No takers for a devalued national championship

December 10th, 2008 - 11:08 am ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Dec 10 (IANS) There was a time when the national championships had a pride of place in the Indian tennis calendar. The players looked forward particularly to the grasscourt national, which invariably used to be played either in Delhi or Kolkata, and even the Indians playing overseas used to make it a point to play in it. The national championship had been the ideal platform for the talented youngsters to match their prowess with the hard-boiled pros. But the zeal and zest with which the championship was once played has waned and touched a new low with each passing year.

The just concluded DSCL hardcourt tennis hard court national has once again showed how the tournament has been steadily devalued. The top players continued to give the nationals a go-by and in a depleted field, Ratnika Batra and Ranjeet Virali Murugesan emerged as champions. The unattractive prize money was one of the reasons for the pull out of many higher-ranked players.

The national lost its pre-eminence over a decade ago with the All India Tennis Association (AITA) deliberately downgrading it by preferring to more lucrative Satellite, Futures and Challengers. With it the national circuit has been killed, depriving young players of keen competition at domestic level.

For instance, in 1994 and 1995, Mahesh Bhupathi played in the grasscourt nationals, winning it on both occasions, but then never returned. So was the case with other top players who lost interest in the nationals after a couple of appearances. Nitin Kirtane, though, was an exception. He had been a permanent fixture at the championships, winning it 12 times.

Ashutosh Singh, who won the national hardcourt championship last year, decided against defending his title this time, saying he was too tired after a long season.

“I have been playing all the year around and wanted to rest. In any case, the tournament was not offering much incentive so there was no point in exerting,” Ashutosh said.

Incensed by top players skipping the national, the newly-elected AITA secretary-general Anil Khanna in 2000 had promised to make it mandatory for all top-ranked players to compete in the championships, but it remained a promise.

The a steep slash in the prize money this year - (from Rs.100,000 to Rs.30,000 for men and from Rs.80,000 to Rs.30,000 for women) - after DSCL limited itself to title sponsorship did not help the cause. Add to it, AITA also reneged on its promise of providing a Chennai Open wildcard to the winner of the national.

As a result, the national this year saw second-string players coming to the fore. AITA might laud 14-year-old Ratnika to be one of the youngest national champions, but then she won it in the absence of former national champions Isha Lakhani, Ankita Bhambri, Sanaa Bhambri, Rushmi Chakravarthi all of whom preferred to play in the Nigeria ITF event.

Shalini Sahoo and Geeta Manohar were the only seniors to take part in the women’s national.

“We were not even aware of the drastic cut in the prize money. Even the AITA points have come down. I, too, was supposed to join the other girls in Nigeria but then at the last moment I had pull out for personal reasons. Had I known about the degradation of the national, I would have gone to South Africa,” said Shalini, who was the top seed and lost to Ratnika in the semi-final.

In the men’s tennis, at least the players were aware what they were bargaining for. Yet,
Ranjeet, who was the top seed, admitted that the field was so weak that he was fancying his chances from the very beginning.

“The top players were missing. The tournament this year indeed did not have the same standard and aura. I had easy wins in all the rounds. But I am not too affected by all this. I got the chance to prove myself,” said Ranjeet, who did not drop a set in the tournament.

Vishnu Vardhan, the 2007 national grasscourt champion, who did not play in the national because of back spasm, felt a lot needs to be done to make domestic circuit attractive.

“I think AITA has done a great job in bringing so many ITF tournaments to India. But I feel the domestic tennis needs more attention. Even in the ITF tournaments, the competition in the qualifying rounds is pretty tough. So, in that case the importance of national championships increases,” Vishnu said.

“I think AITA was not very organised in conducting the national this time, may be it was too preoccupied with the Commonwealth Games. They could have at least relaxed the points.”

The AITA has only more promises to make. The officials now say the next national will be a grand one!

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