Finn Tearney and Jose Statham practice their ground strokes on the first outer court, topless. On a hot day at the Balewadi Stadium, the chiselled, ripped torsos of New Zealand’ Davis Cup singles players is the first sight you’d see when you approach the tennis arena.
Their individual rankings — Tearney is 414 and Statham is 417 —may show them as underdogs going into Asia Oceania Group 1 tie but their sharp and groomed bodies exhibit a highly-focused fitness regimen.
It’s the first day of practice, and the Indians have occupied courts two and four. The physical difference between the two teams is stark. India’s highest ranked singles player Saketh Myneni (205) can’t help but rotate his right shoulder at regular intervals — testimony to chronic shoulder problems. Yuki Bhambri sports a brace under his right elbow — symbolic of his recent struggle with tennis elbow that sidelined him for six months.
The reserve player Prajnesh Gunneswaran has had his own run-ins with knee injuries that ate up five years from his professional career, and 22-year-old Ramkumar Ramanathan is seen slouching in posture. Somdev Devvarman was Indian tennis’ athletic specimen but he has retired now and so the onus of victory falls on an injury-hit group of players who struggle to max their potential due to lack of support.
The pursuit of success on tour now requires players to travel with a coach and trainer to take care of the game and the body. It’s an expensive proposition and currently, none of India’s top three singles players have the benefit of a well chalked out fitness plan. Travelling with an entourage that includes fitness trainers, as is the wont in professional tour, is a luxury the Indian singles players cannot enjoy since their low ranks don’t allow them entry into bigger events. They have to resort to the ATP Challenger events, ATP 250s or the qualifying stages of the Grand Slams. Myneni is India’s highest ranked player at 205, followed by Ramkumar at 276 and Bhambri at 368.
So far, in the current season, Myneni and Ramkumar have pocketed $5680 in prize money through their singles and doubles matches, while Bhambri has won $7640. In turn, the charges of a physical trainer, on average, comes to $2000 per week (travel expenses excluded).
“You have to choose between travelling with a coach or trainer, which is tough because both are important,” explains Zeeshan Ali, coach of the Davis Cup team. “If you have a trainer to keep you fit, but not a coach to correct the mistakes you’re making, you won’t win matches to afford a trainer. If you have a good coach and you’re winning more matches, that’ll take a toll on your body and you need a trainer to keep you in shape.”
Bhambri is on the lookout for a replacement after his regular trainer got married and stopped travelling. Myneni has a trainer based in the United States whom he shares with other players on tour.
“That way I don’t have to worry about travel expenses since I share the physio with other guys,” says the 29-year-old. “But it’s difficult to share a trainer with someone for three-four weeks and have the same schedule.” Another setback, strangely, is Myneni’s towering six-foot four height.
“Trainers from here aren’t exposed to that height range. At Saketh’s height, everything becomes specific and the exercises you would use for someone at six-feet will not be as helpful for someone like him,” asserts Vece Paes, the former team doctor of the Davis Cup team.
Ramkumar has been the most privileged among the athletes as he has been funded since he was 14. Now 22, the Chennai-lad who had once defeated Devvarman in the first round of the Chennai Open 2014, has plateaued. Though he is considered the fittest on the team, his off-court preparation has kept him down.
“He’s a hard worker on court, but off it, he’s a slacker,” says Karti Chidambaram, vice-president of the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA), the body that has been Ramkumar’s long-time sponsor.
“He needs to understand the physicality of the game and his problem is that he hasn’t been able to settle down with a coach. But he’s also not the easiest person to get along with.”
Singles, fit or unfit, is in sharp focus in the Davis Cup week where four singles ties get played. A country conditioned to looking only to doubles for recent international success struggles to figure out a way to propel even one of its singles players into the Top 100 consistently. The sad news is that it only seems to get worse year after year.