For the first time in close to 25 years, two Indian tennis players feature in the top 150 of the world rankings — Somdev Devvarman (100) and Yuki Bhambri (145). While it certainly is not something to go head over heels about, but it sure does put into perspective the state of singles tennis in India. Bhambri’s recent form indicated that it was only a matter of time before he broke first into the top 150 and then the 100.
But his immediate ascent can be linked to him having won the Challenger tour event last week in Chennai.
For long, Indian players have been robbed off the opportunity to play meaningful tournaments at home that can help them earn crucial ranking points. Lack of tournaments forced most of them to shift their base abroad — Devvarman, Bhambri, Jeevan N, Sriram Balaji and Saketh Myneni spend most of their time in the USA, while youngster Ramkumar Ramanathan trains and stays in Barcelona.
Now, after a gap of six years, the All India Tennis Association (AITA) has decided to get back to hosting events at home again, with as many as three Challengers in three cities: Chennai (concluded last week), Kolkata (ongoing) and New Delhi (next week). The Challengers are sandwiched between the highest and lowest rungs of pro tennis — ATP Tour events and ITF Futures. Crucially, though, it is economical for the players, who are always on the road, zipping around the world in search of precious ranking points and constantly spending money from their own pockets.
In many ways, the number of Challengers hosted by a particular country is directly proportional to the number of players from its soil in the top 200. Last year, the USA hosted 16 Challengers events (apart from the ATP and Future events, of course). And the impact of conducting these tournaments is reflected in the fact that they have 17 players in the top 200. India, for a long time, had nothing to boast of apart from the Chennai Open.
The knob has hopefully begun to turn. Four Indians (Devvarman, Bhambri, Myneni and Sanam) reached the quarterfinals of the Chennai Challenger and 21-year-old Bhambri went on to clinch the title. The AITA says it will host three more Challenger events this year, taking the total count to six. Going by that aforementioned proportionality theory, then, a few more Indian inductions into the top 200 will not be a bad thing.
Mihir is a senior correspondent based in Mumbai