Former Indian singles pro Somdev Devvarman has called criticism directed towards Dominic Thiem for his contrarian stand on the relief fund for lower-ranked tennis players ‘unjust’, termin the Austrian’s argument ‘valid’.
The relief fund for lower-ranked players struggling financially, set up on Novak Djokovic-led Player Council’s call, has resurrected the pay disparity debate in tennis. While many top professionals are on board, world No. 3 Thiem has copped flak for refusing to contribute toward the fund, for which all top-100 players are expected to chip in between upwards of $5000-$30,000 on a sliding scale.
“It’s more about being forced into a decision of how you want to spend your money. Thiem has been generous towards a bunch of charity drives and makes a valid argument when he says he wants to be able to choose the causes he wishes to support. It’s unjust to criticise him.”
India has 13 singles players ranked between 150-700 across both ATP and WTA, the section that the fund being raised worldwide is likely to be aimed towards. Somdev, the 2010 Asian Games singles gold medallist believes that instead of ‘charity’ measures, interest-free loans for players in need that can be paid back incrementally through future earnings might make for a more sensible solution. Devvarman, who rose to career-high singles ranking of No. 62 in 2011 (no Indian player has since breached the spot), argues that there are a lot of players outside the top 150 who have more earnings than fresh top 100 entrants.
“My idea is everybody who is getting this money may not really need it. The larger, more long-term question is of reducing the pay gap. Right now, the number of people worldwide who make money from playing tennis professionally would roughly be around 500 if you take the top 200 in the men’s and women’s singles and 50 players each from the doubles. The goal should be to raise that number to 2000 or 5000 and have more people from different countries make a living out of tennis. The top players may have to be paid less to make equitable distribution a possibility.”
Closer home, Devvarman offers that once competitions resume, a national league possibly could provide players a systemic pathway to development.
“It’s what Indian tennis needs,” he says. “A national league is the only way our local players can grow. We need a much better tournament structure so that everyone in the ecosystem – be it an amateur, above 45 years in the veteran category, a wheelchair player or a junior – have enough number of events to play in the country. The marketing around the events and the events alone should be really good and these should be ones everybody aspires to play and win at. You want to create that kind of culture of having tons of events right through the year.”
Following his retirement in 2017, Devvarman has been closely involved in development and advisory roles of Indian sport. “More events will ensure that all the various stakeholders in the sport, whether it’s academies or racquet string sales and distribution, gets a lift. It has to be across various levels – cities, districts, states and national. Simply put, our goal should be to get more people to play the sport. It will only happen when there are enough number of structured tournaments.”
The 35-year-old Indian has taken up the cudgels of offering support to needy communities both within and outside tennis in India. He runs a not-for-profit charity start-up for underprivileged kids and his first public music gig at the Covelong Point surf, music and yoga festival in Chennai last year with a five-member band, By The Way, brought him closer to the surfing community. An avid surfer himself, Devvarman got a few friends too to pitch in with help when the pandemic struck.
“The surfing boys communicated to us that their community could do with a little assistance and we managed to raise a decent amount. From there, we took it forward and spoke to a few people in the tennis circle. Rico (Enrico Piperno) was one of the first ones to call with the idea of helping ball kids and markers. We had Sania (Mirza), Rohan (Bopanna), Mahesh (Bhupathi) and Leander (Paes), chipping in, putting out a message and eager to be of help. We managed to raise around 7 lakhs and reach 100 families and we’re ready to do more if needed. It’s the ball kids, markers and ground staff who bring the vibe to tennis tournaments and we want to be able to sustain them in the sport.”