Being positive is the key

In the world of professional tennis Somdev Devvarman has carved an identity for himself, writes Kamesh Srinivasan.

Know your limitations, and try to overcome them. That seems to be the mantra of Somdev Devvarman, the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games gold medallist, as he climbs up the ATP ladder with perseverance.

Devvarman, aged 26, a two-time NCAA singles champion, has reached a career-best No. 66 in the ATP rankings which has become a new benchmark for Indian tennis, after Leander Paes had reached a career-best 73 in 1998.

A legion of players tried to project a positive image of Indian tennis after Ramesh Krishnan, who had a career-best ranking of No. 23 in 1985, but none came close to making the Top-100 barring the Olympic bronze medallist, Paes, who later diversified as a doubles player and became No. 1. Prakash Amritraj came up to 154 (in 2009), S. Vasudevan reached 166 (in 1986), and Zeeshan Ali made it to 126 (in 1988). Players such as Rohan Bopanna (213) and Mahesh Bhupathi (217) could not even break into the Top-200 despite their big game, while someone like Prahlad Srinath could not break into the Top-300.

Devvarman's inconsistency and the unexplained defeats to less-fancied opponents have often caught the eye, particularly at a time when fans are so fascinated by the manner in which Novak Djokovic of Serbia has kept such a tight hold on giants like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer while getting off to a fabulous start (37-0) this season, a start that threatens to overhaul the record of John McEnroe (42-0).

However, in the world of professional tennis that demands the best out of the players on a day-to-day basis at every level, there is no doubt that Devvarman has carved an identity for himself. He promises to go far, far beyond our modest expectations.

“He should improve in the next couple of seasons or so. You have to keep in mind that he has had a late start as a travelling pro. In 2011, he is also getting opportunities to play the Nadals and Federers which is an important part of his tennis education,” said Ramesh Krishnan, the former captain of the Indian Davis Cup team.

After reaching his second Tour event final in Johannesburg, and beating Janko Tipsarevic (ranked No. 45 in the world then) in the Davis Cup against champion Serbia, Devvarman won five matches including two in the qualifying event of the ATP Tour Masters in Indian Wells before losing to the World No. 1, Rafael Nadal, 5-7, 4-6. He beat Marcos Baghdatis (World No. 22) of Cyprus and Xavier Malisse (No. 52) of Belgium apart from Adrian Mannarino (No. 59) of France which did his confidence a world of good.

Devvarman kept up his good work and beat two top-50 players (Potito Starace, Italy, and Milos Raonic, Canada) in Miami. He impressed one and all by stopping the 26th-ranked Guillermo Garcia-Lopez of Spain with a 7-6 (6), 2-6, 7-6 (8) victory in the second round on clay in Belgrade. It was some accomplishment, especially after Devvarman had lost against the same player three weeks earlier in Houston when he won just five games in all.

Beating higher-ranked players with such consistency has made experts believe that Devvarman, who relies on his strong legs and intense approach, can move forward if he fine tunes his defensive game.

“This season, he is winning a lot more matches, beating players ranked in the Top-50 consistently. It means that he should get within the Top-50 soon. I also feel a win over a top-notch player will boost his confidence,” said Ramesh.

Devvarman himself is quite pleased with his performance. “I think a lot of it just comes with the confidence after winning a couple of close matches. After my results in Johannesburg, I felt really confident, and things just started happening for me on the court. I will keep working hard and I hope I keep improving,” he said.

Coach Ilyas Hussain, who had worked with Devvarman for nearly five years, both at the Britannia Amritraj Tennis (BAT) Centre and otherwise in Chennai, observed: “Som has stuck to his style of play from his young days. Our aim was to ensure sound technique. He is a tough guy with a strong mind.

There is a lot of change in Devvarman's game. “I have made a lot of improvements already in my serve, return and ground-strokes. I feel like if I can stay with it and be more consistent with my play in the Tour level matches, I will be able to break into the Top-50 and have good enough results to stay there,” said Devvarman.

Devvarman's travelling coach Scott McCain analyses his game and fixes the targets for him.

“Increased length and speed on ground-strokes, better court positioning, better return of serve, holding serve more often, significantly improved forehand and second serve, superior physical training…” McCain reeled off as he pointed to the areas for improvement for Devvarman.

He also underlined the fact that the race was on for Devvarman to get the 900 ATP points to make the Top-50.

Talking of Devvarman's game, Ramesh Krishnan said: “Somdev is physically fit which is a big plus point. He is a counter-puncher and relies a bit too much on opponents' mistakes. He does not force enough errors out of his opponents. A little more pace and playing the ball a bit early might add that extra dimension to his game.

While everyone is hoping to see Devvarman break into the Top-50, Sunil Yajaman, who was the Development Officer at the All India Tennis Association (AITA) when the lad was making his mark, said that he has the potential to get into the Top-20 and would be at his best in 2013.

“I have seen him as a 10-year-old in Chennai. I was impressed by Buji's athleticism and attitude on court. He was the most focused, hard working and hungry kid out there. One of the main points was that he did not have any pressure from his parents,” recalled Yajaman.

Nearly 10 years ago, Yajaman had written to the ITF (International Tennis Federation) that Devvarman should be drafted into its Grand Slam junior team to Europe as he had the potential to be a Top-100 player in the men's circuit. Devvarman proved him right by winning the $15,000 ITF men's Futures tournament in Kolkata in March 2004.

Positive attitude is Devvarman's forte. And he believes in trying his best at all times and against all opponents.