It will be the easiest of things to pigeon-hole him as a champion with royal roots in the north-east and romanticise it. But the ambitious young man goes far beyond conventional boundaries. Consider this: He is politically aware and follows the Northeast like few other contemporaries; He says it is not right how we get used to things like bomb blasts in our cities; and, he wrote a poem when he was deeply affected by 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai; he strums the guitar and plays the mouth organ, as well.
The strapping lad who stands nearly six feet tall will continue play his brand of tennis through the year ahead but you can be sure that he will serve constant reminders how he is not just a tennis player. “There’s more to me than that,” the 24-year-old is bound to reiterate. “It’s important for me to be involved in life and the community.” Indeed, Somdev Devvarman is a refreshingly unusual champion whose life goes beyond a boundary. Not for him the single-minded focus on his gifts and his trade all the time.
Then again, you will be delighted that he has already emerged the flagbearer of Indian tennis on the ATP Tour ahead of men like Prakash Amritraj and Rohan Boppanna. For a nation starved of champions and fed on a diet of doubles wizardry by warring aces Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, Devvarman comes as a delightful surprise. From being 1036 on the charts at the start of 2008 to 153 now, he has made a swift trip, arousing expectations all around him.
His sensational showing in the ATP tournament in Chennai where he beat former World No. 1 Carlos Moya won him many admirers. “Somdev is a good fighter and is endowed with the temperament for big-match play,” says the grand old man of Indian tennis, Ramanthanan Krishnan, a world No. 4 in his time and leading the chorus. “He is an effortless player with solid groundstrokes and has proved to be an opportunist on court. He has a fairly good serve, complemented by quick footwork.”
Somdev’s meteoric start in 2009 has taken him from 200 to 154 in the ATP rankings but the moot question is: Can he keep rising up the charts? “The climb to the top 100 is dog-eat-dog territory,” reminds one of India’s greatest Davis Cup captains Naresh Kumar. “They are all strong, talented, very hungry and ready to kill or die for a match.”
Krishnan says the young man should learn to volley more as big matches are still won in the forecourt. Naresh Kumar has more well-meaning advice. “Somdev needs to be fitter, stronger and mentally tougher. An additional 10 kmph to serve would make things easier for him. And if he could hit his shots a couple of yards deeper, he can be a more competitive. To sum up, Somdev needs to get more muscle on his body to increase the all-round power in his game and develop a winning shot. It can certainly be done. I remember Agassi who went from being lean to musuclar in the time between two Wimbledon championships.”
A good blueprint has been drawn up for the young man, beginning with his signing Mamba International to represent him. That has ensured he has a travelling coach Jacek Wolicki. It has also meant that he could steer clear of the politics that rocked Indian tennis in the past decade. Happily for him, both Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have taken to him and he does not have to align himself with either superstar to make his presence felt on the Indian tennis firmament.
For all that, he will have to come to terms with the pressure of expectations as he experiences the roller-coaster ride on the ATP Tour. The heart-warming fact is that he is quite rooted to earth. He knows the rest of the year can be fraught with pitfalls which will be a searching test of his skills and temperament. “I don’t want to go ahead of myself and it is one tournament and one performance, not an entire year. I don’t want to think of me as something I am not,” he said about his run to the final in the Chennai Open. More than anyone else, he is aware that he cannot rest on the oars after the year’s opening event. And he has already experienced the highs and lows in a month, losing to Lukasz Kubot in the Australian Open qualifiers and to Scoville Jenkins in the opening round of the Carson tournament.
What will stand him in good stead are his great resolve and mental toughness, not to speak of a work ethic that is demanded by top-flight sports. If he didn’t already know, a certain Andy Roddick – he has been in the top 10 for seven years in a row – introduced him to that discipline over three weeks in Austin, Texas. “The tennis and training was an incredible experience and I learned a lot,” says Devvarman. “There was some tennis but a lot of track workouts with his conditioning coach. We woke up early every morning and made it out to the track for brutal but great workouts. It was fun for me to work out with him and see how he goes about his business. In the evenings we would go out and hit some balls. I’ve definitely also enjoyed being around him off the court and seeing how professional he is with everything. It has made me more conscious about my eating habits, workouts, sleeping habits, work ethic and just all the little things that it takes for him to be in the top 10. It’s very motivating for me to work harder and harder.”
“He is a hard worker and he deserves the success that will come his way,” says University of Virginia coach Brian Boland who saw the Indian emerge as one of only 13 players to have won back-to-back NCAA Division I Singles titles in the 124-year history of the tournament. “He’s a special guy. He’s gracious, articulate and a tremendous leaders. He’s a great person. He talked a lot about hard work and he has developed. His ability to go from neutral to attack in a hurry is one area he has improved.”
For the moment, when Devvarman tells you “I’m just starting to love everything about it,” you have to stand back and admire him as champion who understands sociology. His poem on Bombay – perhaps incomplete yet or kept under wraps after completion – will make interesting reading. He has a soul that appears humble, an able body that responds to the call of his mind but, more importantly, Somdev Devvarman has the heart of a champion. Indeed, it would be foolhardy to even think of pigeon-holing him as a champion from the Northeast