A struggle all the way

In the right spirit... the runner-up of the ITF Futures tournament, Vijayant Malik, greets victor Saketh Myneni (left) after their singles final at the Chandigarh Lawn Tennis Association complex.-AKHILESH KUMAR In the right spirit... the runner-up of the ITF Futures tournament, Vijayant Malik, greets victor Saketh Myneni (left) after their singles final at the Chandigarh Lawn Tennis Association complex.

“I am sure I can play better and win outside India as well. The key is to stay healthy,” says Saketh Myneni, who won the ITF Futures tournament in Chandigarh recently. By Kamesh Srinivasan.

Saketh Myneni, who turned professional after graduating with a double major from the University of Alabama, has shown signs in the last two years of rising in Indian tennis. The manner in which the 6ft 4in tall player cut through the field — which had the best of Indian players — to win the ITF Men’s Futures tournament in Chandigarh recently was encouraging.

The variable pace of the courts was disconcerting, but Myneni had the big game to take things in his stride. He was a bit off the mark initially in the final against local lad Vijayant Malik, a product of the Chandigarh rural scheme, but found his rhythm quickly to race to his fifth singles title at this level. The fact that he had beaten second-seeded Sriram Balaji for the loss of only two games, while Malik had tamed top-seeded Yuki Bhambri put things in perspective.

No doubt, both Bhambri and Vishnu Vardhan, also a Davis Cup player, were not fully fit (the former had suffered a twisted ankle and the latter had a side strain), but there was no denying Myneni his due, or for that matter the precious 27 ATP points that came with the title.

“I am not happy with my game yet. I need to work on it to get to the Challenger level,” said the 25-year-old, who is a resident of Hyderabad.

Myneni had played in the international men’s circuit a bit, mainly in the qualifying stage, in 2005 before he went to the United States for higher studies. On return, he capitalised on a qualifying wild card to make the semi-finals of the Fenesta National Championship in 2011, where he teased the eventual champion Bhambri. In fact, Myneni was up 3-2 and 40-15 on his serve in the deciding set before losing 5-7 to the former World No. 1 junior.

Myneni had given a fair hint of his prowess then. He needed to play in the professional circuit to get better and beat the players who mattered in Indian tennis.

It was a struggle, for he was not ranked, either at the international or national level. Despite making the semi-finals of the Fenesta Nationals, the points were not credited in time — before the cut-off date for sending in entries — to enable him to make it at least to the qualifying event of the ITF Futures in Chennai in November 2011.

Through former Indian Davis Cup captain S. P. Misra, Myneni sought a wild card for the qualifying event, but he eventually got a wild card for the main draw. And he did not belie the faith placed on him, as he captured both the singles and doubles titles in his first professional tournament.

Thereafter Myneni has just marched on, winning three of his five singles titles in Chennai, his favourite hunting ground. He also entered two other finals, but lost to Sanam Singh and Prakash Amritraj.

“It was a tough period, as getting entry was difficult. When I was not getting entries in India, I planned to play the tournaments in the US. But for the visa, they were asking me whether I was nationally ranked,” recalled Myneni.

He loves to play in warm conditions, which is one major reason why he has been winning in India. Myneni, however, said that he has to win abroad as well to become a complete player. Reaching the semi-finals of a tournament in the ITF pro circuit in the US has been the best for him outside the country. He has competed in Australia, China and Germany apart from the US, but the cold conditions have often affected his play.

“I am sure I can play better and win outside India as well. The key is to stay healthy,” Myneni remarked. Following the tough grind in the US Collegiate circuit, he had to undergo a surgery to fix his injured shoulder. Thanks to the top-class medical support and a carefully monitored rehabilitation programme, he came out of it well and with his strong serve intact.

Myneni was known for his big game in the US Collegiate circuit and was nicknamed ‘Sake Bomb’ (‘Sake’ in Japanese is an alcoholic drink made of rice).

The best thing about Myneni is that he has an all-round game. He can play the big game, but at the same time also play the waiting game, with sizzling slices that he unleashes with a lot of variety. “When I was a kid, I used to go with my dad to the club and play against all those crafty veterans. So, I have been blessed with a variety of styles. It is a rare combination,” he said.

Myneni was part of the six-member Indian squad for the Davis Cup tie against New Zealand in Chandigarh last September. Eventually, he had to sit out along with Sriram Balaji. Later, when he was part of the players’ revolt, he missed a chance of representing the country. “We were sure that we were fighting for a cause. The players were united,” he recalled, happy to have lent his support to players’ solidarity despite the fact that the AITA (All India Tennis Association) and S. P. Misra had been good to him with timely wild cards when he was trying to establish himself in the country.

Myneni has the ability to adjust to any challenge on and off the court. He is happy and determined. He has been accumulating ATP points religiously to be able to enter the top-300 soon.

Used to excellent facilities in the US, Myneni was floored by the world-class academy that Sania Mirza has established in Hyderabad. He went to the Sania Mirza Academy and played with her to get a feel of the atmosphere there. It opened his eyes to what Sania had achieved and what India can achieve.

ITF FUTURES RESULTS

Singles final: Saketh Myneni beat Vijayant Malik 3-6, 6-1, 6-4.

Semi-finals: Vijayant Malik beat V. M. Ranjeet 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (3); Saketh Myneni beat Vishnu Vardhan 6-2 (retired).

Doubles final: Sriram Balaji and V. M. Ranjeet beat Arunprakash Rajagopalan and Vishnu Vardhan 6-3, 6-4.