Indian tennis’ lacklustre 2016 – A report card

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Indian tennis’ lacklustre 2016 – A report card

Sania Mirza's phenomenal success and Leander Paes' completion of his mixed-doubles Career Grand Slam were the only news that brought cheer to Indian tennis fans in an otherwise insipid season.

Amidst all the staggering achievements that Indian tennis queen Sania Mirza had in 2016, a missed opportunity that she will always continue to rue is that of an Olympic medal. For every sportsperson, it is something to treasure forever and our Indian tennis exponents dreamed about it no less.

But what could have been a history-making moment became a shocking, regret-filled setback for the entire Indian tennis contingent. As Indian sports lovers kept on pining for a much-coveted medal from the mega-quadrennial Games, Mirza and Rohan Bopanna went close only to stumble at the very end.

What would hurt Sania more is how the Rio Games came while she was at the peak of her professional career, yet she could not capitalize on it. A dominant force in women’s doubles tennis, World No. 1 Mirza’s partnership with Bopanna was bereft of any shred of chemistry and it was very much laid bare in Brazil for all to see.

Tennis fans were aghast at the lack of co-ordination between the two and their atrocious patrolling at the net. One set away from the final, the Indian pair slumped to a miserable defeat at the hands of the American combine of Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram. That was probably the closest the 30-year-old Mirza as well as the 36-year-old Bopanna would ever come to an Olympic medal with very little chances of either of them being there in Tokyo in 2020.

The same applies to India’s evergreen legend Leander Paes, whose record seventh Olympic appearance lasted only a solitary match. Paired with Bopanna, the duo bowed out in the first round to the Polish team of Lukas Kubot and Marcin Matkowski in straight sets.

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The 43-year-old Paes, who has had a forgettable season in men’s doubles, was not even in contention initially as the 2016 selection procedure had its own share of drama, giving a stark reminder of the 2012 fiasco. 

Bopanna had submitted a request to the All India Tennis Association (AITA) to pick Asian Games mixed doubles gold medallist Saketh Myneni as his men’s doubles partner only to be turned down.

With hardly any training or competitive play together, it ended in a disaster. Barring the Davis Cup, they did not play in tandem anywhere. Eyebrows were raised when the Atlanta Olympic bronze medallist chose the World Team Tennis over practice right before the Games.

Mirza and Bopanna’s disharmonious display too was subjected to harsh criticism with the two having made no efforts to add to the scant time they got on court together at the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) held eight months back. 

Mirza unstoppable despite the SanTina split

While the Olympics were a collective failure, Sania Mirza soared higher and higher on the WTA circuit. 

She finished as the sole Year-End World No. 1 with her resume showing a sparkling eight titles earned in 2016 and this, despite an astonishing split with Martina Hingis in August.

Sophomore years are always the hardest in any sport especially if you have tasted success early on. The ruthless desire to carry on in the same vein when things go wrong might create an added pressure on the player or the team, thus ebbing away the confidence.

For Mirza and Hingis, popularly called Santina, who grabbed 14 titles including the Australian Open in 2016, it was always a tough act to follow up. With a whopping nine titles in their very first year together, the second season was always supposed to be a mighty challenge.

Going separate ways was the only option left when the winning touch went missing. Mirza joined forces with the 30-year-old Barbora Strycova, a player she had known from her junior days. It didn’t take her long to add to her burgeoning tally and the Indo-Czech pair emerged triumphant in two tournaments together.

Mixed doubles glory for Paes in an otherwise mundane season

Another Grand Slam for Indian tennis was brought by Paes, who completed his Career Grand Slam in mixed doubles at the French Open. For Paes and Hingis, who had triumphed at the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open in 2015, the Roland Garros was the only missing piece left from their glittering collection.

That was, however, the only bright spot in an otherwise mundane season for Leander. His ranking slipped to beyond 70 as ATP titles dried up for him. Only two Challenger titles were what he managed in the year.

Leander’s alliance with German ace Andre Begemann started bearing fruit towards the end of the season but they unfortunately fell at the final hurdle in many events. 

Paes’ Olympic partner Bopanna too had a lacklustre year that could not deliver him even a single title. Finals at two events with one of them being the high-profile Madrid Masters were his biggest highlights of 2016.

Sharan and Raja find magic after reunion

The reunion of India’s doubles experts Divij Sharan and Purav Raja after a couple of years away from each other, was a welcome news for many of the country’s tennis fans. The two had won the Colombia Open in 2013 and their second innings together is proving to be as successful as their first one.

Their accomplishments were not just limited to the Challenger circuit, they even won their second ATP title at Los Cabos.

In singles, India tennis’ picture in 2016 was as bland as it can get. Elbow injury prevented Yuki Bhambri from building on his stellar 2015 when he broke into the top 90. A six-month hiatus cost him a ton of ranking points, sending him sliding down to below 500.

Myneni’s near-miss

The biggest moment of hurrah in singles came through Saketh Myneni’s qualification for the main draw of the US Open. With the vociferous chants of the ‘Saki squad’ egging him on, Myneni was 5-2 up in the fifth set against the World No. 49 Jiri Vesely and even held a match point. But fate had other plans. Cramps got the better of him eventually in this opening-round match that became a big talking point at this year’s final Major.

The highly-talented Ramkumar Ramanathan flattered to deceive after reaching the quarter-finals of the Chennai Open in January. Except for a couple of Challenger semi-finals and a few good results in ITF Futures, there has been nothing of note.

Former Wimbledon junior doubles champion Sumit Nagal is one rising star on whom hopes hinge. The 19-year-old is steadily developing into a player to watch out for which is further vindicated by the two $25,000 ITF singles titles that he laid his hands on this year.

On the women’s side, Ankita Raina had a few higher-ranked scalps but could not ride on the momentum to progress deeper into any draw. The future, though, is looking brighter with the likes of Karman Kaur Thandi and Pranjala Yadlapalli already beginning to make their mark.

The year ended bitterly for India’s non-playing Davis Cup captain Anand Amritraj with the iconic Mahesh Bhupathi being announced as his replacement and is set to start his stint in April, 2017.

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