Asian Games 2018: Combination of Youth and Experience Inspires Hope for India’s Charge in Tennis
Leander Paes is a towering name in Indian tennis that needs no introduction. Like old wine, he seems to get better with age, which reflects his excellent work ethics and enviable commitment to fitness.
At the age of 45, Paes is raring to add another feather to his cap at the imminent 2018 Asian Games that kicks off on August 18 in Jakarta.
Marking his return at Asian Games since the year 2006, Paes stands tall in the 12-member squad as India’s most successful player – with a tally of 8 medals at the sporting event.
Break-down of Paes’s Medal Tally
Here’s a quick run-down of how Paes has fared at the Asian Games.
Bronze in team’s event in 1990
Bronze in men’s singles (1994)
Gold in men’s doubles with Bhupathi (2002 and 2006)
Shiny yellow in men’s doubles with Gaurav Natekar (1994)
Gold in men’s team (1994)
Bronze in mixed doubles with Sania Mirza (2002)
Gold in mixed doubles with Sania Mirza (2006)
Asian Games – A Happy Hunting Ground for Indian Tennis
Tennis has traditionally seen some of India’s best performance at the Asian Games. Ranked 5th in all-time medal tally, the Indian team has won an impressive 29 medals at the event.
Our first ever medal at this event was won in 1978 when Chiradip Mukerjea and Shyam Minotra won a bronze medal in men’s doubles.
Notably though, the lion’s share of India’s medal tally have come via doubles events. While India hasn’t done too badly in single’s event either, gold has largely eluded them.
As a case in point, India’s lone gold was bagged way back in 2010 Asian Games at Guangzhou by Somdev Devvarman.
The next best performance came from Sania Mirza when she won the silver medal in 2006.
With some exciting prospects, the entire nation is looking to forward to seeing its young guns setting the stage on fire.
Talking of prospects, this is one of the few sporting events where India can realistically look to strike gold – literally.
Two big names will be missing from action at the event – the 23rd ranked Kei Nishikori from Japan – and Hyeon Chung (25) of South Korea.
To start with, Japan, which has been the most successful nation (in tennis performance) at the Games, will be fielding a very raw squad.
India’s chances will be bolstered by the fact that 2014 Asian Games Champion Yoshihito Nishioka would not be defending his title.
China and Uzbekistan are the only two countries to field their strongest squads at the event. At a ranking of 78, Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan is the lone top-100 athlete in the men’s draw.
Meanwhile China’s 4 leading players – spearheaded by Ze Zhang (ranked 169) – would be travelling to Palembang. Other than that, the competition is likely to be very close.
Zeeshan Ali, the coach of India’s men’s team, agrees when he says, “It will be a close competition because everyone after that is almost at the same level.”
Youngsters Leading the Pack
Sumit Nangal at an event (PTI).
The most exciting takeaway for India is that there’s no dearth of young talent in the squad – with eight of the 12 players being below the age of 25.
Moreover, six of these players are women – which is another promising sign considering the fact that Mirza was India’s last female tennis sensation, more than a decade ago.
In the women’s squad, the average age is 21.66 in the absence of soon-to-be-mother Mirza.
Come back to men’s events, the Indian team is not focusing too much on the absence of its leading singles player Yuki Bhambri, who was allowed by the All India Tennis Association (AITA) to skip the Asian Games to focus on the US Open, which gets underway on August 27.
In his absence, the 118 ranked Ramkumar Ramanathan is touted as India’s next best bet.
The big-hitting Ramkumar has had a decent run over the past few weeks, entering the finals of the ATP Newport tournament in July 2018 thanks to his skillful net game – the first Indian to do so since Somdev Devvarman back in 2011.
He also attained his best ever ranking of 111 in the same month.
Doubles over Singles
Despite sending a strong set of single’s players in Prajnesh Gunneswaran, Ramkumar and rookie Sumit Nagal, India’s double’s team is expected perform far better, as usual – led by Paes and the supremely talented Rohan Bopanna.
Initially, Bopanna was set to pair with another double’s specialist Divij Sharan, while Sumit Nagal was picked as Paes’ partner.
However, Ramkumar has vocalized his strong interest in pairing up with the champion veteran.
However, Coach Ali clarified that a final decision will be taken after considering key factors such as form and fitness into consideration.
In an interview with the ATI, he said, “I will have a chat with the players when we reach there and then take a decision. There are a lot of different aspects to it. I don’t want to take any decision now but there is a possibility, considering, that Ram and Leander have played together in the past and know each other’s game well.”
Both players have only paired once with each other when they reached the quarterfinals of the Pune Challenger a couple of years back.
Ever since, Paes has mainly assumed a mentorship role vis-à-vis Ramkumar.
Bopanna – Quiet Vengeance
Meanwhile the 38-year-old Bopanna has no shortage of incentive and will be itching to win his first ever medal at the Asian Games.
The added motivation comes from the fact that despite performing consistently well– the most notable being his celebrated victory at the 2017 French Open – the coveted Arjuna Award has eluded him for some inexplicable reason.
Matters became more complicated last year when he was ignored for the national sports award, which went to Saketh Myneni, who had won gold in mixed doubles with Mirza at the 2014 Asian Games.
If he’s fit, Bopanna is expected to pair with the left-handed Sharan, who had bagged bronze at the men’s doubles with Bhambri four years back. Ranked 38, Sharan has played remarkably well this year, even entering the quarterfinal of 2018 Wimbledon alongside Artem Sitak.
Women’s Team – A Tough Road Ahead
Karman Kaur Thandi and Ankita Raina are seen as India’s strongest contenders for medals at the women’s events.
As India’s top-ranked woman, Raina broke into the top 200 (touching her all-time peak of 181 in May) in April, becoming the fifth Indian woman to do so.
Similarly, the 20-year old Karman recently won her first ITF-level Hong Kong tournament this June, marking her first final win over five tournament finals.
However, things aren’t expected to go smooth for the ladies as the women’s event will witness some top-notch competition.
For starters, Raina is yet to win her first WTA title, despite showing good prospects, Secondly, Karman is yet to feature in a senior Grand Slam tournament. Her only outing for India was in the 2018 Fed Cup.
Ankita Raina, Karman Thandi and Ramkumar ramanathan for Asian Games.
Against this backdrop, they may find it tough to go past players like China’s Shuai Zhang(rank 32) and Qiang Wang(rank 53).
Serious challenge is also likely to be posed by Thailand’s Luksika Kumkhum (93) and Sabina Sharipova (124) from Uzbekistan.
The silver lining is that the Asian Games is being tested as launching pad for India’s young, promising talent.
If things pan out the way they’re expected to, it may well end up being the perfect platform for the Indian women – and men – to show what they’ve got.
Regardless, competing against higher seeded players is only going to make them better players with a bright future.
India’s Tennis Contingent: Asian Games 2018
Women’s: Riya Bhatia, Karman Kaur Thandi, Ankita Raina, Rutuja Bhosale, Pranjala Yadlapalli and Prarthana Thombare.
Coach: Ankita Bhambri
Mens’: Leander Paes, Rohan Bopanna, Sumit Nagal, Ramkumar Ramanathan, Divij Sharan and Prajnesh Gunneswaran.
Coach: Zeeshan Ali
Indian Tennis Squad – Players and Officials have their say
Zeeshan Ali was announced as the coach as well as the captain for the Indian Tennis squad (men’s). The ladies will be coached by by Fed Cup captain Ankita Bhambri.
In an interview, Zeeshan told PTI that he will take a call on various combinations. He will only make his decisions close to the Games after assessing players’ form and fitness.
When asked the reason behind sending three singles players and not just two, since India can send only two entries, Zeeshan explained:
“God forbid, if some injury happens to Ramkumar or Prajnesh, Sumit can chip in and play the singles. He can also play doubles.”
“We did discuss the option of picking four doubles players to field two specialist pairs but these doubles players can’t play singles, if needed. That’s why we chose three singles players, who can also play doubles if required.”
Answering the question about Yuki’s exemption, AITA secretary Hironmoy Chatterjee said,
“The last Indian player who played Grand Slam singles was Somdev Devvarman. Now that this boy (Yuki) has got an opportunity to compete at the highest level, he needs to be supported.”
In the last edition, both Anand Amritraj and Zeeshan had gone as support staff members. But this time the latter has been entrusted with both the jobs.
Asked for the reason, Chatterjee said they are only following guidelines.
“Only 20 percent of the total size of a team can travel with the team as others (support staff). In our case we have 12 players, so 20 percent is three. But we requested them to accommodate at least two captains and two physios for our two teams.”
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