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Paes and Bhupathi have had a lot of doubles success.
Paes and Bhupathi have had a lot of doubles success.

Indian tennis' bright flame now a flicker

The Indian challenge at Melbourne was short and not sweet. The country's tennis has not shifted gears from promising days of Krishnans and Amritraj.

India's singles challenge at the Australian Open was short and not at all sweet.

Somdev Devvarman went out to Tommy Robredo, and Sania Mirza, who makes the headlines regardless of whether she plays, took the first set off Justine Henin before being swept aside.

It was a far cry from the glory days, when three men from Chennai planted the nation's flag firmly on the tennis map.

Ramanathan Krishnan reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 1960 and 1961, and Vijay Amritraj was kept from the top by his affable nature.

Roger Federer and Pete Sampras have since proved that nice guys can finish first, but in Amritraj's case, there were enough spurned opportunities against the best to suggest that he lacked the inner rage that drives champions.

The two pioneers - Premjit Lall and Jaidip Mukerjea also deserve mention for the parts they played in a formidable Davis Cup side that reached the final in 1966 and 1974 - benefited from the fact that tennis, like the railway network and the post office system, was one of the positive legacies of the Raj.

Most of the bigger cities and towns, like Chennai, had gentlemen's clubs with courts, both grass and clay, where at least the well-heeled could play a game that would soon take root in every continent. There may not have been a Harry Hopman to guide them, but individual initiative and fairly deep pockets helped them find a place on the big stage.

Then tennis went professional and the massive rewards on offer made many upper middle-class parents ponder tennis lessons.

There was a new role model too. Ramesh Krishnan, Ramanathan's son, was built along similar lines, the very antithesis of a professional athlete.

But like his father, he possessed a dexterous touch and a mastery of the angles that tripped up many a power player.

Twice he reached the quarter-finals at the US Open (1981 and 1987) and he graced the last eight at Wimbledon in 1986. He would have gone further but for an apology of a first serve.

That has been Sania's weakness too, ever since she first broke through with an eye-catching display against Serena Williams at the Australian Open in 2005.

Her forehand winners are worthy of a top-10 player but the weaknesses, which also include sluggish court coverage, are glaring enough for opponents to zero in on.

You still wonder though how much more successful she might have been if the media and the society it represents had not reduced her to a page-three item.

Much was made of her Muslim background, and liberals and extremists alike combined to make sure that she could not breathe.

If she wore short skirts or a T-shirt with a cheeky message on it, it was news. If she sat with her feet somewhere in the vicinity of an Indian flag, it was a scandal.

When she married Shoaib Malik, the Pakistan cricketer and a former captain, last year, the news hounds and paparazzi followed the story with a zeal usually reserved for wars and Watergate.

That she plays at all, despite examinations of her life that border on the forensic, is a wonder.

In a more normal environment, she might have evolved into a world-beater. Now, hampered by injury and one half of a cross-border soap opera, she might have to be content with the odd consolation win.

Even those have eluded the men since Ramesh Krishnan left the scene.

Leander Paes saved his best for the Davis Cup and the doubles courts, where he and Mahesh Bhupathi, who reunited to win in Chennai earlier this month, have accounted for 23 grand slam [doubles and mixed-doubles] titles between them.

Chennai hosts an ATP Tour event and is also home to the Britannia Amritraj Tennis Academy, but few have emerged to carry on the tradition established by the Krishnans and Amritraj.

The depth of competition on the tour and the expenses involved in travelling the globe discourage many, though the recent trend of corporate sponsorship should see more Devvarmans on court.

He himself opted for collegiate tennis in the United States before trying his luck on the Tour, and the early signs are that he could establish himself as a solid professional, top-50 material rather than top 10.

It is a different story in doubles, where Rohan Bopanna's Indo-Pakistan pairing with Aisam-ul-Haq Qureishi offers one of the heartwarming stories of recent times.

When they reached the US Open final last year, fans on both sides of an often-bitter divide found themselves pulling in the same direction, and cheering for the "enemy".

In an age where sporting headlines in the tabloids are full of martial references, two young men wise enough to see beyond their passports are showing the way.

 

sports@thenational.ae

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