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India-Pak tennis: Low key, high returns

November 13, 2006 19:22 IST

Formed on the lines of the bilateral cricket and hockey series, the India-Pakistan tennis Tests were markedly different from the friendship tournaments. It was a low-key affair, devoid of any jingoism. But despite lack of mass support, the concept could actually help further relations between the countries in a micro-society.

When Pakistan Tennis Federation chief Syed Dilawar Abbas announced the series, he said it would be a CBM, Confidence Building Measure. There were no frantic flashlights, no rush for tickets, no marketing gimmicks or luring prize-money.

The players gave up their tour commitments to be a part of the exercise. They adapted to the hectic schedule, were ferried from one city to another in a combined bus, fought well in front of empty stands and made do with prize-money of US $1500 (for the winner). The fact that the top players of both the countries participated lent a lot more credibility to the event.

"The series invoked interest in Pakistan. Most of the people there had heard about Leander (Paes) and Mahesh (Bhupathi) but they were curious to know how India was doing in the sport," said vice-president of the All India Tennis Association, Rajan Kashyap.

"We also wanted to show that tennis can be a team sport. When the players are playing for the country it also generates more crowd interest," he added.

The keenly contested Davis Cup tie between the countries earlier this year fuelled the interest in the series. The players were better known. The Tests, which both federations agreed will be an annual affair, is an ideal platform for both the countries to test talent for bigger events. Both the teams are struggling in the Davis Cup -- India lost in the first round while Pakistan has been relegated to Group II. Such events provide an opportunity to blood youngsters.

Though Pakistan played it safe by fielding their top players for all the ties, India had five debutants -- Karan Rastogi, Mustafa Ghouse, Vivek Shokeen, Divij Sharan and Purav Raja (doubles).

"Tournaments like these are ideal for preparing players for bigger team events, like Davis Cup and Asian Games," said India coach Nandan Bal. "It will help us test the depth in the team also."

Even if they didn't get to play a lot of matches, just being a part of the team was an experience for the younger lot.

"It feels great playing under the India banner," said 19-year-old Vivek Shokeen, who upset Pakistan captain Aisam Qureshi in the first singles in Delhi on Sunday. The lad certainly made the best of opportunity after being fielded in place of Rohan Bopanna, who was rested after running a fever.

World No. 702 Shokeen came to the party and crushed an exhausted Qureshi 6-3, 6-2.

Apart from the main Tests, arrangements are being made to exchange tennis programmes between countries. In December, an under-18 squad from Pakistan will visit India for a 15-day camp and the next editions will also involve juniors.

"The Pakistan federation is not doing enough to groom youngsters. So I'm happy to hear about this," said Qureshi. "We have a policy of trials before the Davis up season and if the juniors can't beat our number three and four they are not in the team. The number 3-4 also deserve their place in the side then.

"They travel with us though they don't get any matches and even the youngsters don't get any exposure. We need younger legs to push us and also to fall back on."

Small events lead to bigger things. If the series succeeds in only building a strong tennis community, with the exchange of ideas, between India and Pakistan it would have served an ace!

Deepti Patwardhan