Four Indian singles players will feature in the qualifying rounds of a Grand Slam for the first time. Starting Wednesday, Yuki Bhambri, Ramkumar Ramanathan, Sumit Nagal and Prajnesh Gunneswaran will take to the outer courts of Melbourne Park, in a three-round qualifying competition to get into the main draw of the Australian Open – the first major of the year.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, India had a strong contingent that featured in the main draws of Slams, with the likes of brothers Anand and Vijay Amritraj, Jasjit Singh, Sashi Menon and Ramesh Krishnan regularly making the cut.
That line of players in the main draws steadily grew thin in the 90s.
In the last few years though, the results from singles players have improved, and thus expectations from the Indian contingent have gone up. “At that level every match is a battle,” says India Davis Cup captain Mahesh Bhupathi. “Let them take one step at a time, but it will be great to see two of them qualify.”
Last season, Bhambri and Ramkumar pulled off upsets over top 10- quality opposition. Bhambri, India no. 1 who is ranked 121 in the world, got the better of mercurial Frenchman and former world no. 6 Gael Monfils, but only after Ramkumar came up with a straight-set win over current world no. 5 Dominic Thiem.
The pair will lead the charge on Wednesday. Among the current lot of players, Bhambri is the only one to have competed in the main draw of the Australian Open. The 25-year-old made it past the qualifying stage in 2015, losing to Andy Murray in the opening round. A year later, he found a direct entry to the main draw after breaking into the top 100, but falling to Tomas Berdych at the first hurdle.
Those were the only two occasions when Bhambri made it to the main draw of any Grand Slam.
Coincidentally, he had won the junior Australian Open title back in 2009.
Seeded 15th in the qualifiers, he will play world no. 185 Brayden Schnur of Canada, whom he had beaten in straight sets when India travelled to Edmonton for the Davis Cup World Group Playoff in September.
For Ramkumar, this will be the10th time that he will appear in the qualifying stage of a Slam – he’s never made it to the main draw. The world no. 141 will take on injury-prone American Bradley Klahn, a former world no. 63 who has now dropped to 219.
For the third-highest-ranked Indian Sumit Nagal (216), the last three months have thrown up many firsts in his career. In November, he won his first ATP Challenger, picking up the title at the $100,000 event in Bangalore.
Last week, at the inaugural Tata Open Maharashtra in Pune, the 20-year-old went past the qualifying round to reach the main draw of an ATP event for the first time. Now ranked 216, he will take on Italian Alessandro Giannessi, the world no. 161.
Prajnesh, meanwhile, will take on veteran German Tobias Kamke, the world no. 229 who was once as high as 64.
All four Indians travel to Melbourne after competing in Pune, a high-altitude venue with quick courts – speeds similar to those at the Australian Open. “It’s also quite hot there,” says SP Misra, chairman of the AITA selection committee, and former Davis Cup captain. “Indian players are used to the heat, so that will benefit them.” With Bhambri and Ramkumar seeded, they are joined in the qualifying draw by veteran Frenchman and two-time Grand Slam doubles champion Nicolas Mahut, competing as the second seed.
The mercurial Dustin Brown too features in the draw, along with erratic Australian Bernard Tomic, who was once ranked as high as 17 in the world. The last time an Indian featured in the main draw of a Grand Slam was when Saketh Myneni reached the first round of the US Open in 2016. Now there are four in the qualifiers, all buoyed by a decent run of form, competing for the 16 main draw slots among the 128 vying for it..”