© Ella Ling

Sania Mirza

India's new tennis obsession


A recent survey has found that tennis is the second most followed sport in India. No prizes for guessing the first. That would be cricket – the only pan-India obsession besides Bollywood.

The report, published by SMG Insight/YouGov, is admittedly based on a small sample -1,100 Indian adults, mostly in metro cities. But even if one were to use a larger sample size, the result may not be very different. Football, behind tennis in the survey by a mere three per cent, might be the only other sport that could come close to taking the second spot.

Irrespective, there is no doubt that tennis has been rising in popularity in India. And this boils down to two major reasons.

The first, surprisingly, has nothing to do with the sport itself but with the socio-economic changes that India has undergone in the last 20 years. In 1991, faced with a precarious balance of payments position, India opened up its closed economy. What followed was an unleashing of the potential of the Indian economy. Rising GDPs, per capita and disposable incomes has meant that tennis, considered a rich man’s sport, has become more accessible to a wider and burgeoning middle class.

The opening up of the economy created more jobs and the number of women participating in the workforce is several times higher than twenty years ago. That along with the increase in number of nuclear families has led to a fundamental change in the way kids spend their time away from school and their holidays. Two decades ago, when I went to school, free time and summer vacations were spent playing with friends outdoors and in each other’s houses. Today, kids’ time outside of school is fairly structured – dance and music classes, swimming and tennis lessons – this has a direct correlation to the number of kids participating in different sports and activities, not just tennis.

The economic development has also meant that as Indian corporations become bigger and more profitable, there are more rupees to be spent on sponsorship of sporting events and infrastructure. Another by-product was the cable and satellite television boom in India.  In the 1980s, Indians had to rely on the unreliable national broadcaster Dooordarshan to see live tennis four times a year – during the closing stages of the grand slams. Today, India has ten sports channels – which means plenty of airtime for channels to show live tennis. Indians now watch grand slams from the very first round and weekly ATP and WTA events are also often on TV. With the internet, live streaming and 4G connections, Indians now can watch their favourite tennis player all-year round.

The second reason has to do with the sport itself. Every sport increases its following as national players and teams garner more acclaim on the international stage. India has always had a rich tradition in tennis. From the Krishnans to the Amritrajs and everyone else in between, tennis has been part of our sporting landscape for decades now. At a time when Indians rarely reached the international level in other truly global sports, there have been a few Indians who have made their mark in tennis.

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi took the nation and the doubles tour by storm in the late 1990s and early 2000s by becoming the world’s top ranked team and winning three grand slams. They proved that Indians could be world beaters, even if it was only in the doubles format. More than a decade later, Paes and Bhupathi are still going strong and winning grand slams.

And in 2005, Sania Mirza burst on to the tennis scene, becoming India’s first non-cricketing athlete to cross over and become a national celebrity. The Indian, wearing short skirts and a big attitude, unleashed her forehand to reach the top 30 in singles world rankings. Through controversies and injuries, Sania trailed a path where no other Indian female tennis athlete has, inspiring a legion of young girls to follow her path. Somdev Devvarman has also established himself on the men’s tour, though he has been nursing a shoulder injury since January. India currently has 18 men in the top 1000 world rankings and 10 women.

The success of these players has shown a whole new generation of juniors that success on the international tennis circuit is not impossible. More juniors are taking the sport seriously, hoping to become the next Yuki Bhambri.

Also, tennis has been in the midst of a golden run in the last decade. The historic exploits of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and now Novak Djokovic have got fans glued to the sport the world over, not just in India.

Following the win of Li Na at the French Open last year, tennis exploded in China and experts say the effects of that will be seen ten years down the line in the number of Chinese players on the international circuit. With a billon-plus population, India is one grand slam champion away from witnessing her very own tennis explosion.