“I am a big supporter of US College Tennis” – Somdev Devvarman shares his opinion on the “going pro vs going to college” debate

We already have a great pipeline for churning out super talented cricketers in different positions and the reason we are able to do that so successfully is because the infrastructure is there and the culture has been built and everyone wants to play cricket in India, similar things need to be done for other sports as well.” – Somdev Devvarman

As the Sports Industry suffers from the perils of the Coronavirus, there are also minor shreds of silver lining and positivity that can be taken from this. Sport all over the world dwells on the aspect ‘uncertainty of outcome’, such is the case for our industry currently as well. But if we think about it, all is not lost. 

While we ponder upon this uncertainty, the shreds of silver lining can be put to play by some of the top administrators of this sport in coming up with a way to determine the future of this sport in our country. It is the ideal time to revamp the grassroots and come up with a structure that can help all the athletes, right from the beginners to the professional players. This can in turn help other sports as well to restructure the way they are played and perceived in our country. 

Though Indian tennis has produced some great champions like Vijay Amritraj, Ramanathan Krishnan, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna, Sania Mirza, Somdev Devvarman to name a few, there is still a lot of work to be done in this sport. 

Over the recent years we have witnessed a common trend of Indian players taking admissions into US Colleges merely to play college tennis and attain the game and ranking of their desire, or the parents who can afford coaching in foreign countries, usually send the kids to a training centre abroad. The US College curriculum and system enables them to get the necessary education, as well as play their game at the top quality with top quality coaches and infrastructure. This does not begin at an Ivy League college, but this begins right from the school. A lot of Indian players like Saketh Myneni, Somdev, Arjun, Rutuja are graduates and flag bearers of US College Tennis. The system there helped them to play the sport at a higher level, it gave them the exposure to top tennis tournaments featuring some of the world’s best.

Somdev Devvarman, Arjun Kadhe and Rutuja Bhosale in action for their respective colleges 

The question is why we can’t have such a system which enables these players to remain in our country, play that kind of tennis here with a similar kind of infrastructure and quality coaching. The cost of pursuing an Undergraduate degree in the US is extremely high, and with the kind of expenditure that tennis players have to incur to get to that level, it becomes a question of life and death to further make that kind of expense. While most of them are unable to, some players bank on high scholarships to proceed with their goals of playing US college tennis. 

Our country should have a system right down from an Inter-school tennis tournament till the time the player made it professional, we would see a lot more Indian tennis players make it to the top 100’s in the world ranking. 

This is something that can be implemented across all sports. It should start with the first PT class that a child attends in school. The difference should be seen from there. The talent and the prodigies should be spotted from that level so that the required nurturing is taken place which can propel the athlete to greatness. We must continuously remind ourselves that Athletes are not born, they are made and it is us that can play a part in making these athletes great. 

While a lot of money is being spent on a sport like Cricket, simply because of the high popularity and ROI, the tide needs to turn towards other sports as well which can provide all the other sports and athletes with equal mileage and platform. Currently, India is regarded across the world as a Cricketing nation, the question is are we happy with just that. What can we do as a Nation to transform from a Cricketing nation to a multi-sporting Nation? 

Till every win by an athlete representing our country is not celebrated in the same way like Sachin Tendulkar scoring a century for India, it is a tough road ahead for us to see our athletes win medals at the Olympics. It is much more than just providing the financial support to the athletes, it is about us taking ownership of those sports and those athletes, giving them a sense of pride and joy every time they wear the tri colour and step on the playing field.

Indian Tennis star and former world number 62, Somdev Devvarman is a prime success example of the NCAA College Tennis system. Some of his records he created during his time in the US are listed below :

– Only collegiate player to have made three consecutive finals at the NCAA
– Won back-to-back finals in his junior and senior years at the University of Virginia. Only three other players have matched that record since 1950. He beat John Isner in one of the finals. Isner went on to crack the ATP Top 10 later in his career
– An unprecedented 44–1 win-loss record in 2008 at the NCAA Men’s Tennis Championship

Images from Somdev Devvarman’s college days (Credits – Somdev Devvarman College Scrapbook)

We spoke to Devvarman to take his thoughts on the entire tennis situation around the country :

Q) Are you a supporter of Indian tennis players travelling to US to pursue their Tennis career along with their education?

Yes, generally, I am a big supporter of this. So basically the only time you do not go to the NCAA system is if you are really good as a junior and you have the requisite finances to support you through the early stages of your career as you do not make a lot of money during that time. In my opinion, most kids can benefit a lot from the NCAA system whether it comes to their games or just growing up, I think it is something Indian kids should learn to take advantage of. 

Q) Can a similar system of college and school sports/tennis be created in India? With top-notch quality?

Yes, a similar system can absolutely be created, but will it be created is something I am not sure of. The government has looked to create it with the Khelo India Games, but it is very young hence it will be very hard to decipher the impacts from it. For me it comes down to promoting grass-root sports and making sports a lifestyle. The reason American sports is so successful is because the School and College systems are a feed-in to the pro system. That is why the pro system is so strong because they have young talent coming in across all sports. That is what we need to create. We already have a great pipeline for churning out super talented cricketers in different positions and the reason we are able to do that so successfully is because the infrastructure is there and the culture has been built and everyone wants to play cricket in India, similar things need to be done for other sports as well. 

Q) Should this time be used to revive the Junior Domestic and National circuit? If yes, how?

I do think that this unforeseen break is a great time to revive the domestic and national circuit. It should have adequate funding. All the people and players should come forward together to fight for the right thing which is the promotion of the game. More people making money from the game is a good thing whether it’s through coaching or playing or through academies. All in all, the more People play tennis the more tournaments there are, it’s always a good thing. India did have a very strong domestic circuit earlier on where a lot of players made their money through playing 15-20 tournaments and teaching rest of the time. That circuit has gone away so it would be nice to see if that can be restarted again. The key to being a strong tennis nation is having a lot of local tennis events. 

Q) What strategies should be adopted by the Tennis governing bodies in our states to bring about an improvement in the tennis structure?

The way I see it is that the people at the Head of the Governing body should always try and do a few things – Make tennis more accessible at every single level whether it’s at the pro level where funding is required or at the grass-root level where minimal funding is required. Accessibility is key as well as tournaments.

One of the examples is that in Barcelona instead of having a training program, they have about 45-50 tournaments a year in that National centre. I think if we could do something similar in all of the national centres that we have, for example the ones we have in Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune, Bangalore, and Kolkata. Instead of coming up with coaching programs which is really difficult because you need the right person with the right kind of expertise, I feel a great way of doing it would be have to many events even if it’s U10-12, 8 or wheelchair events, amateur events, veteran events, doubles, mixed doubles to make sure there is something for everyone in the tennis community to look forward to and implement this in every city. It requires a lot of fund-raising and strategy efforts but honestly it would be a dream if it could happen

Q) What will it take for India to become a multi sporting nation?

Everyone has to realise the importance of fitness early on. It’s not okay for kids to not be a basic level of fit. A lot of other countries see the importance in that, India says they do but once again the numbers speak for themselves. It’s appalling that every time we are running behind in classes, its physical education. The message going out is that it is the least important thing, and if you look into it, health and fitness specially now gives an idea the importance of it as we grow older. So I think first we need to look at Health and fitness completely differently. We need to look at it as a necessity and not a luxury. It is a necessity for every young person in India today to be fit for the rest of their lives. That’s the message we need to start sending out and once that starts happening and once more and more different sports start becoming accessible to people that’s when you’re going to have more sporting heroes, more champions. 

As Somdev has rightly focused on the importance of Health and Fitness, now is the time we are realising the importance of the same. 

Nelson Mandela had rightly said, “Sports has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sports can create hope, where there was once only despair.” Keeping these words in mind, we should really look forward to the change that we can create not only in our systems, but across the world through sport. 

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