Another big step forward

Somdev Devvarman after his loss to Marin Cilic (left) in the final of the Chennai Open in January this year.-R. RAGU Somdev Devvarman after his loss to Marin Cilic (left) in the final of the Chennai Open in January this year.

Somdev Devvarman is a fighter. He may not have the big weapons, but he more than makes up for it with his big heart that never gives up, writes Kamesh Srinivasan.

You can never keep him down. Somdev Devvarman has the knack of bouncing back even if he is grounded for weeks together.

The lad with strong legs has proved that he also has a stout heart and will never give in without a fight in the intensely competitive world of men’s professional tennis. Somdev may not be in the top 100 yet, but he can play like one, as he showed in Chennai in January, and more recently in Washington DC.

Somdev, 24, had missed a maiden tour title and an additional $36,000 in prize money when he lost to Marin Cilic of Croatia, then ranked No. 27 in the world, in the final of the Chennai Open. And despite the alarming string of defeats thereafter, Somdev came up with a solid game to defeat the 15th-ranked Cilic, 7-5, 6-4, in Washington DC in the second round. As he had done the previous week in Los Angeles, Somdev had qualified for the main draw of the $1,402,000 Legg Mason Classic.

Cilic has had a fabulous season this year, reaching the pre-quarterfinals of the Australian Open and French Open and the third round of Wimbledon. He had also won the title in Zagreb and, more recently, piloted Croatia to a memorable triumph over the US, winning both his singles matches, against Mardy Fish and James Blake.

Somdev’s victory over Cilic, thus, was a huge psychological boost for the Indian even though he was beaten by the 25th-ranked Ivo Karlovic of Croatia in the next round.

In Chennai, Somdev had beaten the towering Karlovic before losing to Cilic. Though his victory over Cilic could fetch the Indian only $12,250, it has ignited fresh hopes among the Indian fans. The hard-working Somdev, after all, has the onus of propping up Indian tennis at the moment.

Quite clearly, the two-time NCAA champion has the ability to beat some of the best players in the world. Somdev proved that by beating Carlos Moya in Chennai and Yen-Hsun Lu in the Davis Cup tie against Chinese Taipei.

It may be unfair to compare him with John Isner of the US, the 6ft. 10in. giant whom Somdev had tamed in winning his first NCAA title in 2007. For, Isner quickly made an impact in the professional circuit by winning five matches on the trot in the third-set tie break in Washington DC as a wild card before he lost the final to Andy Roddick. That apart, Isner also took a set off Roger Federer in the US Open in 2007 before losing in four sets. That was the only tie-break Federer had lost in a Grand Slam out of 16 that season. More recently, Isner beat the third-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Washington DC.

Unlike Isner, Somdev does not get so many free points on his serve, and thus has to really work on his game. With the support of his coach Jacek Wolicki, the Indian had indeed managed to climb to a career-high of No. 127 in the world in July.

Will he break into the top 100, and if so, when?

After Leander Paes, Indian tennis has not seen a player in the top 100 in men’s singles in the last decade. However, the good point is that the wait may not be long, as Somdev is literally on home ground, on his favourite hard courts. He has not been able to get a chance in the Grand Slam tournaments except for a qualifying round in Wimbledon. If he gets to play in the US Open, Somdev could really make a qualitative jump and step into the big league.

Well, if you put his career in perspective, you can really appreciate the progress Somdev has made with clear thought and correct planning. He refused to believe that he had opened his professional career very well when he won the Futures title in March 2004. Instead, he opted to train in the US by going for higher education.

As a junior, Somdev was ranked a career-best 40 in singles and No. 6 in doubles. In the Asian Junior Championship, his last tournament in the ITF junior circuit in 2003, he lost in the semifinals to the eventual champion R. Arun Prakash, but won the doubles title with Karan Rastogi.

Indeed, from such humble foundations Somdev has been able to build a solid career for himself. He will be the spearhead of the Indian team which will take on South Africa for a berth in the elite World Group in September. Although Australia refused to make it to Chennai for the Asia-Oceania tie, Somdev showed great character by training in right earnest to be at his best for National duty. Somdev is a fighter. He may not have the big weapons, but he more than makes up for it with his big heart that never gives up.

Somdev had made the quarterfinals of Washington last year as a qualifier before losing to Igor Kunitsyn of Russia. Thereby he may not have progressed in terms of ranking, but his country has definitely gained from his performance.

A more confident Somdev is the biggest weapon for Indian tennis.