By Vatsal Tolasaria/Vishnu Reddy – 17th March, 2018
The name Sukhwant Basra might ring a bell with many followers of Indian tennis, and sport in general. He’s transformed from a player back in the day, to a coach, then an administrator, then a journalist, and now a coach again.
In his time at a journalist, he went on to achieve great heights, being one of the most well known tennis writers in the country. He was with Hindustan Times for six years, and was also the National Sports Editor for them for a good period of time.
We talk to him about his journey, road ahead, and try to pick his brain for he has seen pretty much almost all sides of Indian Tennis.
Caption: Back on court training players after two decades. Happiest he has been for a long while.
Q) Tell us about your background. What got you into Journalism?
I was a struggling Tennis player. We didn’t know enough at that time. My father was a 400m hurdles national champion within 3 years of getting into the sport. Where-as after 5 years, I was only the Chandigarh Junior Champion and I was 18. By that time, Boris Becker had already won the Wimbledon at 17. We didn’t know at that time that this was a technical sport which involves a long process to excel.
I used to have a pulse rate-based training program with 15,000 skips / day with 5 meals. It was pretty intense.
When I decided to quit Tennis, I felt the reason I didn’t make it was because (a) the Sports administrators know nothing about the sport and (b) Our coaches were not adept / qualified enough.
I wanted to cause an impact by becoming an administrator. I took the civil services path for 4 years, reached the interview stage but did not score well enough in the interviews. It didn’t work out.
Simultaneously I was a coach at the CLTA for 7 years and we had pretty good results at that time. Kawaljeet Singh was the head of the program and we had India’s youngest National Champion – Sunil Kumar Sipaeya (age 16 then) come from the CLTA.
We then wanted to design a program for Sunil to groom him further and was in contact with Dr Vece Paes at that time. I had played at the same time as Leander in the Juniors but this was when I got to know his father better. The budget for the program cost came to about Rs 25 lakhs/year. Seeing this estimate, the administrators started to back off as they felt it was too much of an investment in one kid. However, I was pretty adamant as he was a special talent and felt it was not proper to get Sunil to this stage and then drop off at the crucial stage of transition to Pro tennis.
I felt pretty bad about the state of affairs and felt I should become a Journalist to highlight these issues and bring about a change in the system. I have done this role for a long time now but I realized, unfortunately, nothing much has changed in spite of the reporting. Given that I was a coach, executive administrator at CLTA, player, friends with lot of players on the circuit – nobody could match my sources and I was indeed able to highlight many issues, but things did not change as desired.
Q) On your future plans
Leander Paes and I have been in regular contact. Leander also feels this is the time to put in the effort to create the space to produce those players. I am taking the necessary certification courses while also traveling with Leander at times to monitor how the methodologies of player training and development are evolving in various parts of the world.
Being with Leander is itself an experience as he is the epitome of how a player should work hard to keep himself abreast with the changing physical nature of the game today. This is the reason why we connect with each other so well. As a Journalist, I have written some of the harshest articles about him but he had the ability to see things beyond and not let these things impact our friendship.
Caption – With his close friend Leander at the Chennai Open 2017
Q) Thoughts on the importance of grass root level Tennis programs
I was involved with CLTA about 20 years ago and now am back there as an advisor, development. However, it is very difficult to bring about a change at the grassroot level. In my experience as a Journalist, I realized that a crucial problem in our trainings was the lack of knowledge at the grassroot level. As a former player, I was always fascinated by the training aspect of sport. So, during the two-odd decades of my time as a journalist covering the Olympics or the ATP Tour events, I spoke more to the coaches / trainers than to the players themselves. I would build up this knowledge and bounce off the ideas with Leander Paes.
I have interacted with most of the Indian Players (including the past) and without a doubt, Leander’s capability to analyse the game is phenomenal. He doesn’t have the best skills in the world but majority of the time, he is very good with his anticipation. How does he do that? Is it a skill that can be taught? Yes, it can be. So how to replicate that with a system to make a guy who is just 5’10 tall but lasted for 25 years already – that is Leander’s legacy and that’s the plan.
Q) How do you describe your journey as a Sports Journalist
It is pretty easy to do well in Sports Journalism in India in my opinion as the standards are not high enough. It is more of reporting based on player quotes. We do not understand the intricacies of the game well enough to do hard-core analysis. There is not much of investigative journalism involved.
I always went for the bigger stories. Got decent recognition early. I had an MBA and attended a Bachelor’s course in Mass Comms – I could have chosen any field, I chose Journalism as I felt I could make a difference. However, as mentioned, I realized there is little difference we end up doing.
It’s even more tougher to make a change at the grass root level, given the insecurities involved and most of our coaches are not at all in sync with what’s changing in modern tennis.
Q) What were some of your most memorable events / stories that you cherish as a journalist
The story which gave me the biggest breakthrough was the story on how Abhinav Bindra almost lost the Gold medal at the Beijing Games because of the tampered gunsights (article) – everyone else was covering the standard piece on the victory.
Even before that, I had established myself as a Journalist. A lot of times, I was the go-to man for the players for their interactions with the federation. A number of times, it turns out, I had to help out with having the Davis Cup payments released.
The Olympics and these multi-discipline events are usually seen as a planned party event for senior editors. When I went to the Beijing Olympics, I noticed that most of the Journalists were not doing much work – just carrying the results. The hospitality is enormous, lot of sponsor parties and events. Either you avail of them or do some work.
I had few very good stories from there which were noticed by the Hindustan Times and they offered me the role of the Bombay Sports Editor. Later when the National Sports Editor left, I got promoted. I worked there for a long time and was there till last December. I didn’t leave on my own accord, I was sidelined and given a different new opportunity but I felt that was not the path for me.
Caption: With mentors like Leander and Abhinav Bindra on his side, he feels he can make a difference
Q) Can you share a bit of insight into the Player / Journalist relationship
Honestly, integrity is the key. A lot of journos play into the hands of the players by writing nice things but it is only the honest journalist with integrity who continues to highlight issues where they exist while maintaining that standing with them. I feel it is also to a certain extent, respected by the players.
Otherwise, usually from my experience, most players have immense contempt for Journalists. This is because most of them do not understand the finer details of the sport as much and so the questions tend to be basic.
Leander first took note of me (as a Journalist) at the Jaipur Davis Cup match (probably against the Uzbeks). I had remarked that you guys have an easy job as the Uzbeks don’t even have grass courts shoes. Most journalists don’t know that there are 3 types of Tennis balls, the types of Tennis shoes that are required based on the surface of the court and so on. So, whenever I asked the players technical questions, they could figure out I knew more than the average Journalist. It is not the fault of the Journalist, it is just that I have come from the Tennis player / coach background. So, for me, it was relatively easier to succeed. However, to note, the key part is integrity. The only people I cared for was the reader. The only player who really understood where I came from was Leander. He would be upset at times on some of my stories, but he could come out of it and see that what I was doing was not out of malice but out of integrity towards my job.
Caption: The main reason he can no longer move as well on court. He’s working on it!
Q) What is your take on Populism (ex: Virat – Anushka marriage) vs Sticking to the more important aspects
It’s not always in the hands of the journalists. Clicks have become the life-bread of journalism now and this episode may have generated huge traffic.
From my experience, negative pieces of journalism against star players, get very little traction. All you get is trolled.
Q) You have seen associations operate across the world. What are your thoughts on how we operate in India.
Associations in general across the world, do not do a good job. The better performing ones have been able to put a development program structure in place and have an able administrator run it.
In India, there is nothing. The game has become very physical and it is only players like Leander who have been able to figure this aspect out.
Q) What are your thoughts on the upcoming talents in Indian Tennis on the mens / womens side
Anybody who is reaching this level, we have to give credit to them. They are very courageous. There is zero support from the Federation and they are spending huge amount of money from their pockets. The Indian Federation is unfortunately pretty corrupt and there is no system in place to support the players.
What success these girls / boys achieve is another question, we have to give them credit for having reached their current level.
Caption – His usual expression when dealing with most coaches. We are clueless at the grassroot level
Q) Karti Chidambaram in an article had shared an interesting idea – Go to 50 corporates, raise Rs 1 crore each. You get the interest. Support the players with the interest money through coaching / training / additional support. If things do not work out, return the money to the corporates after X years.
What are your thoughts on some of his ideas?
Karti Chidambaram, irrespective of his personal issues, is the only administrator in India, who raises money for his players. Without Karti, we would not have had Ram (Ramkumar Ramanathan) at a level where he is today. If people are making money from the Sport, great, just ensure you take the players also along.
If we look at AITA, we have administrators at the helm of affairs for two decades. They appear to have prospered but our Tennis hasn’t. This is not fair.
During my time as a Journalist, I have written stories highlighting several of these issues, severed several relationships and bridges and I still have several important files with me. When and if I get bored of things, I might get back to writing and exposing these issues again. I genuinely hope / wish that there is a change in the way, Tennis is being run in this country.