For the first time since 2005, there is no Sania Mirza at the Wimbledon. To our dismay, no one else has been able to fill in her shoes. Not only women but men, too have succumbed. India has a long history of participating at Wimbledon since 1908. However, over the past week, the Indian dream for Wimbledon has sadly crumbled.

SheThePeople.TV spoke to players and people associated with the sport in various capacities to understand what the possible reason behind this absence could be.

“Perhaps motherhood is also one among the many reasons we often see Indian Women athletes step aside from their career as against their counterparts.” – Pavithra Chandra

Asian Games silver medallist and former tennis player Shikha Uberoi, now an entrepreneur leading Indi.com says, “The road to Wimbledon is an arduous one. When an Indian woman does indeed make it to Wimbledon, it’s because of a confluence of factors including, but not limited to, access to sponsorship/funding of at least 1.5 Crores per year, superior training, an experienced traveling coach, mental coaching, and resources like rackets, clothing, shoes and elite nutrition.”

“Thus, India opening multiple academies is only one factor of the many that are needed to create great players who can not only step on the lawns but compete to win the entire slam,” Uberoi adds.

Who to blame?

Even Sania Mirza’s injury had led her to shift from singles and the trend, however, continued, till date. It is certainly risk-free to go for doubles. Given that playing singles can enhance performance meter, why players are shifting the category? Uberoi claims that the other reason has to be the Tennis Associations in the country, which have not been able to create the much-needed awareness. “Till Indian women don’t get the aforementioned basics that other nation’s players receive, you will continue to see our ratios so poorly skewed,” she added.

Jaydip Sengupta, who was a former sports head at Indian Express, Kolkata and XPRESS tabloid of Gulf News in Dubai, explains, “It is not really a big surprise that Indian women’s tennis is in such dire straits right now. The heights Sania Mirza reached should have inspired a generation of players, but instead what we have is a racquet sport which has fallen behind badminton and even table tennis in terms of success and popularity among Indians girls. The likes of Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu in badminton and Monica Batra in table tennis are grabbing the limelight, while tennis has fallen way behind. Over the past couple of years, the number of ITF Challengers and Futures tournaments in India have reduced as well, leaving aspiring women’s tennis players with little to look forward to. It is time the AITA took a long, hard look at its roadmap before it is too late.”

Muskan Sethi, a professional poker player says, “It’s 2018, and the country’s education system acknowledges a sport based on its popularity and viewership. It’s hard for other sports in our country to get noticed or recreate 1983 Cricket World Cup boom and passion.”

“The more business a sport can create, the more attention it gets!” – Sethi

Challenges

Pavithra Chandra, former national and international basketball player and founder of the International Basketball Player Academy feels, “Funding still remains the number one challenge for Indian Tennis players and more so for women players. Thus, we stand a threat to miss out on potential talent, even before being identified.”

“There has been substantial monetary support from AITA, government or respective state associations to a few top-seeded players, it is barely good enough to take them perhaps up to elite championships but in order to sustain at these championships, they require huge professional backing and the likes of corporates and other sources because the equation to sustain performance and expenses change at these levels,” she explained.

Aspirants mostly avoid true-calling

Women players need to start training much early in their careers. And, family’s support is a necessity. Girls need support at home to make it big, professionally. Sethi claims, “Budding talent should be celebrated and encouraged by the society at an early age so they can evolve as champions. Specially girls face more challenges in navigating their way into sports as a professional.”

“These days kids prefer to get into something exciting, futuristic and rewarding. It’s going to be challenging to give our country’s youth a vision into the future as a successful sportsperson vs a .com Millionaire!” Sethi explains.

Sethi feels that “every child needs a role model to look up to, for inspiration and to develop a healthy mindset. It’s discouraging to see that our school’s sports day stars never make it as world-famous athletes or pursue sports professionally.”

“If we had more popular tennis players in the past, we would have seen India in the Wimbledon Finals.” – Sethi

“Sport facilities, recognition, opportunities and encouragement should be naturally presented to every child by the system created around them,” she added.

India has not seen a female singles player competing in the singles Grand Slams since Sania Mirza’s first round loss at the 2012 Australian Open. Chandra says, “Champions are not made overnight. It is an invested process, a responsibility that primarily lies in the hands of the governing bodies, in that nation, to be supported by the government. Lack of desired results directly reflects the discrepancy of the system followed.”

“Talent identification and nurturing programs are crucial for building world-class athletes, consistently. But non- existence of such strong programs will witness an imbalance in our production of elite athletes,” she added.

Sania Mirza Interview
Saina Mirza, tennis player ( Picture Credit: indiatoday.in)

A big vacuum in Indian tennis

Many aspirant players do not make it big due to lack of mentoring. Having a good staff of development coaches is wonderful when the aim is to only teach the basics. But for Grand Slams one needs to be coached by an expert who knows overseas strategies.

“Our government should provide free for all, well-equipped and spacious sport centres in every city,” said Sethi.  “The well-developed academies area a must-have. They can train and guide children to follow the correct path if they wish to take it up professionally,” she added.

The problem also lies in the level of recognition the sport has and most importantly, the financial challenges that hold players back.

Neha Aggarwal, the only Indian woman to represent India in table tennis at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games says, “Tennis is a very expensive sport. World-class coaching, tournament fees, equipment, etc. costs a lot and not many Indian parents would be willing to take up that cost at a professional level. Reaching the Wimbledon is a long journey which needs huge investment. Also, tennis is a physically enduring sport, and Indian athletes need world-class training to match the fitness levels with their counterparts in Europe and the US.”

What’s the solution?

According to Chandra, “Our women players have not had significant opportunities to experience International exposures. This plays a remarkable role in their confidence boosting and belief system that is required for world stage performance. For any country to inject talent at the world stage consistently, requires them to have a strong Junior program while maintaining their elite athletes well, as role models for the young.”

For any country to inject talent at the world stage consistently, requires them to have a strong Junior program while maintaining their elite athletes well, as role models for the young.

Talking about having the support from the authority, Chandra said, “When the governing body of the sport shift their mindset from merely taking responsibility for only hosting events and administration to a more patriotic mind with a pure obsession to grow the sport in the nation and an intent to see our players at world stage, unbiased by gender, it is then we stop wasting talent. Elite athletes have tremendous pressure to perform and to repeat that performance, hence we must create a system that shares this pressure with them so that every athlete can give her 100%.”

So how should we support our champions then? And, how much value and encouragement do they require from families to exterminate the fear of failure and embracing the fun, “To play at the Wimbledon, one needs to first fight many battles along the way and needs expert coaching all along the way. There is a dearth of such coaches in India. To get our Indian women to play at the Wimbledon, we need an ecosystem to produce tennis champions which is missing in India,” Aggarwal claimed.

“To get our Indian women to play at the Wimbledon, we need an ecosystem to produce tennis champions which is missing in India” –Neha Aggarwal

Given how many tennis academies have come up, why are Indian women not making it to the Wimbledon? 

Chandra feels, “We have to understand that having many academies does not directly result in world-class players, however, it surely can be one of the preliminary factors. Talent scouting happens here because until then even talent does not know it has talent. It is what we do after scouting the talent that matters in order for the quality. This is why an elite nurturing program plays an important part in creating world-class players along with early exposures.”

Deepak Kumar, a Mysore-based Tennis coach, says, “Not only Wimbledon, but in any grand slam Indian women are failing to reach up to that level except Sania Mirza. In India, the total number of girls are very less in AITA Tournaments of any level. Fewer participants mean the level of the competition is meek. In Junior section we at least get a minimum number of girls to play but once they cross 18, most of the girls stop practising. In India except for cricket no one will come forward for sponsorship. Organising women’s tennis tournaments is also demotivating.”

Picture By: Robert Katzi-Unsplash

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