As Rafael Nadal was crowned at Roland Garros last week as the greatest clay court player in the history of the sport, and as Maria Sharapova completed her career grand slam by toying with the opposition, a sidelight of the French Open may have far-reaching effects for Indians. Indian tennis has, for the most part, revolved around success in doubles, with the occasional breakthrough in singles. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi are two of the most formidable doubles players of the last decade and more, both jointly as well as severally. The last few years have also seen the emergence of Sania Mirza as a legitimate grand slam contender in women’s doubles and a champion in mixed doubles. Today Indians are an integral part of the global tennis circuit — although far from central from a branding and recognition standpoint. And while, for the most part, this role will endure on the professional tennis circuits, the next month could change the entire nature of tennis in India as a cultural necessity. This is because the most important sports event in the world is just around the corner — the London Olympics 2012, and based on the recent success in men’s doubles, and the Sania-Hesh mixed doubles win last week, medal talk has already begun. It will only gain steam as the weeks go by.
Olympic medals define a country’s pride in its sports. Indians, however, have had little to cheer about over the last two decades. Cricket is excluded; hockey is a long shot; and so individual sports are the few opportunities that India has to get on the medal podium. In particular, tennis will be closely watched — and, through crossover stars with Bollywood and cricket connections via spouses and business interests, it is likely to be integral to the emerging cultural identity of Indian sport. Worldwide, tennis produces stars like few other sports; any list of cultural icons is replete with tennis stars. Becker, Agassi, Sampras, Steffi, McEnroe, Connors, Borg, Gabriela, and of course the modern-day conquerors — Roger, Rafa, Maria and Serena. And the sport is flourishing like never before. Just when one thought that the Roger-Rafa rivalry was fading with age, Djokovic has emerged as the third spoke in a wheel that gathers momentum with every tournament, regardless of surface or situation. The women’s side is even more open to branding rising stars: Maria Sharapova today is the most lucrative brand of all time across women’s sports. Federer and Nadal combine for nearly $100 million annually in brand value and endorsement revenue.
Tennis traditionally was an elitist sport, originating as it did with royalty. Today it is an expensive sport to excel in, due to the cost of travel, equipment, training as well as opportunity costs. The limited availability of top-class facilities and the stiffness of competition budgets make tennis a difficult sport to dabble in. This is why its popularity in India is puzzling and is an anomaly. Unlike golf, tennis is a cultural enigma in India. It is played across the country. And the facilities in the sport range from subpar to good. Elite enough to form a barrier to entry, yet accessible enough to give the dreamers a reason to believe they could make it.
All of this, however, will change drastically if the doubles pairings succeed in medaling at London. Unlike traditional Olympic sports where India has had success – shooting, athletics, wrestling, swimming, or even hockey – tennis is a legitimate career opportunity for Indians, since it has a professional circuit that serves as a revenue-generating component for players. A medal at London, and tennis will suddenly become central to India’s sporting aspiration internationally, given the track record of success and its perception in India. It has always been a reasonably cool sport to play — and if it can make the cultural transition from viewership to participation, then it will become mainstream, accessible and identifiable. And, globally, its brand will only become bigger. It is poised to explode worldwide, with a galaxy of stars – many from outside the traditional tennis-playing countries – chomping at the bit, waiting to captivate a global audience spoilt by the exploits and drama of this, the golden age of tennis.
The author is a sports attorney at J Sagar Associates.
These views are personal.
Every week, Eye Culture features writers with an entertaining critical take on art, music, dance, film and sport