Somdev Devvarman, one of India’s most successful singles tennis players, never shied away from calling out the people or the long-standing practices that plague Indian sport. When the All Indian Tennis Association dropped the teenager from the Davis Cup team for supposed disciplinary issues, he cleared the air in a forthright open letter. As the national government observer for tennis, he always backed his call, even in face of questions.
So at a time when the international tennis rankings are due for an overhaul which will particularly hit Indian players, it is no surprise that Devvarman sees the change with the clearest lens – a chance for stakeholders in Indian tennis to finally be realistic.
From next year, ATP and WTA ranking points will be given only on the Challenger Tour and events worth 25K and more respectively. The other tournaments will be part of the Transition Tour with no ranking Tour points, a change that could significantly reduce the number of ranked players in India. But Devvarman believes that this drastic change will not only benefit youngsters in the longer run, it will also bring about a change is the “haphazard” way tennis in India is run.
“If you look at the ATP ranking system today, there are 70-75 players ranked, but if you look at it in the new year, there will only be about 10 to 15. One way of looking at it is that we have lost 60 odd- players and that’s a blow for Indian tennis. But the other way is asking what the other 60 players (are) doing, because none of them have won a point in Challengers, only in Futures. So what were we really accomplishing when we had 75 players but are not really improving?” he told Scroll.in in an interaction on the sidelines of the SFA Mumbai Championship 2018.
The 33-year-old is not off the mark. Of the many talented Indian sportspersons we see, there are a hundred more who languish and this is rarely more glaring than in an individual, pro sport like tennis.
“Those 60 players don’t make any money. They are playing in a system where it is impossible to make money but they are spending it and have false expectations of playing professional tennis at the highest level.
“This new system ensures that people are thinking that if we are not making the Challengers, then maybe we are not good enough to be ranked and I think that is very fair. In the long run, in my opinion, this system is going to give these kids, and more importantly their parents and the coaches, a sense of reality.
“This is not to be negative or blunt, I think it needs to be realistic,” he explained.
The coach conundrum
But while this change will beat into shape the future of Indian tennis, there is still the issue of the present. One of the major problems, according to Devvarman, is the faults in Indian coaching system where many former players who didn’t make a big mark as players are involved in training the next generation.
“There is nobody who respects the occupation of coaching more than I do. But I actually don’t think many people in our country do. One of the stats I read says that since 1999, we have had over 500 coaches who are certified by the International Tennis Federation. But what benefit has that has had for anyone, including them. Are they actually better coaches today?
I remember my coaches refused to go to this because they said the people over there are not even coaches, they just want degrees and sport isn’t like that. What has having 500 extra ITF (certified) coaches accomplished? The sport has evolved but the Indian coaching system has not. Everything is pointed at us getting left behind which we are and nobody seems to understand that we just haven’t got our basics right,” the 33-year-old said.
A centralised system
But Devvarman is not just focusing on the problem, he has offered solutions as well. It is not going to be simple or straightforward. But one of the most important suggestions he has is that of a centralised system to help players on tour, especially the young ones starting out.
“The question we really have to ask ourselves is why is there is no system that advises or guides players of all levels throughout the country. When I was 14 or 15 in the mid-90s, I started to see that I had potential to become a tennis player. Now I had a problem back then, who can I go to solve it and how can I be sure that this person A, has my best interest and B, has the best guidance.
“I didn’t really find a solution to this problem back then. What is really scary is that the exact same scenario has existed for 25 years. When the best players in the country don’t have a reliable source for information or guidance, it means that not only does your system not work, it is broken,” he said.
“Compare that to the American system, you will immediately hear from a bunch of people “This kid needs to go to college, this kid can come here we can support them, this is an issue in their game and we can fix that.”
That Devvarman, the national observer for tennis, is making no pretence to hide the problems the sport is facing is a sign that people are noticing and working to change things. But as he admits, an actual change will take a much longer time to come into effect. Till then, Indian tennis will continue banking on the odd outlier but won’t have a consistent supply chain of performers at the highest level.