Of a single mind

Grit and grime: Despite lacking a huge serve or a powerful forehand, Somdev Devvarman would wear his opponents down with long rallies   -  R Ragu

Journeyman Somdev Devvarman’s decision to retire at 31, after a short but proud career, puts the spotlight back on why Indian tennis still fails to produce ace singles players

Starting 2017 on a new note, retiring from pro tennis. Thanks to everyone for the love and support over the years. #newyearnewbeginnings

– Somdev Devvarman

There was no extravagant press conference, a luxury that is often accorded to cricketers in India. Not even a relayed statement through the All India Tennis Association (AITA). Somdev Devvarman, once ranked 62 in the world in men’s singles, announced his retirement from the professional circuit in a tweet on New Year’s Day, and that was it.

Devvarman’s decision — at a fairly competitive age of 31 — brought to an end a career that had seen him finish runner-up in two ATP World Tour events: the 2009 Chennai Open where he lost to former US Open champion Marin Čilić and the 2011 South African Open where he lost to former world number 10 Kevin Anderson. In a career that spanned just over eight years, Devvarman produced the kind of singles performances not seen from an Indian player since Sania Mirza’s early days.

Devvarman’s announcement also came on the sidelines of India’s only ATP event, the Chennai Open, which he has lit up since 2009, only a year after turning pro. As feisty as he was on the court, his candour off it defined him as a person. “Playing for me was always super fun and passion, that was dying or slowing down,” was his assessment upon the announcement, stressing that his best tennis years were behind him. His singles ranking had dropped to 909 in 2016, when he last played a competitive fixture.

Sporting successes in India outside of cricket — also badminton to an extent over the last decade — have usually been about singular heroics more than producing champions from a well-established system. Devvarman has often been vocal about his disapproval of how tennis is run in the country and was one of 11 players who led a revolt against the AITA to bring about change in 2013.

It wasn’t the only time Devvarman had taken on the might of the AITA. In an open letter days after announcing his retirement, he was scathing in his criticism of the tennis body for their handling of 19-year-old Sumit Nagal, who was ridiculed by office bearers after being dropped from the Indian team for the Davis Cup tie against New Zealand in February 2017.

Devvarman hasn’t confirmed or denied the rumours of him coaching India’s Davis Cup side. His eagerness to work with current players on the Davis Cup circuit — he was seen putting in the hard yards with reserve player Prajnesh Gunneswaran in Chennai — indicate that this journeyman professional may continue his association with Indian tennis.

The functioning of the IATA, in the opinion of several players, is the main reason behind India’s poor show in terms of quality singles performers. The near-prohibitive cost of tennis as a pursuit — unlike badminton — makes matters more complicated. In a recent report in Daily News & Analysis, Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, ranked number 293 in the world, explains that after spending a fortune n different stages of coaching coming up the ranks, players have to fund their participation in international tournaments until the time a singles player breaks into the top 150. Hence it becomes difficult to produce a steady stream of top-quality tennis players year after year with such expenses. Lack of sponsorships as well as support from the governing body, adds to the problem.

Former doubles world number three Rohan Bopanna is excited by the prospect of the new players coming through, especially in the doubles circuit, and, in a recent conversation with BL ink, said they could better the performances of predecessors: “Among new doubles pairs coming up from India, Purav Raja and Divij Sharan are doing well,” he said. “They also had a good grass court season. Unfortunately they lost a close match in the Wimbledon qualifiers — I was hoping they’d qualify, which would have given us another team in the main draw. There are other guys too. Saketh (Myneni) and Jeevan (Nedunchezhiyan), for example. So a number of players are coming up, and I’m sure we’ll have more guys ranked much higher.”

There are older players still competing on the tour, Leander Paes, Bopanna and Mirza for instance, who are all approaching the end of their careers. Devvarman’s announcement puts an abrupt end to the career of one of the most promising names to have emerged from Indian tennis since Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Bopanna and Mirza, all of whom debuted years before him.

In his dogged refusal of not following the footsteps of his illustrious peers to play doubles, Devvarman showcased a dedication to his skill that helped him win back-to-back NCAA titles in the US, in 2007 and 2008. That he is one of only three since 1950 to have achieved that feat speaks volumes of his determination.

Despite lacking a huge serve or a powerful forehand in the age of strong baseline tennis, Devvarman chose to wear his opposition down with long rallies and sheer defiance when faced with defeat. Injuries tend to hamper players who adopt such physical gameplay, but it’s what brought Devvarman gold medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games (men’s singles) and Asian Games (men’s singles and doubles).

In an era of Indians who have enjoyed considerable success in the doubles game, Devvarman bucked the trend and carved out a proud — albeit short — singles career. In an extremely intense, and often intimidating, era of singles tennis, he stood out with performances so uplifting that it could become the blueprint for a generation. And by the looks of it, he will be around chirping encouragement into their ears.

Tanmoy Mookherjee is a Delhi-based sports writer

Published on February 03, 2017
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