By Debayan Mukherjee
Kolkata, July 27 (IANS) Before talking about getting singles tennis players into the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) scheme, there should be a developmental plan in place from the grassroots level in order to produce better results, feels former star and national observer for the sport, Somdev Devvarman.
India's doubles specialists, Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan, are the only tennis players who are part of the TOPS scheme where athletes across disciplines get financial support from the government.
Country's top singles players -- Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Ankita Raina -- are not part of TOPS, an issue which Davis Cup non-playing captain and former great of the game Mahesh Bhupathi raised recently.
In fact since both Rohan and Divij parted ways, they are also in line to be dropped from the TOPS list.
"The TOPS are for Olympic Podium. There is a lot of work that goes on before a player becomes a target for Olympic podium. There needs to be development at grassroots level and there should be more tournaments," Somdev spoke to IANS in an interview facilitated by Sony Pictures Networks.
Sony Pictures Networks will show them in action in 2020 Tokyo Games as the official broadcaster.
"Basically more opportunities for players from all over the country. And then once that opportunity comes in, you need a development programme where kids go through a good system and come out as better players. But I don't think we can talk about how to get more players in a TOPS programme without talking about how we can get players into a better development programme at the grassroots. They go hand in hand," said Somdev, who has a role to recommend names for TOPS, since being appointed government observer in March 2017.
The former India No.1, who has always been at loggerheads with the All India Tennis Association (AITA), said they lack expertise to implement developmental programmes, adding he isn't sure about their role in the sport besides organising Davis and Fed Cup.
"The federation doesn't have the expertise to implement better development programmes. Indian tennis is way behind on a global scale, Somdev said.
"Relying on AITA might not be the wisest thing to do as a player. I am not very sure about their role. All the players we discuss today are ones who are on the Tour and make their money on the Tours.
"Apart from Davis Cup and Fed Cup, AITA has no role in these players' development. They never have. To expect any kind of meaningful help leading up to the Olympics is not an option. I don't think they really know how to help. Going by history, they haven't helped in the past."
Somdev also pointed out that it has been challenging in terms of working as a national observer and getting things done due to frequent change of personnel in the sports ministry.
"One of the things that is difficult is the continuous change in the government. That's a very difficult thing for sports people to deal with. It's not a criticism but just an observation," he said.
"It becomes difficult when you are dealing with one situation and you talking to someone and then the minister changes. I am not saying one sports minister is better than the other. This constant change in the sports secretary and minister makes it challenging.
That being said from the government standpoint, I can ask about TOPS funding and they ask for my opinion. I coordinate and pass message of the players to the government about funding. My job is to see how well funds are being utilised. What players need that for. I would like things to be moving a lot quicker. But I can't fault people. It might be a bit slow but it's competent."
Asked about India's chances at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics which is less than a year to go, Somdev said Sania Mirza's return from injury is key as India will then have a chance in the mixed and women's doubles.
"One of the things that India seem to be banking on is the return of Sania. She seems to be fairly motivated to comeback. She will have a very high protective ranking. Once you talk about Sania, you can't but bring up mixed doubles. So depending on who she wants to partner, I am sure it will be one of the top players. So either Rohan or Divij, I am sure Leander's name is also going to pop up as it always does," he said.
"As far as the singles is concerned, we only have Prajnesh in the top 100 but one year is a long time to go. We really hope Prajnesh improves his rankings. He needs to be a little bit higher to get into the singles. You have one year and players need to do well in order to get in. Ankita Raina is the No 1."
Somdev, who called time on his career at the age of 31 on January 1, 2017, also backed 46-year old Leander Paes to get selected for the Olympics if he continues to do well.
"The ranking system in tennis speaks for itself and it's a fairly simple call. Age is not important, at the end of the day how he is playing and how he is gelling with the team is important. You also have to take into account other players and what their relationships are. There are lot of things that go into it."