As 2019 comes to an end, in this series we take a look at the significant news events in different sporting disciplines in the past 12 months.
Indian tennis had a challenging year on tour for most part but in the last Grand Slam of the season, Sumit Nagal gave fans much to cheer about as he took a set off Roger Federer in the first round of US Open. To play on the biggest court after qualifying for his Grand Slam debut gave the 22-year-old Indian a platform few have got and he made the most of it by troubling the veteran early.
Earlier on that September day, India No 1 Prajnesh Gunneswaran played eventual finalist Daniil Medvedev in the first round. The 30-year-old’s US Open debut went relatively unnoticed as compared to his compatriot but it marked an important moment for Indian tennis as well.
The left-hander played all four Grand Slams in 2019 after making his debut at Australian Open as a qualifier and the last three on virtue of his top-100 ranking, which he maintained for most part of the year.
The US Open was the first time in 20 years that India had two men’s singles players in the main draw of a Major. The last time there were two Indian men at a Grand Slam was the 1998 Wimbledon when Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi played. This could be the only high point, internationally, for Indian tennis in 2019.
Both Nagal and Prajnesh lost their first-round matches against their top-10 opponents but gave several Indian tennis watchers hope for the coming year after a challenging season.
Nagal reached No 130 after starting the season with injury issues and down at world No 340. It was a commendable rise as he kept at it on the Challenger circuit. With one title (Buenos Aires), one runners-up finish (Banja Luka) and six semi-final appearances on the Challenger circuit, he ensured that he was collecting points and building momentum to push for a breakthrough into the top 100 and a direct entry at Majors.
Prajnesh, who finished the year as India No 1 for the second straight time, has already shown that he has the chops to be a top-70 player. Apart from Slams, he made his Masters 1000 debut as well, via qualifying. He reached the third round at Indian Wells and soon climbed to a career-high of 75 in April, a year after he was the world No 266.
His performance petered down towards the second half of the season due to injuries, a string of poor results and grappling with his father’s death which meant he dropped out of top-100 to finish with a year-end rank of 124. In a full circle, he will be back to qualifying at the Australian Open.
However, Ramkumar Ramanathan had a poor year where he fell to 174 in singles while Yuki Bhambri sat out the entire season due to injury. Youngster Sasi Kumar Mukund showed promise as he continued to ascend while Prithvi Sekhar became the men’s singles champion in the World Deaf Tennis Championship.
On the men’s doubles circuit, Rohan Bopanna, Divij Sharan continued to be India’s best players. Bopanna and Sharan, keeping in mind the Tokyo Games, began the season as a team but their low rankings did not let them enter bigger events together, forcing them to part ways.
Meanwhile veteran Leander Paes reached the last lap of his career and he dropped out of top-100 for the first time in almost two decades and on Christmas Day, announced that 2020 will be his last year on the pro circuit.
On the women’s tour, Ankita Raina finished as the India No 1 again and won two $25K singles titles on the International Tennis Federation circuit. However, a regular presence on the WTA circuit remained out of reach. Karman Kaur Thandi and Pranjala Yadlapalli spent considerable chunk of the season on the sidelines due to injuries while Riya Bhatia climbed to the India No 2 spot.
With Sania Mirza announcing her return to competitive tennis in 2020 after a maternity break, Indian women’s tennis might just get the boost it needs.
Off court drama
Meanwhile off the courts, the now all-too-familiar player versus administrator tussle continued. Indian tennis administration is never too far away from controversy and this year, it came from a scheduled Davis Cup tie against Pakistan, which saw huge drama. The tie was eventually held at a neutral venue in Kazakhstan but not before more bad blood between All India Tennis Association and the players.
Top players, led by Mahesh Bhupathi, refused to make the trip to Islamabad citing security concerns. The administrators agreed with their fear, as was clear from their pleas to ITF, seeking a change in venue.
But once the ITF agreed to India’s request, the AITA sacked Bhupathi as captain, supposedly for his position to not travel, while including other players who had refused to travel.
Among those who made themselves available irrespective of the venue was Leander Paes. The 46-year-old extended his Davis Cup record with a 44th doubles win during the tie when it eventually took place in NurSultan in November.
The coming year will be crucial for India with the 2020 Olympics and as things stand, not a single player is high enough in the rankings to get a direct entry. But the hope remains of a breakthrough run or a sensational return as Indian tennis gets ready for the new decade. The year is bound to be emotional nevertheless with Sania Mirza’s return and Leander Paes’ farewell, but the game needs the younger players to step up and deliver consistently in the international circuit.