An ode to Naresh Kumar

An ode to Naresh Kumar

The week gone by has been an eventful one for Indian tennis and with an emotional connect as well.

Watching images of former Davis Cup non-playing captain Naresh Kumar win  the Dronacharya Award, at a virtual function, made many eyes moist. For those who may ask “Who Naresh Kumar,” he was largely responsible for India’s Bull Run in the Davis Cup from 1991 to 1993. It ended with the 0-5 loss to Australia in the Davis Cup semi-finals in September 1993 in Chandigarh.

In the history of Indian tennis, it was a rich run, punctuated by the arrival of a young man on the scene, answering to the name of Leander Paes, who was just 18 in 1991. For Naresh Kumar, known as Naresh Sir to many because of the respect he commanded, it was tough job to weld the energy of a young Leander and the more seasoned Ramesh Krishnan.

Naresh Kumar and Leander Paes. Photo courtesy Sportstar

Naresh Kumar was a colourful personality in many senses. As captain, he was in supreme command. Discipline, team meetings and meals, practice sessions with intensity, right carbo loading , he knew everything.

Above all, he commanded immense respect from the media as he was available after training sessions to educate all, without any bias.

On court, Naresh Kumar’s red T-shirt, white trousers, the shades he wore were a delight. For him, to be getting up after almost every point Leander won in a match, had become a must. That was his way of communication with the young boy (Lee) who went on to become a Davis Cup legend in his own right.

The highs of 1991 to 1993 were heady, with the victory against the Frenchmen in Frejus, situated in southern France, being most talked about. It was the Davis Cup quarter-final, where the world had taken note of Naresh Kumar’s team as they beat the tough French with top ranked players on red clay.

Naresh Kumar was an excellent speaker, columnist, motivator, and waxed eloquently.  He was all for the players and never let them down. Sadly, when India lost the semi-final in 1993 to Australia, he did not waste any time and stepped down.

One of his most memorable press conferences was after that defeat. He had no hesitation in attacking the All India Tennis Association and again spoke up for the players. “Players cannot be competing on empty bellies,” he said then, an obvious reference to the fight between the AITA, then headed by RK Khanna and players Leander and Ramesh over payments due

Almost the entire media entourage from India had come for the 1993 September tie. Some like Late Rajan Bala questioned Naresh Kumar if Leander’s fundamentals were flawed. Again, Naresh Kumar, with moist eyes defended the young boy. He knew this was his last tie and he had served Indian tennis with utmost professionalism and dedication.

Naresh followed Indian tennis later as well. He may not have been a great fan of Mahesh Bhupathi, who arrived on the scene a year later, as he felt Mahesh did not have the right footwork for excelling on grass. However, once Mahesh won the Nationals on grass, he became part of the Davis Cup. with Jaidip Mukherjea the captain.

It was no exaggeration those days when the BBC called Naresh Kumar the best tennis brains. He was sharp and his comments on air and print were crisp, English and tennis meshed in sheer symphony.

Today, Naresh Kumar is old, the recognition has come late. Yet, it is better late than never as Indian tennis remains an enigma. For those who may not know, he had reached fourth round at Wimbledon many decades ago.

Menwhile, Sumit Nagal was in the news for a few days as he shone at the US Open by winning one round. His loss to Dominic Thiem was not one-sided and revealed many facets of Indian tennis which have been a constant over the years. No support from the AITA and players fighting it out on their own is an old tale, even as the apex body holds its elections on Sunday.

Sumit knows his serve has to be cranked up, which will not happen overnight. He has been smart with his decision making and from NYC to Paris for the French Open will be a different journey. If Leander had Naresh Kumar for advice, Sumit does consult Mahesh Bhupathi.

Indian tennis fans are hoping he can break into the Top 100 of singles ranking on the ATP computer. It is not going to be easy, but the boy from Jhajjar has the foot-speed and big forehand to do well. He needs more than adequate funding, a responsibility taken up  by the Virat Kohli foundation.

Call it being inert or mute, the AITA has never done anything for players, other than playing politics. Sumit Nagal is a case of work in progress. One hopes he can live up to the potential which many see in him, Thiem included.

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