After three years of leading India to the Davis Cup World Group Playoffs, non-playing captain Anand Amritraj’s time at the helm is coming to an end. Following the first round Group 1 tie against New Zealand at the Balewadi Stadium in Pune, the 65-year-old will step down and be replaced by Mahesh Bhupathi. Speaking on the sidelines of his ‘farewell’ tie, the outgoing captain talks about Indian tennis – from Leander Paes’ legacy to the complete lack of success in singles.
Excerpts from an interview:
In your time, players played both singles and doubles, have the roles become more specialised now?
Nowadays you have tiebreakers in every set. No set is going to go longer than an hour. I don’t see why (they can’t play all three days). You talk about ‘oh my God I’m so exhausted and can’t play doubles’ and this and that. To me it makes no sense at all. To play Davis Cup you need to be fit enough to play three days of best-of-five-set matches. If not, you really shouldn’t come. Our captain back then, Ramanathan Krishnan, never had to think that Anand or Vijay have to play all three days even in the remotest part of his mind.
How has Davis Cup changed for India?
When the country is not doing great, people are not into it as much. It’s the same thing in the US as here. They think they are not doing very well because they haven’t had anyone come after (Pete) Sampras, (Andre) Agassi, (Jim) Courier, (Michael) Chang. But now they have three guys between 20-30 in the world. They think tennis is not doing very well in America. But if we had any one of those guys, we’d be extremely happy. It’s the same in India. We are used to having guys like Vijay (Amritraj) and Ramesh (Krishnan), world-class players. Now, our top guy is 190. For the people to get behind it, we need to do a little better.
Has it been a longer lull than you would have expected for a top-class singles player?
Realistically speaking, since Ramesh Krishnan, who was a top-20 player in the early 90s, who has been in the top-100 consistently for 10 years? Leander (Paes) was there once or twice. Somdev (Devvarman), one year here, one year there because he was injured. Yuki (Bhambri) twice. No one has been in the top-100 for five years. You see there are people in the top-100 like Malek Jaziri from Tunisia, Damir Dzhumur from Bosnia, Marsel Ilhan from Turkey. You are talking about countries like that, who have never picked up a racquet. And we are a country of 1.3 billion and we can’t produce a single guy in the top-100?
Do the players lack support staff?
To me it’s not 100 percent imperative. When we played, even Rod Laver did not have a coach. Even for Vijay and I, it never really crossed our minds. First of all, travelling by yourself is so expensive, let alone paying for someone else. That all came in the 80s, 90s. It’s become like an absolute necessity. It is more physical, yes, but at the top level. Still, the game hasn’t changed that much.
Is the motivation to drive towards excellence missing?
It baffles me as to what is missing. Nowadays you have to be a very good athlete, more than a tennis player. Every Indian guy hits the ball beautifully. Problem is movement. The two guys I have seen who moved very well were Somdev and Sanam (Singh). Sanam was restricted by his height, Somdev made the most of his talents and was India’s No 1 for 10 years. Yuki should be India’s No 1 for a long time, if he doesn’t get hurt. It’s one thing to twist your ankle and be out for a week, and another thing to be injured and be out for six months. Your ranking goes to c**p. Then you have try and stage a comeback, you have to be motivated to be it. You have to be a great athlete and move well. Or you have to be someone like John Isner, 6’10 and rain down the serves.
Is it a worry that the immediate Indian icons are doubles specialists?
That is a big worry for us. Doubles is after 35. If you have had a good singles career, once you start to slow down, you can go into doubles. But for guys like Purav Raja and Divij Sharan, that is their only focus because they know they are not going to make it in singles. And now finally at the age of 30 they are in a good position. All credit to them, they slogged it out for three years playing the Challengers and all that. So phenomenal effort by both the guys. Focus is on doubles because it’s a much easier way to make a living.
What’s Leander Paes’ legacy in Indian tennis?
One way or another, he’s managed to inspire a lot of people. He’s not Ramanathan Krishanan, Vijay Amritraj or Ramesh Krishnan. They were far better players. But what he’s done through publicity, good PR machine and all that, he’s brought tennis to the masses. None of these three guys did that.
But he’s won Grand Slams in doubles and mixed doubles and because of all the hoopla around it, tennis has now caught on. People who don’t know tennis, know Leander Paes. That’s what he’s done for the game. Whereas all of us, did talking with the racquet, basically. He did quite well in Davis Cup as well, in singles.
Have the problems between Leander-Mahesh left a big scar on Indian tennis?
I don’t think so, but most people are wondering why it happened. It hurt them more than anybody else. It cost them three-four Grand Slams. In 1999, they were the No 1 team in the world. They could have won an Olympic gold, and a couple of more Grand Slams. But they let time go by and by 2008 it was too late. It wasn’t a lasting problem for Indian tennis though.
Does the doubles controversy deflect from the fact that India is not doing much in singles?
Our problem in singles doesn’t have much to do with anything else. It’s an individual problem. All the doubles controversies were because of personal issues between these guys, they just don’t like each other. Every team has its issues and personality clashes though, but singles is a whole different problem.
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