Tennis talent in singles is drying up in India with most players following the trend set by Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza. These four big names have overseas players as their doubles partners and their shared success is erroneously deemed as Indian achievement. We gloat over Sania’s no.1 status in women’s doubles or about Leander, Mahesh or Bopanna winning numerous doubles titles but it is forgotten that all of them have a foreign prop. Leander and Sania are lucky to have Swiss star Martina Hingis as their current partner, who is largely instrumental in their recent successes. After football, Tennis holds the maximum money and victory in even doubles matches fetches lots of money. The media, however, quietly joins in emotional Indian celebrations, when Sania Leander, Mahesh or Bopanna happen to win doubles matches even though such victories only fatten the players’ coffers. The budding youngsters pick up wrong cues and no one wants to pursue a singles career after watching how their peers have amassed millions of dollars just by playing doubles. It is obvious that the lure for individual riches overshadows national glory. Somdev Devvarman is ATP’s highest ranked Indian player at no.178 but in July 2011, he held the 62nd spot. This shows Devvarman’s downslide over the years and at 31 years of age, he is not getting any younger.
In the light of above, the run of Chennai-born Ramkumar Ramanathan in the ongoing Aircel Chennai Open has to be seen as a refreshing change. For the past 5 years, the 21-year old Ramanathan is training at the Barcelona-based Sanchez-Casal Tennis Academy, where world no.2 Andy Murray also once trained. He entered the Chennai Open main draw as a wildcard and had his first match against Spain’s Daniel Gimeno-Trevor. The Indian scored an easy 6-2, 6-0 victory over Gimeno-Trevor and came face to face with Russian qualifier Alexander Kudryavtsev. The 30-year old Russian himself came in as a lucky loser after South African Kevin Andersen pulled out due to injury. Despite his world no.184 status, Kudryavtsev was still 84 spots higher than the 248th ranked Indian. Ramanathan had a nervous start to the match and committed several avoidable errors in the first set, which he lost 3-6. The second set went on serves until 3-3. In the seventh game on the Russian’s serve, Ramanathan brought the score to deuce. It was a long game that went to deuce five times. Finally, Kudryavtsev cracked and lost his serve. That one break was enough for Ramanathan to take the match to the decider. In the final set, Ramanathan raised his game several notches. Forehand is the Indian’s strong point and it began working to his advantage. With accuracy and power restored to his game, Ramanathan started hitting the balls back into Kudryavtsev’s court. He got the much-needed break to lead 5-4 and served out for a 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory that took him to the quarterfinals.
After becoming only the third Indian to reach the Chennai Open QF in 20 years, Ramanathan played against 2015 runner-up Aljaz Bedene of Great Britain. The Indian had gained in confidence after his pre-quarterfinal triumph over Kudryavtsev and carried the tempo into the first set, which went to the tiebreak. The Chennai youngster had a set point as he led 6-5 in the tiebreak. A weak service return from Bedene gave Ramanathan his chance and he produced a classic top-spinning forehand that Bedene played back with a weak backhand into the net. But the Indian couldn’t consolidate on the gain as Bedene suddenly changed gear and began to dominate. In trying to run around the court in the Chennai heat, Ramanathan burnt excess energy and his game was affected. Also since he relied heavily on forehand, he needed to cover extra distance. Bedene saw all that and changed his tactics. The Indian lapsed into errors and allowed his opponent to steal the advantage from him despite holding two break points in the seventh game of second set. But Bedene came back into the game and won the match 6-7, 6-4, 6-3 to a huge disappointment of local supporters.
When the match was over, Ramanathan was still greeted with wild cheers as he made his way down the tunnel to players change rooms. His entry into men’s singles quarterfinals was no mean achievement for someone from India in a long time. In a country bereft of singles players, Ramkumar Ramanathan’s performance at Chennai needs encouragement and tactical support. India’s Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali feels that Ramanathan has the potential to move further in ATP ranking if he starts playing challenger and ATP tournaments rather than focusing on Futures matches conducted by ITF. With Devvarman losing his hold in the game, 21-year old Ramanathan offers a new promise to Indian tennis.