Tennis has been one of the sports India has consistently done well at, with at least one medal at every Asian Games dating back to 1990.
At the 2014 edition in Incheon, India returned with a five medals, including a mixed doubles gold, a silver and bronze in the men’s doubles besides a women’s doubles bronze.
Similar returns are expected this time, with a good shot at an elusive singles medal as well, even though there are no team events. India has a strong contingent in Indonesia, if not as experienced in the absence of Sania Mirza, who is expecting her first child, and Leander Paes, who controversially pulled out days before the event began.
The three doubles events – men’s, women’s and mixed – have traditionally been India’s strength at the Asiad. But this year, many top Asian singles players will be absent due to the US Open, the last Grand Slam of the year, which begins just days after the tennis ends at the Asiad. Additionally, all four of India’s singles players Ramkumar Ramanathan (118) and Prajnesh Gunneswaran (161) and Ankita Raina (187) and Karman Kaur Thandi (197) are ranked high enough to be seeded.
With the absence of top players like Japan’s Kei Nishikori (world No 23), South Korea’s Hyeon Chung (25) and Kazakhstan’s Mikhail Kukushkin (88) and India’s 2014 medallist Yuki Bhambri (97), Ram has a good chance of making the semi-final. Uzbekistan’s seasoned campaigner Denis Istomin, ranked 76th, will be the top seed. Back in 2010, he had lost to Somdev Devvarman in the final.
The women’s singles will be a lot more challenging with China fielding their top players. Raina and Thandi are seeded sixth and seventh respectively and will have a bye in the first round.
World number 32 Shuai Zhang will be the top seed, while her compatriot world No 53 Wang Qiang, the defending champion will also be in the draw. Additionally, 2014 runner-up Luksika Kumkkhum (93) of Thailand, Wang Yafan (91) and Duan Yingying (109) of China, Sabina Sharipova (124) of Uzbekistan and Miyu Kato (169) of Japan will the other seeded players.
Raina, who has climbed up the ranks this year, has played at the Incheon Asiad, reaching the third round in women’s singles and second round in mixed doubles with Divij Sharan. She was also the only unbeaten Indian in the Fed Cup earlier this year. She will be playing in all three events and will look to win a medal in at least one.
However, a singles gold won’t be easy, even with the depleted field, as winning the singles events entitles the player to a quota place at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This decision, taken with the aim to increase participation from top players, gives the Indian singles players added motivation to go for gold.
Hope on doubles
In the men’s doubles Veteran Rohan Bopanna will partner with Divij Sharan, who had won the men’s doubles bronze with Bhambri in 2014. In the run-up to the event he was sidelined by a shoulder injury and has not played competitive tennis since retiring mid-match at Wimbledon in July.
However, they are India’s two top-ranked men’s doubles players and seasoned campaigners on the ATP circuit with the weapons to ensure another doubles medal for India. Sharan has shown this in 2014, while the 38-year-old Bopanna will look for his first medal at the event.
However, it is unlikely that the other men’s doubles pair will advance deep given the circumstance they have come together in. After Paes’s last-minute withdrawal, Ramkumar will form the second men’s doubles pairing with Sumit Nagal, who arrived only late on Friday night. Nagal is also on a poor run of form, having lost nine straight singles matches.
Women’s doubles will see Raina partner up with doubles specialist and 2014 bronze-medallist Prarthana Thombare. The duo are seeded fifth. Rutuja Bhonsale and Pranjala Yadlapalli will be the other women’s doubles duo, and despite their debut at this stage, are a promising prospect having played with each other on the circuit for the last couple of months and lifting two ITF $25K trophies.
Bopanna, who won the mixed doubles at French Open in 2017, will play mixed doubles with Ankita Raina, India’s highest ranked women’s singles player, while Delhi duo Sharan and Thandi will be the other mixed doubles pair. Both of these are first-time pairings but by virtue of their rankings are seeded fourth and seventh.
While there is no telling whether they will swim or sink, India has a bankable pair in both men’s and women’s doubles, and will look to match last time’s haul of five medals. But the cherry on the cake will still be a singles gold and Olympic berth.