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Players and AITA need to come together for Indian tennis to improve, says Purav Raja

India won’t have a singles player at the Australian Open after Yuki Bhambri, Prajnesh Gunneswaran, Ramkumar Ramanathan and Ankita Raina all exited by the second round in qualifying. Bhambri and Gunneswaran reached the second round but couldn’t go further. Ramanathan, fresh from a doubles title alongside Rohan Bopanna, has had 23 attempts at making the main draw of a major and faced disappointment in each of them.

Gunneswaran played the 2020 Australian Open main draw while Sumit Nagal, missing due to a hip surgery, reached the first round of the 2021 edition in Melbourne.

“The pandemic definitely didn’t help us. It hindered us completely in terms of the tournaments played and where we make our points. And every player finds it easier to make points in their home surroundings. And we’ve had no tournaments in Asia to do that. So we’ve had no access to the outside world, and we have no access to tournaments. I guess the rankings are a little bit deflated at the moment. And it’s not a fair analysis of where the players are today. At the same time, Indian tennis definitely needs work. I’m not going to hide away from that problem,” said doubles specialist Purav Raja in a call organised by Sony Network.

One issue that Raja, and many others in Indian tennis, highlight is the lack of tournaments in the country. In 2014, India hosted five Challenger tournaments, four in 2015, three in 2018 and two in 2019. By 2020, it had dwindled to just one and zero in 2021. This year, Bengaluru is slated to host two weeks of Challenger tournaments in February. The ATP 250 tour event, a near certainty for two decades across Chennai and Pune, wasn’t held in 2021 due to COVID-19 but will be back on 31 January this year.

Many of the fingers are pointed at All India Tennis Association (AITA), the administrative body for tennis in the country. “The question is what is happening at every level? The question is not ‘are you doing three Futures?’ It is ‘What’s the gap for the next three? AITA was ever hosting, you know, 10 Challengers, 20 Futures and three tournaments. We have to build a system. We keep hearing ‘last year we had three Futures, this year we had four. Last year we had zero Challengers, this year we had one.'”

“The answer is, if you want top-100 players, which you obviously do, and I obviously do, then we have to build a new system. It’s like ‘last time he got a duck, today we got two runs, but we’re trying to be Sachin Tendulkar. It’s not going to work. We’re still far away from the goal. I’m not saying the problem is not the players. But the thing is, we’d like to hear their side of (story), where we can get together and improve,” added the 36-year-old.

On the doubles front, the baton for the country continues to be held by Bopanna and Sania Mirza. Rohan turns 42 in March with Mirza 35 and continuing to push the limits of a professional athlete.

“The good thing is whether it’s Divij (Sharan), whether it’s myself, whether it’s people coming through the system, in doubles I’m more optimistic. I see a future because we’ve all done it before. We can easily do it again. Rohan, Sania, they’re stalwarts of the game, they have played every Grand Slam for years.

“In doubles, it’s about breaking into the system. In doubles, once you’re in, you can win matches and consistently be there. Our tough part in singles or doubles is to break in. We are struggling with breaking (in) even in doubles. But I’m hopeful because a lot of us are sitting at 120-130 in rankings. While we’re looking down the barrel in singles at 190 to 400. So that is a worrisome part for me,” he concluded.

Raja alongside Somdev Devvarman and Gaurav Natekar will be the pundits on Sony Network for the 2022 Australian Open.

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