Challengers at home a boon to Indian tennis players

June 12th, 2008 - 12:25 pm ICT by IANS  

By Pragya Tiwari
New Delhi, June 12 (IANS) Indian tennis players are a happy lot with more and more Challenger tournaments being played at home that will prepare them for the much tougher grind of professional tennis, the ATP Tour. All the top pros of Tour have graduated from the Challengers. The opportunities are vast with more than 150 Challengers played in over 40 countries for over 40 weeks a year. Earnings from these events, with prize money ranging from $25,000 to $125,000, have taken care of the basic needs of the emerging players.

The Challengers have also been useful for the journeymen, who lose in the first round of an ATP Tour event as they hop across to play in Challengers to save the week.

Some Challengers are as good as a Tour event. Players from among the top 50 often play in the Challengers as wildcards when they make early exit from major tournaments. They do it more for a competitive workout than the prize money.

Players, who have logged $80,000 for winning tournaments, find themselves at a Challenger next week for a $15,000 purse! Then there are those who drop out of the top 100 and want to play in the Challengers to improve their ranking.

With the Challengers in their backyard, more and more Indians are getting a look-in and promising youngsters are given the wildcards to compete with players from the top 200 on the ATP rankings.

Two Challengers were played in the national capital last month and four more are in the pipeline this year. That’s how the world junior number five Yuki Bhambri got to play as a wildcard against better-rated players.

But Yuki’s mother Indu feels throwing someone like her son into the deep end of the water straightaway is raising the bar too high and too soon.

Playing in a Challenger means running into a top player. Here at the SAIL Open, the top seed was ranked 90 and her son lost to Australian Adam Feeney, ranked 265.

“Some times exposure at such an early stage in the career could be counter-productive. Perhaps, they could think of a $35,000 tournament that can provide hospitality for younger players,” she said.

However, National Tennis Academy coach T. Chandrasekhar has a different take. “It is very important for our players to play in these $50,000 tournaments. For instance, Ashutosh beat seventh seed Russian Alexandre Kudryavtsev in the first round and to do that he had to raise his game by a couple of notches. The confidence he gains from such a victory is immense.”

Indian Davis Cupper Harsh Mankad, who had won the doubles title along with national grass court champion Ashutosh Singh, sees the Challengers at home hugely beneficial for players who are on a shoestring budget.

“Challengers organised at home save the players the entry fee and expenses of travelling overseas and you get to compete with the best on your home turf. Not everyone can afford to go abroad to play a string of Challengers. ”

“By playing in the two $50,000 Challengers we at least now know where we stand at the international level and what we need to do to improve our game,” Ashutosh told IANS.

U.S.-based Prakash Amritraj says home Challengers provide the right conditions and atmosphere to play stress-free tennis. “You get to play in familiar conditions which work to your advantage,” said Amritraj.

Also, playing at home is a godsend opportunity for those who do not have enough points to gain direct entry to a Challenger overseas.

“When my ranking was not that good, I was playing in the Futures all over the world. The only Challengers I have been able to play were at home,” Ashutosh said.

But playing overseas can be quite taxing as well, especially for the Indians who are not known to be good journeymen. While leaner pockets remain a perennial problem, fending for oneself in an alien land could be emotionally draining too.

“It sometimes becomes extremely difficult to acclimatise to the weather conditions. Jet lag and finding food suiting to your taste buds are other big problems,” said Rohan Gajjar who partnered Purav Raja in the SAIL Open Challenger doubles.

“You become very lonely when you travel alone. I was in Portugal once and knew no one. There was nobody to talk to, as I didn’t know Portuguese. But then one has to get used to all this,” Mankad told IANS.

However, all of them agree that things are changing and more and more Indians are prepared to venture out in search of ranking points to move up the ATP ladder.

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