Players` revolt, on-court success both hog limelight in tennis

PTI| Updated: Dec 28, 2013, 11:38 AM IST

New Delhi: An unprecedented players` revolt shook Indian tennis in a controversy-marred beginning of the year but when the dust settled and the 2013 season progressed, Sania Mirza, Somdev Devvarman and Leander Paes brought cheers to the fans by their on-court successes.

In a dramatic move, 11 top players presented a united front against the All India Tennis Association (AITA) to bring about changes in the way the game is being governed and forced the national tennis body agree to some of their demands. Getting the Davis Cup support staff changed was a big victory for the players but the most surprising part was that the revolt was led by Somdev, who was known just for his dogged persistence on the tennis courts. The affable player showed that his fighting skills were not restricted to just the courts and if needed, he can extend his fighting arena.

The revolt did not stop even after improvement in the Davis Cup playing conditions for the players but culminated in the formation of a players` association, Indian Tennis Players Association (ITPA). The factions within the AITA too helped the players as its vice-president Karti P Chidambaram supported their cause.

Somdev`s on-court performance just added to his reputation as he worked his way to top-100 after beginning the year below 600. Having overcome his shoulder injury, Somdev was at his usual fighting best as he recorded impressive wins over several top-100 and top-50 players on the ATP circuit. His win over world number 23 Alexandr Dolgopolov at the ATP 500 Washington event and over world number 39 Benoit Paire in France stood out. Reaching second rounds at US Open and Roland Garros from the qualifiers helped him climb up the ranking ladder. It is at this level, Somdev needs to do better in 2014 season. He is a hard working and thinking tennis player but needs to be more consistent. It is easier said than done as the professional tennis world is becoming more and more physically and mentally demanding.

Somdev has worked extremely hard on his fitness and is easily one of the fittest players, who can engage his rivals in testing marathon matches. While the Indian youngsters were making their presence felt on ATP circuit, there is one player who continues to set new benchmarks with his awe-inspiring performances. At the age of 40, Leander Paes was still able to add to his Grand Slam collection. The victory at US Open men`s doubles with Radek Stepanek was Paes` 14th major title. He is still not done and is eager to continue at least till the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

He may have slowed down a bit but his enthusiasm has been unmatched and that makes him a special player. Just before the US Open, Paes combined with Canadian Daniel Nestor and won the Winston-Salem tournament. After making his retirement plans clear, another Indian star Mahesh Bhupathi`s focus was divided between his on-court competition and off-court business strategies. He had reasonable on-court success, if not great. He won a title in Dubai with Michael Llodra and had a runners-up finish with compatriot Rohan Bopanna at Rome Masters. Making the Wimbledon quarterfinals with Julian Knowle was another highlight of his 2013 season.

However, Bhupathi`s major success was getting the support of world tennis bigwigs for his IPL-style tennis league. His organizational skills and business acumen are beyond doubt but how successful his ambitious IPTL will be remains to be seen. Getting commitments from superstars such as Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams to play in his league is a big step forward in his post-retirement endeavours but it will be a big challenge for the veteran Indian to make it a success.

In the women`s tennis, Sania enjoyed her best season as she captured five titles despite having to change partner after partner. She began with American Bethanie Mattek-Sands and then in the fag end of the year, settled with Zimbabwean Cara Black, with whom she is now committed to play full 2014 season. Sania began the season by winning the Brisbane Open with Mattek-Sands and ended her 2013 campaign by winning the prestigious China Open. In between, she played with Lizel Huber, Jie Zheng and Flavia Pennetta too.
Of her 19 career titles, five came in 2013 which was her first year exclusively in doubles on the WTA tour and was rewarded as she, for the first time, ended the year in top-10 and was the highest ranked player from India (men and women) at number nine at the end of the season.

Sania`s furious forehand is perhaps the most feared one in the women`s circuit and with her overall game improved in company of an experienced partner Cara Black, the Indian would surely look to win her first Grand Slam in women`s doubles in 2014.
Another Indian who enjoyed his best season was Rohan Bopanna. The tall Bangalorean touched a career-best ranking of world number three. Bopanna truly came out from the shadows of Paes and Bhupathi to be counted as another formidable Indian player on the circuit.

He won just two titles -? at Tokyo with Roger-Vasselin Edouard and at Marseille with Colin Fleming -- but throughout the year, he played well, going deep into the draws. By making a semifinal appearance at Wimbledon and finals of many tournaments including the Masters, Bopanna showed that he has matured as a player and will be a force to reckon with in the 2014 season. And, the fact that he has re-joined forces with Pakistani Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, with whom he had formed a highly successful partnership, will only add to his claims to ascendancy.

Yuki Bhambri is one player India has great hopes from in singles after Somdev. The Delhi lad had been struggling to make a transition from juniors to seniors but in 2013, he looked a changed player. He annexed his first ever Challenger level title in Australia and made look his compatriots ordinary on the Futures circuit with his sheer class. He is also set to make his Grand Slam debut, albeit in doubles, by winning a wild card for the Australian Open with New Zealand`s Michael Venus.

In 2014, Yuki must do better in singles. He has the talent and potential but now is the time he uses his talent to progress at the senior level. He has added some muscle to his body, matured as a player, improved his fitness and looks hungrier for success.
Elsewhere, Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, N Sriram Balaji and Sanam Singh continued to grind on the demanding tour. One can only hope that they graduate to the next level in 2014.