Had someone told me in 1985 that one day I would find myself in the US at the annual summit of a major Indian company along with the first Indian golfer to have earned a million dollars, I would probably have said, "Dream on." A few months ago, I was at the Tata Consultancy Services' annual summit in Arizona along with Arjun Atwal, India's first golf millionaire and first full-time USPGA pro. That is how much Indian sport has changed. When I played tennis 30 years ago, I was often asked the question: "Yes, yes, you play tennis, but what do you do for a living?" You will not hear this question today. I believe, though, that a majority of changes have come about in the past five to eight years. After almost two decades of stagnation, there has been a real transformation of Indian sport and its presence in the international arena. The time for India to be an also-ran has come and gone. There is no more settling for the second best. What has also improved to a great extent is the commitment that youngsters are willing to give to sport. The question that every athlete is asked is: "Are you willing to give up all else for the 1 per cent chance that you might make it?" In the past, Indians answered: "We are ready to go to school." Which, given the environment at the time, was technically the right answer. Today, the percentage of children willing to take that gamble is higher.
Due to the inroads that television has made in the past 8-10 years, I think there has been an almost dramatic leap in the minds of Indian athletes and in the mindsets of those around them. In the '70s and '80s, we were used to seeing our children compete against those from around the region-Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan. Now, an entire generation has grown up watching Carl Lewis run a sub-10-second 100 m and has seen Pete Sampras and Michael Schumacher close up. It has made us think about how we can compete. Back then, Indian sport revolved around its cricket team, Davis Cup tennis, the odd success in hockey, billiards and badminton. Every odd year, whenever I played at Wimbledon, the Indian cricket team would be playing in England, and I always hoped my friend Sunil Gavaskar and his team would do well, so that the pressure would be off me. There were several instances when Sunil and I joked about it. Now, 10 years after satellite TV's advent, we have our first driver in F-1, a golfer on the US tour, a player in the top 40 in women's tennis and a world champion in chess.
At the national level, it is great for our sport. Globally, Indian sport has still some distance to go before it can match the great Indian companies that have performed so well in the world market that they have made brand India a powerhouse. With the economy opening up, the Indian companies that did well in India are now competing globally. Similarly, our athletes too want to test themselves against the best. The reason many athletes played in the '70s and '80s was to land a good job-with the airlines, railways, LIC, or the local institutional tennis team. All the cricketers had jobs because the match payments were minimal.
My brother Anand and I became India's first professional athletes. We played full time all year, not knowing what the end result was going to be. Professional sport as a career was not something everyone understood. Today, a child realises that if he hits golf balls seven hours a day, he can make the PGA tour, be on television, get sponsors. Anand and I could not see that far or have those goals because no one had gone down that road before and there were no benchmarks. We were playing because we wanted to be the best we could be. We could not believe it the first time we got a cheque for winning, could not believe we could keep it and do whatever we wanted to do with it.
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|The reason many athletes played in the 1970s and '80s was to land a good job. Today they want to test themselves against the best. |
The good news now is that everybody knows what the benchmarks are. Also, the opportunities and exposure are immense and sponsors are plentiful. So sport is an acceptable profession. The bad news is that there are more youngsters playing, so you had better be damned good to make it through to world class, because it is only at the top that there is handsome compensation for hard work and sweat. At the moment, Indian sport, particularly individual sport, is on the right track more than it ever was.
What our athletes need is much more focused training. We tend to have what I call sporadic focus, where different individuals do their own thing. It is not done under the umbrella of a professional unit. Take hockey. I assume we should have at least four regions with the same programme that can attract the best young hockey players. It shouldn't be such a huge task to have half-a-dozen coaches at these centres and have the programmes sponsored by big companies. From there, it shouldn't be difficult to pull out the best players and try them out for our team. There is no reason we should be behind Australia and Holland. We were the best, so what happened? It is the same in all other individual sports. There is talent everywhere; what matters now is that this talent should get the best possible training no matter where it is found. There is no shortage of money in India, so there should be no excuse for not accessing the best training.
My favourite sporting memories of these 30 years are of the Davis Cup. I am thrilled to have played for 25 years on the tour, but more than that, to have led India to two Davis Cup finals 13 years apart, in '74 and '87. I think the '80s were the best in tennis because we enjoyed the game greatly and also made enough money from it. But more than wins and losses, other things stand out from that period. Being an Indian athlete on the road 30 years ago was an experience I wouldn't change for anything. Indians came out everywhere to watch me play and not just in big cities. In Tulsa, Oklahoma; Worcester, Massachusetts; Bari in Italy and Malmo in Sweden. Indian flags would be fluttering and the national anthem could be heard because I was playing. The '70s were different and difficult for overseas Indians.
My countrymen took me to their homes and sent me the most moving thank-you notes. I received a letter from a junior resident in Cincinnati, who told me how his chief surgeon had a box seat at an event where I played. After my match, I had met and chatted with this man and signed autographs for his children. The next day, the chief surgeon, who had never given his Indian resident the time of the day, stopped him in the corridor and talked about meeting another Indian. Many first generation Indian immigrants wrote to me about their experiences with their bosses and neighbours. If they had not met you, they said, they would not have spoken to us. Today, these Indians are heads of their departments and run successful companies. It is a great feeling to look back and think that, hopefully, you did something right at the time. I think every Indian from that period has to answer a few questions: Did you represent India well? Sport is one element that helps a country become a global player, and as an athlete, you don't realise you have this ability until much later.
Years ago, it was said that meeting an Indian opponent in sport was a good draw. Today, you cannot say the same. In the old days, the "Made in India" brand was a cheap brand, poor in quality and bad in delivery. Today, if you are in the it business and don't have an Indian on the board, you will not get any funding. The Indian athlete now has to work hard to keep pace with the Indian business. But, I believe, it will happen. When I look back at the past 30 years, I find myself looking further into the past, to the time before my generation, to the pioneers who gave us all the hope that we could do it too. As a young man, my idols in tennis were overseas-Pancho Gonzales and Rod Laver. But I also find myself admiring a generation of older Indian athletes like Dhyan Chand in hockey, Ramanathan Krishnan in tennis, cricketers like Vinoo Mankad and Vijay Manjrekar, and Ghaus Mohammed, who reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in the 1930s. I wonder how they got so far when their opportunities were so limited.
I feel sad when I think of those great performers because they never had what we did, but they took the same gambles as us only because they loved competing. We were fortunate and today's athletes are more so. It's important to know where you come from; only then do you understand where you are going.
(The writer is a former tennis player.)