Not so sporty

AS A sports enthusiast, and as an Indian, I have constantly wondered why my nation, the second most populous in the world, is a sporting midget.

By Rahul Singh (Issues)

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Published: Wed 27 Feb 2013, 8:43 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:13 PM

Forget cricket, which is hardly an international sport, since it is seriously played by just nine countries. In chess, we have a world champion, no doubt. But is chess a sport? Debatable.

Similarly, in billiards and snooker there are Indians who vie with the best in the world. But in my view, billiards hardly figures as a ‘sport’. We have just one individual Olympics gold medal to our credit, in shooting. Even in field hockey, which we once dominated, India is now nowhere. China, on the other hand, has become a sporting giant, second in the last Olympics medal tally, after the USA. Even in a discipline like gymnastics, which China took up fairly recently, it is now among the world’s best.

These gloomy thoughts have been swirling in my mind after a recent visit to Delhi, where India was playing a Davis Cup tie against South Korea. I watched “live” the only match that India won, the doubles, thanks mainly to veteran Leander Paes. In the other four singles, the Koreans made mincemeat of their Indian opponents. South Korea is a tennis minnow, whereas India has figured in two Davis Cup finals.

In this sport, too, take a look at China. The Chinese took to it fairly recently. Yet, a Chinese woman, Lin Yi, is a “Grand Slam” (one of the four major titles) winner. India, which has been playing tennis for generations, has never produced a “Grand Slam” winner, not even a finalist. The closest an Indian player came to getting that coveted honour was when Ramanathan Krishnan reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon twice. However, that was not in the “open” era. When he played, “professionals” were barred from playing in the major tournaments – and many of the top players of the world then were professionals. In the “open” era, India’s best player was Vijay Amritraj. And he only reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.

Ironically, he won the Wimbledon juniors crown, and as a youngster was spoken in the same breath as his contemporaries, Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors, both of whom went on to become “greats” of the sport. In fact, the three were nicknamed the “ABC” of tennis, after the first letters in their surnames. So, how come Indians do exceptionally well as juniors – Premjit Lal, Jaideep Mukherjee and Leander Paes also won junior Wimbledon crowns – but fade out later? Basically, two main reasons: lack of fitness, and not enough motivation. Modern tennis calls for very high levels of fitness, strength and stamina. Matches lasting over five hours are not uncommon. Most top-notch players are also close to, or over, two metres tall. The days of shorter and lesser-built players, such as former greats Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, are long over.

Strength and height don’t play such a significant part with women players – though those who have faced the awesome Serena Williams would disagree – but fitness certainly does. Take Sania Mirza, the best woman player that India has ever produced. At one time, when she was just 19, she was ranked 31 in the world. India expected her to get into the top 10 and perhaps make a serious bid for a “Grand Slam”.

Lin Na, on the other hand, was then ranked 57. Sania beat her in the semi-finals of the 2006 Doha Asian Games. Soon after, Lin moved to another level. In 2011, she became the first Asian woman to win a “Grand Slam”, the French Open. And just the other day, she reached the final of another “Grand Slam”, the Australian Open, for a second time. Though 31, which is considered old by tennis standards, she is ranked five in the world. Sania, five years younger, is nowhere in singles. She mainly confines herself to doubles, where she admittedly does well.

However, international recognition and fame comes not in doubles, only in singles. Borg, for instance, hardly played any doubles. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, were in their time an outstanding doubles combination and won all the four “Grand Slams”. They were on a par with the American Bryan brothers. True, Paes and Bhupathi have made a great deal of money from their doubles wins, yet they don’t really figure among the “greats” of tennis.

India will only get a tennis “great” when he, or she, wins a “Grand Slam”. In my opinion, only one Indian has been an individual world-beater, though in a different sporting discipline, namely badminton. And that was Prakash Padukone, father of actress Deepika. He won the All-England title, widely considered as the world championships in which all the top players compete. He had the two qualities I mentioned earlier: Fitness and motivation. I rest my case.

Rahul Singh is the former Editor of Reader’s Digest, Indian Express, and Khaleej Times

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