Whither Indian tennis? This question springs to mind in the wake of India going down without much of a fight to Italy in the Davis Cup qualifiers at Kolkata last week. The down slide has been evident for some time but now it has become more pronounced and what is a matter of concern is there is no indication that the slide will be arrested.
There was a time when India were serious challengers for the Davis Cup. The team was a regular in the prestigious World Group and made the final in 1974 and 1987 besides entering the Challenge Round in 1966. Even in the 90s India were regular participants in the World Group and made the semifinals in 1993 with an incredible win over France at Frejus.
In the new millennium however India have struggled to maintain their once exalted status. For much of the last 20 years India have languished in the Asia/Oceania group and have faltered time and again when just a step away from moving back into the World Group.
The problem with India is that they just do not have world class singles players. When India did admirably all those years ago it was because Ramanathan Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan were able to pull off victories in the singles. Even Leander Paes before he concentrated on doubles notched up some amazing victories over higher ranked players in the Davis Cup. Paes and Bhupathi have been one of the most successful doubles pairs around the circuit winning Grand Slams besides registering several notable wins in Davis Cup doubles play. But doubles gives only one point and that is why the four singles are important. Even in the just concluded tie against Italy India won the doubles but that hardly mattered in the overall context.
Among the contemporary players Yuki Bhambri reached a high of 83 while the best that Ramkumar Ramanathan has touched is 111. The current leading player Prajnesh Gunneswaran has made it clear that his first objective is to break into the top 100. Currently he is 102 so he is almost there. Hopefully he will break the barrier soon but then comes the harder task – to stay there. Yuki for example could not stay in the top 100 for too long and is currently ranked 137 while Ramkumar has slipped to 123. Non-playing captain Bhupathi made the point after the loss to Italy that India cannot hope to advance in the Davis Cup without a couple of players in the top 100.