Ace Indian soft tennis player raises concerns on lack of funding for non-Olympic sports
Aniket Patel, a veteran of two Asian Games and a former India number 1, is not considered for cash prizes in most tournaments under his state's policy as soft tennis is not in the Olympics.
Aniket Patel is a former (2022) national No.1 soft tennis player of India who has represented his country in two Asian Games - 2018 Jakarta and 2022 Hangzhou. Hailing from Maninagar, Ahmedabad, Aniket had a predictable path of becoming a software engineer with a steady income in front of him. But he chose the more challenging path of pursuing his dream of winning medals for India in a lesser-known sport.
He was part of the Indian team's surprising success story in Hangzhou this time, where they finished 5th in the team event, winning matches against former champions Cambodia and some other top nations like Chinese Taipei, Indonesia. But speaking on the struggle for funds soft tennis players have to face, especially in some states, he raised some issues requiring attention.
At a state-level, the Soft Tennis Association of Gujarat manages the sport. The Amateur Soft Tennis Federation of India governs the sport nationally, whereas the Asian Soft Tennis Association is responsible for the proceedings in the continent.
The Bridge got in touch with Aniket, who holds a combined total of 21 gold, 19 silver and 29 bronze medals in International (14) and National Soft Tennis tournaments, and who largely attributes his sporting success to his coaches - Late Mr Vikas Doriaya and Mr Hasmukh Vegda who have trained him at a tennis academy in Maninagar.
What reaction do you get when you tell someone that you play soft tennis?
And how do you explain?
I explain them how it differs from tennis. The key difference being the type of ball used. Soft tennis uses an air-pumped rubber ball. The racquet is a mix between tennis and squash. It is lighter in weight and smaller than the tennis racquet. Rest all is similar to tennis.
And the scoring?
In tennis each game is scored as 15, 30, 40 and game. In soft tennis there is 1,2,3 and deuce. Instead of sets the focus is on the number of games that you win. Soft tennis is played as best of nine games format. Rallies are relatively longer in soft tennis. This is because the rubber ball has a tendency to drift in its trajectory making the rallies more intense and more unpredictable than in tennis.
Which aspect of soft tennis attracted you to the sport?
In 2007 there was a newly built tennis facility near Uttamnagar (Ahmedabad, India). I started playing tennis in 2008 and by 2013 I was a Top 10 player in U-12, U-14 and U-16 categories. In tennis, after a certain stage you realize the financial demands of the sport even to play ITF events. Additionally, I even had to balance my studies so my tennis path ended abruptly.
Then one fine day my coach (Mr Hasmukh) invited me to see a national event of soft tennis. A couple of months later I tried my hand at it and felt comfortable and at ease playing the sport. I had only 10 or 12 days to prepare for my first big event in soft tennis. I bagged the silver in the singles and team event, and got the bronze in doubles. So since then, I decided to pursue my path in this sport. Moreover, it does not have that monetary load that tennis has.
What are the most challenging aspects of soft tennis in terms of gameplay?
The biggest difference is the weather in which we play. In India, we are accustomed to warmer temperatures (35 to 45 degree centigrade) where the path of the rubber ball because of the moisture becomes more predictable. Most of the key soft tennis events played internationally are played in colder environments. The facility of play is cooler there. So, the rubber ball drifts more wayward than expected.
Is it difficult to learn this sport?
Yes definitely. In fact, you might take a bit more time to master soft tennis compared to lawn tennis. I say this because I have experienced both. Another thing is fitness. Yes, we do lack the necessary fitness but at the same time spectators don't realize that our players face a massive climate change when they play internationally. You are fatigued faster and obviously not everyone has the financial means to go somewhere else and train.
Do kids take up this sport enthusiastically?
Surprisingly yes. Our juniors are very much active in the National Games. There is one currently going on in Andhra Pradesh (18th Nationals).
Is there an app or website where interested people can follow the progress of our soft tennis players?
Amateur Soft Tennis Federation of India (softtennis.in) is a good website to follow the results of our players. You can also find results of all events dating back to the first National Games held in 2003.
How do International players look at India as a soft tennis playing nation?
Before the recently held Asian Games (Hangzhou), we had gone to a 20-day camp in South Korea. The Indonesian team was there for two months, Philippines were on a contract of two years. They would practice for three months and go home for a month and so on. We were a small group of Indian players who practiced for only 10 days and the remaining 8 days we played a tournament there. The teams that participated there were ones who routinely defeated us since the past 4 to 5 years.
In that tournament, we defeated both Indonesia and Philippines in the practice matches. At the end of our camp, we realized that teams started taking us seriously now because in such a short amount of practice time we were able to topple them in the tournament. The coaches of these sides, including Japan (currently the best team in soft tennis) also said that we were one of the finest teams for this year's Asian Games and certainly one to watch out for.
What is the type of financial shift that you have seen in elevating sports like soft tennis between the 2018 Asian Games to the 2022 (2023) Asian Games?
At a state-level the Gujarat government gives me 5 lakhs annually to cover my expenses which includes coaching, fitness, nutrition, equipment, tournaments. This is an incredibly low amount for any athlete who want to sustain themselves by taking sports as a career option. Before the pandemic I tried to get sponsors for myself but was it was a futile effort.
Gujarat's cash prize policy states that if you get a medal in Asian Games, depending on the colour of your medal you are entitled to money. But there is an asterisk in other championship and international tournaments that they have placed at the bottom where they have stated that they will not be considering any non-Olympic event for this policy. So irrespective of my heroics, since soft tennis is not an Olympic sport, I am by default not considered for the policy. For example, I have a medal from the 2019 Asian Championships which as per the policy is worth 15 lakhs. If the asterisk is removed, then I qualify for this amount.
How are policies of other states different when it comes to soft tennis?
Now compare this with soft tennis players from other states. Jay Meena, our No.1 player right now, has similar experiences and achievements to me. But he receives a cash-prize for his National-level medals. He has even received the Eklavya Award and Vikram Award which gave him a secured job. In contrast, I have more international medals and have received the Sardar Patel Award in 2015. I have also filled for the Eklavya Award in 2016 which is the highest accolade in Gujarat. But no incentives are linked to these.
Gujarat government has very good policies like Shaktidoot, Centre of Excellency and tournaments like Khel Mahakumbh which gives a platform for the district-level players to present themselves in state-level events and showcase their hidden talent. Shaktidoot scheme helped me a lot in playing international tournaments. But the shortcoming is that if I had a podium finish, nothing is given after that since it’s not an Olympic event. I believe giving incentives after the tournament in non-Olympic games will push young players to perform better and win more medals for the country.
The most recent example is that of our athlete Parul Choudhary. She gave a last moment push in her steeplechase. When she was asked what drove her in those seconds, she said that their government had offered a DSP job if they get a gold medal. Similarly, if Gujarat government also gives similar incentives to a non-Olympic event, then all the players would shine brighter and will have an added motivation to bring pride to the nation.
When you travel with fellow soft tennis players as a group, do you ever have conversations with them regarding these financial hassles?
When you look around and see how your fellow players are prospering, there is a breaking limit that you reach. Rohit Dhiman and myself travel together. Rohit is from Chandigarh and the sporting policy he falls under is eerily similar to that of Gujarat. We do discuss and keep a track of sporting policies of other states.
For example, players from Madhya Pradesh get a cash prize if they perform well in nationals and an award if they perform well in internationals which also helps them secure a job for themselves. Even in Haryana the national games medalist gets a job and cash incentives as well. In Uttar Pradesh, with all these benefits the government have also hired a specific coach for men’s and women’s soft tennis team which helps them get better training and perform well. Similarly, Tamil Nadu has another extra benefit of admission in good universities based on soft tennis achievements.
Players from other states are already secured financially giving them ample time to work on their game. We have to manage our jobs, coaching, training to run a house. When we communicate, we have to often defend our position to the other players. Since we have no job security from the government's end, if we do not perform, we are out of the team, and running a house becomes an uphill task.
Do you still have any hope?
Our central government has a good vision for sports but the translation is not clearly seen at a state-level in non-Olympic games. Somewhere the governments need to understand that if they invest in a new sport like soft tennis that is relatively recent, then we will have a short ladder to climb for success. You are seeing this model in action in pickleball.
I have represented India in two Asian Games, once in Asian Championships, once in World Championships; in some of these events I have had a podium finish. There are no other big events left for me to represent India in soft tennis. As a soft tennis player, I have a complete resume. But the returns from the government? Nothing. I do agree that the medal tally at these big events is less. But our results have never dropped.
Consider the Hangzhou Asian Games, where we finished fifth in the team event which included a win against former champions Cambodia (that too in a after a practice camp of only 20 days) in group stage and we won a match each against Chinese Taipei, Korea and Indonesia. In a sport that began after the 21st century in India, I believe I have done more than enough along with players like Jay and Rohit to elevate this game in our country. So, if you ask me if I have any hope, I will say "yes."