View Review: Why India’s top tennis players move to doubles is not a healthy sign

When compiling a list of the best male tennis players of this or any other era, which names come to mind most easily?

Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer. If we go back in time, it could be Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Go even further back and you’ll find Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Rod Laver.

None of these legends played doubles, at least not exclusively. This rather arbitrary grouping of greats may seem a little unfair to those who only ply their craft in the sport’s paired format, but it cannot be denied that unqualified greatness can only be achieved through excellence on the singles court.

So it makes the decision of some of India’s best contemporary tennis players – such as Yuki Bhambri, Arjun Kadhe and Saketh Myneni – to pursue only doubles from now on quite disappointing. Granted they are at a stage in their careers where they need to have a pragmatic view of the road ahead, but the move betrays a lack of ambition and seems more motivated by the financial bottom line and the drive to have a steady and have a decent salary with less wear and tear on their bodies.

Yuki Bhambri returns for Davis Cup. (File)

While hardly anyone starts playing tennis with doubles in mind from the start, Bhambri has admitted that the format is less physically demanding and involves less running, at least from side to side, and that matches rarely last longer than 90 minutes. There is less track to cover and less accuracy required with the aisles not considered trespassing. There is also less competition at the elite level, at least in the early rounds of regular tour events, often recouping their travel and accommodation costs. It’s also easier on the mind because you have a partner to bounce ideas on the track, in stark contrast to singles where you have to deal with the issues yourself when the going gets tough. It’s easier to move up the ranks in doubles than in singles, where talented players are popping up all over the world.

They would rather make the switch now than regret ending their careers, while also not being able to live off doubles. Tennis is a sport where you have to spend your own money to travel the world and compete, but not everyone has deep enough pockets to fund that, especially when the returns are not forthcoming. It’s no fun going through qualifying rounds every week and losing in the first round of the main draw when you get a wildcard.

The decision can be compared to several international cricketers today refusing central contracts with their boards to become freelancers to play in franchise leagues that are springing up all over the world. Or golfers who turn their backs on the daily grind of the regular tours for the big and confident checks offered by the upstart LIV league. Most players who choose these options realize their best days are behind them and would like a big payday before ending their careers. It offers a better financial incentive with a less hectic schedule and more time to spend with the family.

Struggling to make an impact

Quitting a career in singles to focus on doubles is not just a feature of men’s tennis. Sania Mirza made the switch and reaped the rewards in the form of Grand Slam titles and a world No. 1 ranking. The reasons for giving up bachelors may be similar – injuries, wear and tear and inadequate institutional support – but at least she left feeling her presence before doing so rose to a place in the top 30 and was even placed with a major. Her male counterparts, despite showing promise as juniors, barely made an impact at the top level. No one currently ranks in the top 200 of the ATP rankings, and no Indian has entered the main draw of a singles Grand Slam last year.

Apart from the three names who have decided to move into doubles full-time, it is not inconceivable that the likes of Ramkumar Ramnathan, Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan and Sriram Balaji could make the switch in the near future.

It is in this context that doubles specialist Rohan Bopanna’s initiative, in collaboration with a few others, to provide a structured and formal network of support to Indian doubles players wherever they play in the world has been seen. For a country that celebrated the exploits of Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes at the elite level, this is doubly pulling an emotional string. But you feel that the modern-day couple’s move is more of an effort to stay relevant longer on the tour than a goal to achieve the biggest accolades in the format.

The Davis Cup, Olympics and Asian Games medals – and the financial rewards that come with podium finishes – are often cited as reasons for a disproportionate focus on doubles. It is argued that when India is not making any impact in singles, one might as well focus on what has been a strong point relatively speaking.

But if you look at it soberly, India’s fortunes in the Davis Cup – when they face top teams – have long depended on the opposing team’s top players not showing up. They often keep hoping that the best player(s) from the major countries will skip the draw to give India a chance for a favorable result. And the situation is not likely to change until the country has a player in the top 50 of the singles ranking.

The Asian Games may bring singles medals, even gold (players of Kei Nishikori’s stature are unlikely to appear there), but the Olympics are a different story, even in doubles.

There is a reason why, despite all their regular tour success, Paes, Bhupathi, Bopanna and Mirza had to endure repeated heartbreaks on the Olympic stage. A medal, preferably a gold one, is what lures Federer, Nadal and Stan Wawrinka to doubles once every four years. If they put their mind to it, they’re usually too good for doubles specialists – unless they’re generational talents like the American Bryan brothers. It just shows that they prefer to limit their efforts to single people to cope with the hectic schedule. McEnroe was an outlier who played a lot of doubles because he didn’t like to practice too much. Even in the Davis Cup, when a top singles player is used in a doubles match, the Indians often fall short.

The current situation gives Paes’ bronze medal in singles at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 even more shine, although unlike now many top players left the Games alone. He was also the last Indian to win an ATP singles title way back in 1998.

Institutional apathy

If it seems the players have decided to take the easy way out, they aren’t the only ones to blame. The All India Tennis Association has failed to provide a supportive framework for players, who are often left to fend for themselves when injured or struggling to make an impression. The country hosts an ATP World Tour, but it’s hard to maintain local interest when there are no players to support.

Emerging players need more opportunities and exposure to improve. But while they make their presence felt at the ITF level, they struggle when they go up against tougher opponents in the Challengers. It shows that Indian talent is not supported by the training and development aspects necessary for rapid advancement. There is a lack of well-equipped academies in India with the physical infrastructure, technical knowledge and attention to detail

But you can also say that where there is a will, there is a way. There are plenty of examples of players leaving the comfort zone of their home environment to go abroad to further their career. Tennis is now a global sport and quality individual players can come from anywhere. Who would have thought that a Tunisian female player, Ons Jabeur, would star on the tour, reaching multiple Grand Slam finals and rising to No. 2 in the world. She had to move to Belgium and France to fulfill her ambitions at a young age. It is known that Maria Sharapova is leaving Siberia for Nick Bollettieri academy in the United States.

They never had it easy in their formative years, but they had the ambition and drive to persevere. One must do whatever it takes to get better, if one wants it badly enough.

But if someone has had enough after a few setbacks and does not find the necessary support and finances, they give up on their dream and take the path that is easier on their body and wallet.

Giving up singles when one is under 30 years old for a less stressful option may be a pragmatic move, but mirrors everything that is wrong with Indian tennis. The easiest option is not always the best.

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