Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan is pensive. He has lost another match from a position of strength. This time in the first round of the US $10,000 ITF men’s tournament in Tumon, Guam. Ever since he turned pro 11 years ago at 15, it has been a gruelling journey for international ranking points. Currently ranked 403 in the world, Jeevan is constantly on the move, playing small tournaments across the globe, to keep and better his rank. At 26, he is a tennis journeyman. Not the one scorching the Grand Slam courts. But one committed to his world of tennis — competitive and challenging, at times torturous, but mostly just lonely.
“Tennis is not a fair sport. Everything depends on the level you are on and how much you are able to invest in it financially. Compared to the effort and financial burden players take on, the monetary perks are low,” says Jeevan. “When I started playing on the pro circuit, I had just come out of the ITF (International Tennis Federation) juniors, where I was a top-10 player. The pro circuit is lonely because results don’t come as easily as in juniors,” he adds.
He had a good run at the juniors, winning the Asian junior doubles title twice with Sanam Singh. In fact, multiple Grand Slam champion Mahesh Bhupathi, impressed by Jeevan’s game, wanted to guide him on the pro circuit. But that did not happen, owing mainly to technical reasons. Jeevan knows chasing your tennis dreams comes at a cost. “The hardest part about trying to graduate from semi-pro to pro tennis is the financial investment. Without a proper support team, the weeks can feel very long. So, in 2007, I decided to quit pro tennis for a while and went to finish my undergrad in the US. I came back four years later and found myself performing better.”
In India, a tennis player has to fend for himself — from sponsorship to tournament appearances. “Procuring sponsorship for flight and other expenses is not easy, especially because tennis is not widely followed outside the slams. So, if sponsors are not helping the players make it to that level, it is rhetorical to wonder why India does not see world-class talent in tennis. We celebrate mediocrity,” says Jeevan.
“I would never want anyone to get into the sport unless they have the drive to play without expecting to make money from the game. Only a needle in the haystack of players makes a living out of playing the sport,” he adds. Jeevan has won six singles and 19 doubles titles in the professional circuit so far and enjoyed a career-best rank of 293 last year. In May, he was ranked 213 in doubles.
It has been a difficult journey, but one that has helped him grow. “It is about perception. You mature with the losses. I ask myself why am I playing the sport. Is it just to make money and judge myself on wins and losses? I must enjoy the journey. Over the years, the sport has taught me valuable lessons. Tennis has helped me mature as a human being first and then a sportsperson.” He has been around long enough to know the advantages. Even when his playing years are behind him, Jeevan knows, tennis will still give him options. He could be a coach, a travelling partner or a supervisor. “Tennis prepares you for life and it is scary, exciting and also rewarding. Once one is able to come to terms with these things, then a player can have a successful career.”
For someone who plays in at least 10 countries a year, travel is always a solitary pursuit. A trainer, physio or coach — the best bet to avoid injuries — are luxuries he cannot afford. The struggles on the court aside, there are other set of things he has to handle alone. Finding places to stay, booking the cheapest flights, counting miles with airlines, and preparing documents and equipment are done alongside working out of poor form, minor adjustments to technique and devising match strategy. To an outsider, Jeevan’s life may appear fetching with travel and play often making his day. “My friends are sometimes jealous but little do they know I travel to these difficult countries to collect ATP points. Those weeks when all I do is travel from the hotel room to the tennis court and back are monotonous. The only silver lining, if you consider this one, is the gold status on Star Alliance I earned from the myriad flights from one corner of the world to another.” When he is lonely, Jeevan turns to his USB. “It has documentaries and movies and then there are my books. Viber and WhatsApp help a lot.”
In Jeevan’s tennis world, there is no glamour and affluence. It is a grind. There is definitely despair and he occasionally reflects on his decision to become a professional player. Yet, the journey continues. Bags are packed, ticket confirmed and it is time for the next flight and court. As a pro, he is game.
( Vijay Lokapally is Deputy Editor (Sports), The Hindu)