190312 Zeeshan Ali
Zeeshan Ali Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Dubai: It will be a Herculean task to find a successor to Leander Paes in Indian tennis, according to Zeeshan Ali — a longtime teammate of the tennis icon and the current Davis Cup coach of the country. The ongoing Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships will offer the tennis fans here a last chance to watch Paes, who has named his farewell Tour as #OneLastRoar, in doubles action.

A two-time men’s doubles winner here in 1998 and 2003, the 46-year-old Paes has paired up with Australia’s Matthew Ebden for the Dubai event and open their campaign against Ivan Dodig and Filip Polasek on Tuesday.

Speaking to Gulf News during an exclusive interview, Zeeshan emphasised that Leander was an exception in the context of Indian sport — who was backed by his father Dr Vece Paes in the initial struggling years to make his mark on the Tour and the Atlanta Olympics medal in 1996 could not have come at a better time for him.

“There are several factors behind what makes it so difficult for a singles player from India to make his mark — staring from the financial aspect. Tennis, along with golf, are the two disciplines where a player has keep on playing for nine months in a year and plough back his or her earnings into the game. It’s hence a very tough proposition unless the youngster comes from a very secure financial background,” said Zeeshan, who was Leander’s senior partner when the latter made his Davis Cup debut way back in 1990 as a 17-year-old.

Leander Paes is calling it quits

Elaborating on his point, Zeeshan said that the lack of tournaments in India is another stumbling block for any Indian youngster to break through — with only one ATP 250 Challenger in circulation after all these years.

“There is a distinct lack of sponsorship in India for tennis — be it in terms of supporting the tournaments or funding the players in the initial years. We also lose a big percentage of the quality players to college tennis, most of whom eventually stop pursuing the sport as a career,” Zeeshan explained.

When reminded that at least two of the biggest names in Indian tennis — doubles stalwart Mahesh Bhupathi and Somdev Devvarman were actually products of collegiate tennis in the US, Zeeshan observed that they were more of exceptions than the rule. “There was only one Mahesh (Bhupathi) in the last 25 years, though Somdev also did well for himself at a later stage. However, they were more of exceptions than the rule,” he said.

The support system for Olympic disciplines may have improved marginally with corporate-backed initiatives like the Olympic Gold Quest or the now defunct Laxmi Mittal Trust — but Zeeshan feels it’s still not enough for a sport like tennis. “Yes, their support has yielded results, especially in disciplines like shooting. However, you will have to appreciate that while in a sport like shooting, there are a series of medals in each of the categories. Compare this to tennis where you have got a limited number of medals in Olympics while you are up against the likes of a Federer or Nadal,” he noted.

“When Leander won the bronze in 1996, the gold and silver winners were Andre Agassi and Sergi Bruguera, respectively. This will help you to appreciate the enormity of the challenge in tennis,” he added.