialist Rohan Bopanna, in partnership with a few others, to provide structured and formal support network for Indian doubles players wherever they are playing in the world could be seen. For a country that feted the exploits of Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes at the elite level, doubles tugs at an emotive chord. But one feels that the switch by the contemporary lot is more a bid to stay relevant on the tour for longer than an aim at the biggest honours in the format.
The Davis Cup, Olympics and Asian Games medals – and the financial rewards that come with podium finishes – are often cited as reasons for a disproportionate focus on doubles. It’s argued that when India is not making any impact in singles, one might as well focus on what has relatively been a strength.
But if one looks at it dispassionately, India’s fortunes in Davis Cup – when pitted against top teams – have for long hinged on the top players from the opposition not turning up. They are often left hoping that the best player(s) from the big nations skip the tie to give India a chance of a favourable result. And the situation is not likely to change till the country has a player ranked in the top 50 of the singles ranking.
The Asian Games may bring singles medals, even gold (players of the stature of Kei Nishikori are unlikely to feature there), but the Olympics are a different kettle of fish, even in doubles.
There is a reason Paes, Bhupathi, Bopanna and Mirza, for all their success on the regular tour, had to suffer repeated heartbreaks at the Olympic stage. A medal, preferably a gold, is what attracts the likes of Federer, Nadal and Stan Wawrinka to the doubles court once every four years. When they put their mind to it, they are usually too good for doubles specialists – unless they are generational talents such as the American Bryan brothers. It just shows that they prefer to keep their exertions to singles to cope with the hectic schedule. McEnroe was an outlier who played a lot of doubles as he didn’t like practising too much. Even in Davis Cup, when a top singles player is fielded in a doubles match, the Indians often come up short.
The current situation adds even more lustre to Paes’ singles bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, though unlike now, a lot of top players used to give the Games a cold shoulder then. He was also the last Indian to win an ATP singles title, way back in 1998.
If it seems that the players have decided to take the easy way out, they are not the only ones to blame. The All India Tennis Association has failed to provide a support framework for players, who are often left to their own devices when they get injured or struggle to make an impact. The country hosts an ATP World Tour, but it’s difficult to sustain local interest if there are no players to root for.
Upcoming players need more opportunities and exposure to improve. But while they make their presence felt at the ITF level, they struggle when pitted against tougher opponents in the Challengers. It shows that Indian talent is not supported by the training and developmental aspects required for rapid progress. There is a lack of well-equipped academies in India with the physical infrastructure, technical know-how and attention to detail
But one can also argue that where there is a will, there is a way. There are examples galore of players leaving the comfort zone of their home environment to go abroad to further their careers. Tennis is a global sport now, and individual players of quality can emerge from anywhere. Who would have imagined a Tunisian woman player, Ons Jabeur, starring on the tour, reaching multiple Grand Slam finals and climbing to be World No. 2. She had to move to Belgium and France to fulfill her aspirations at a formative age. Maria Sharapova leaving Siberia for the Nick Bollettieri academy in the United States is well known.
They never had it easy in their formative years, but had the ambition and drive to pull through. One has to do whatever necessary to get better, if they want it badly enough.
But if one has had enough after a few setbacks, and doesn’t find the necessary support and finances, they will give up on their dream and take the route which is easier on their bodies and pockets.
Giving up on singles when one is yet to reach 30 years of age for a less taxing option may be a pragmatic move, but reflects everything that is wrong in Indian tennis. The easiest option is not always the best one.
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