Yuki, Somdev and, now, Ramkumar, have ensured that India have more options on the first day of the Davis Cup, and the country’s singles players are at home on hard courts. Raakesh Natraj says Indian tennis is no longer doubles-centric or grass-obsessed.
You immediately notice that Yuki Bhambri has bulked up recently. You find this reassuring in the same irrational way that the sight of Michael Carrick sporting a Pirlo-esque beard becalms a Manchester United fan seconds after being confronted with the line up of the side and the composition of the back four on television.
Even as you realise that a player’s ability to generate power — long acknowledged to be aspects that Yuki would have to incorporate in his game to make the next step — is only marginally, if at all, dependent on sheer physical size, the change, nonetheless, reassures you.
“If that was the case, then you would have wrestlers winning tournaments. It is a balance of everything. I can run for five hours or hit a tennis ball at 200 kilometers an hour but if I do not know what to do on a 30-all point, it makes no sense having that strength or speed. In today’s sport, the strength part is not about hitting the ball harder but being able to last out there,” he says, later.
But in the first few moments, an equation forms in your head: a beefed up Yuki equals a fitter, stronger Yuki. This optimism may be illogical, but it is not extravagant. You do not expect Yuki 2.0 to go collect a Grand Slam or two right after he towels off at the gym. Even he doesn’t expect to. (See Box) But you wonder if an improved Yuki would not go someway in putting back together something that is very nearly broken.
Tennis, a team sport
Over the years, Indian tennis’ best moments on the international stage have, invariably, come in the Davis Cup. Despite quality singles players trickling in once in a generation, India have been plucky over-achievers in the Cup, having thrice made the final. The last of these final appearances, however, came in 1987, when India had arguably its most rounded Cup side — Ramesh Krishnan and Vijay Amirtraj were the first-choice singles players while Anand Amirtraj partnered his brother in the doubles rubbers.
Coinciding with the drought in singles talent since the 90s (making a brief exception for the time when Leander Paes rose up to No. 78 in the rankings before giving up singles altogether), India’s performances in the Cup have also tapered off. The side is currently ranked 26th in the ITF list, behind Romania, Israel and Ecuador, and had to stave off Indonesia in a Asia/Oceania Group 1 relegation play-off last year.
In so far as the Davis Cup still retains a certain level of significance, the last few months have provided Indian hopes in the international event some buoyancy. Since his return from an ankle injury in August-September last year, 21-year-old Yuki has steadily moved up the singles ranking on the back of a good run of form.
He made the quarterfinal of the ATP 250 Chennai Open, beating the 16th- and 64th-ranked players in the world along the way, and won the Challenger in Chennai last week, beating India’s top singles player Somdev Devvarman in the semifinal. The ATP’s ranking cycle is annual, meaning that Yuki has no points to defend until August and there is a good chance he will be able to push on from his current high of 143 to break into the top-100 soon.
“I have this sort of gap now (until August) where I can play freely, enjoy, take a few risks, play bigger tournaments and hopefully pick up points. It (top 100) is definitely possible, but it is not going to be easy,” says Yuki.
If indeed it does happen, India, in Somdev (ranked 96 currently, but could improve because of his run at the Delhi Challenger) and Yuki, could have two players in ATP’s top-100 list for the first time in a really long while.
“We have recently struggled to put up two singles players (in the Davis Cup team). There has been Somdev and we have struggled to find a good second player. But Yuki has upped his game this year and the confidence has come with the results. We may not have two great singles players, but soon we will have two solid players, who, on a given day, can upset a higher-ranked player,” says Zeeshan Ali, the coach of the Indian Davis Cup side.
The emergence of 19-year-old Ramkumar Ramanathan, who beat Somdev at the Chennai Open and has moved up to 407 in the world in little time, has Zeeshan excited too. “Ramkumar is a huge talent. He definitely has the potential to be in the top 100. He has a big serve and a good physique too,” he says.
In a way, both of India’s promising singles players have benefited from being exposed to the Western circuits early in their career. Ramkumar has trained at the Sanchez-Casal academy in Barcelona since he was 17 and Yuki was a part of the IMG Bollettieri academy in Florida for a few years.
The exposure, the availability and affordability of support staff (Yuki has a trainer accompanying him on tour while Ramkumar has just begun his association with a personal coach while on the circuit), and the homogenisation of surfaces and equipment, has helped more-and-more Indian players stay within touching distance of the international competition. But ironically, these developments have also, over time, blunted whatever edge India held in Davis Cup ties.
Hard court tournaments dominate the international calender and historically, India, with its fairly robust tradition of lawn tennis, had in its ranks several players who were brought up on grass courts. Visiting teams, who would otherwise very rarely visit India, had to contend with an unfamiliar country, playing surface and even equipment. All that has, of course, changed now.
“We have had a good Davis Cup record (in the past) but part of that advantage was because the home matches were played on grass courts. Now it is played on the hard courts and people who visit are comfortable playing on them,” says Ramesh Krishnan.
“The only advantage we have now is the crowd. In 1987, when we made the final, leading up to Australia in the semifinal, we played all our games at home. Half the battle was won when we announced we would be playing on grass,” says Zeeshan. “Now, it is the same hard courts and even the same ball. Earlier, the balls we used in home ties were made in India. Even that was unfamiliar to the visiting side. Now, we are in Asia Zone I and a lot of the Asian players are used to playing in India. They know the conditions and the players. There are no surprises left.”
When the world is flat, there is no edge to be had, except perhaps in quality. If Somdev doesn’t slide away in the near future (he is 29 now), and if Yuki and Ramkumar keep their promise, India might yet get its bite back, as the Davis Cup underdog.