‘I have come a long way’

The winning feeling... The Indian camp is up in joy after taking a 3-1 lead in the Davis Cup tie against South Africa in Johannesburg.-AP

Somdev Devvarman is confident of India progressing in the Davis Cup World Group. “If a team like Israel can do it (make it to the semifinals) with one great player in Dudi Sela, we can also do it,” he says in a chat with Kamesh Srinivasan.

Somdev Devvarman was India’s hero in the Davis Cup tie against South Africa recently. He won a marathon match, lasting four hours and 44 minutes, against Rik de Voest of South Africa to steer India into the World Group of the prestigious tournament.

More than his game, it was the 24-year-old player’s fighting spirit that won him all-round admiration. Playing on foreign soil in unfavourable conditions and a break down in the third set after losing the first two sets, Somdev did not lose heart as he pulled off a memorable victory from the brink. Incidentally, this was India’s longest match in the Davis Cup, the earlier one being the contest between Rohan Bopanna and Martin Verkerk of Holland in 2003 that lasted four hours and 35 minutes. Bopanna had lost 10-12 in the fifth set of that match.

Somdev, quite fittingly, got a rousing reception when he landed in New Delhi, a day after India’s victory and was constantly in the media glare. The energetic youngster, who has also had some good results on the professional tour in recent months which included a second round appearance at the U.S. Open as a qualifier, spoke to Sportstar before leaving for Bangkok for the ATP Tour event.

Excerpts from the interview:

Question: How happy were you with the reception?

Answer: It was a pleasant surprise. I am actually overwhelmed. It is a good feeling to find so many following our game, particularly as I have not been in India for some time.

Are you happy to have opted to come here straight after the Davis Cup triumph?

Obviously, I am happy to be here. But this was planned about two months ago. Luckily, everything fell in place.

The opposition did not have the rankings to intimidate us, but the conditions were tough for you in South Africa?

Yes. I would have preferred a slightly slower court, and not that much altitude. But more than anything, the way Rik de Voest played was really good. That was the toughest thing for me to face.

Rohan Bopanna was the surprise packet?

It was a brilliant performance from Rohan. It took the pressure away from me. He was returning after a bad knee and playing his first big match on the big stage. After being down a set, he stepped it up dramatically. It was very inspiring.

You have had a good season so far. Where would you put your victory (against Rik de Voest)?

Definitely up there. There were so many factors that were against me. Considering the circumstances and the situation from where I bounced back, and the fact that the win helped India get back into the World Group, this was the best match that I had ever played.

You have beaten some top players such as the 15th-ranked Marin Cilic and the former world No. 1 Carlos Moya . . .

Yes, but it is a completely different thing to play for your country. It is a great feeling to play for something bigger than yourself. You play Davis Cup with great pride and that is why it is important for me.

You beat the 59th-ranked Yen Hsun Lu of Chinese Taipei for the loss of just six games in the Davis Cup regional competition. You won both your singles then also...

We played South Africa because we beat Chinese Taipei. That was the stepping stone. The situation was different. The conditions were almost ideal for me in Taipei. It was outdoor and a neutral court. Both Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were there in the doubles. Against South Africa, I think the whole team did a great job in much tougher conditions.

It is going to be a lot tougher in the World Group…

For sure, we will be ready for the challenge. Wherever the tie is held (against Russia in Russia, as it turned out in the draw later), I will be there early to prepare. If a team like Israel can do it (Israel made it to the semifinals of the Davis Cup, defeating Russia 4-1 in July) with one great player in Dudi Sela, we can also do it. We have a world-class doubles combination in Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. I don’t think that any team would take us lightly.

You had been having a bad patch, how did you manage to revert to good form and post good results in recent weeks?

When you play any sport, you always know that there will be ups and downs; it is generally a roller-coaster ride. You always try to control things that you can. I was always working really hard. I had the belief deep down that I had the game, and that at some point, things would turn around. If you keep doing the right things over and over again, it will pay off.

The hero returns... Somdev Devvarman on arrival at the Indira Gandhi International airport in New Delhi.-R. V. MOORTHY

The US circuit revived your fortunes as you are comfortable playing on hard courts?

I always want to be ready for a situation. That is why I work hard and train well. Whenever the opportunity arises, I want to be ready, and take it. A lot of things you can’t control, but you have got to be ready.

The change of coach has also helped…

My current coach is Scott McCain. He has about 20 years of experience. I think it is a good move to have him. He has helped players ranked 200 and 300 to break into the top 100. We don’t really have a contract. We are just working it out. Both of us are very confident that we are going to treat each other the right way and fairly. He is going to spend the next three weeks with me.

When did you start training with him?

I started with him in the second week of the summer circuit. It was in the first tournament I played after Wimbledon, the Aptos Challenger. We were talking when we were in Europe. It was a good chance for me. I am confident that he would take me to the next level.

It was a judicious decision to go to the United States for education and tennis even though you had already won the title in an ITF Futures tournament...

I definitely realised at that time that I was not ready for the professional tour. I was not mature, and not good enough. I was talking to some of the senior people, and they all wanted me to go to college and have that experience. That has really helped me. I have gained a lot from my stint in the US.

Did your coaches drive you to be physically super fit?

Yes and no. We always had a lot of competitions. At BAT, I was one of the favourites among seven or eight players who were pushing each other. I had good friends and enjoyed working hard. Of course, a lot of it is genetic. I am just really lucky with what God has given me.

How happy are you with your support staff?

At the moment it is great. I think my coach is unbelievable. We have a great trainer. Vishaal Uppal has been handling media for me and doing a great job. I know everyone at a personal level, which means a lot. They care about me a lot. I am in a very good situation.

What about the financial situation?

It is a big battle all the time as far as money is concerned. We are trying to convince people that you need money for training. Sooner or later, people will realise how tough this game is. It is a very physical game; it is a very brutal game. There are certain things that can’t be ignored. As a professional, you have to do certain things in order to get better. It requires money. It is a growing process in India, and hopefully it would get better.

Are you happy with the progress you have made so far?

I believe in trying to get better all the time. Considering that I have been on the tour only for about 15 or 16 months, I feel that I have come a long way.

What is your target for the season?

I would like to break into the top 100 by the end of the year. If I am playing well, I can definitely do that. If it doesn’t happen, there is always the next year. As long as you keep playing the game, good things will happen.

How happy were you to see Andy Roddick, with whom you have trained, play a great match against Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final?

I was absolutely unhappy to see Andy lose, as he is a friend. To lose his serve only once in five sets, against probably the greatest player of all time, was something extraordinary. Overall, Andy has got a lot better.

Juan Martin del Potro did what Roddick couldn’t do...

Del Potro is obviously a great player. People have been saying that he would become a great player. It is one thing for people to say and another for the player to deliver. Del Potro had one hell of a summer. He won a few titles. Even in the U.S. Open, to go out there and beat Federer, who had won the tournament five times in a row, was an unbelievable accomplishment for a 21-year-old guy. He is a great talent and proved that he can match up to the best.

It should give a lot of players confidence…

Absolutely. The parity in men’s tennis is almost ridiculous. You have a bunch of guys who are ranked really low, but who can cause surprises in the Grand Slam events. People may not have noticed it in India, an unknown guy from the University of Kentucky, Jesse Witten, who barely made it to the qualifying draw of the U.S. Open, not only qualified for the main draw but also beat the 30th-ranked Igor Andreev in straight sets. In the third round, he lost to the fourth-seeded Novak Djokovic in four sets. That goes to show the level that men’s tennis is being played today. Anybody can beat anybody. That definitely gives me a lot of hope!

* * * BRILLIANT TEAM EFFORT

Somdev Devvarman stole the show at the Ellis Park Indoor Arena in Johannesburg by winning both his singles, Rohan Bopanna and Yuki Bhambri played their parts with a rare touch of assurance. India pulled off a remarkable victory against South Africa in the Davis Cup World Group play-off tie, winning all its singles matches.

To start with, Bopanna was not in the scheme of things. India’s non-playing captain, S. P. Misra, even had to consider having Yuki, 17, as his second singles player as Bopanna, who had been out with a knee injury for months, had hardly played any singles matches in the run-up to the tie.

Bopanna, however, played the second singles. Starting poorly against Rik de Voest, who threatened to blow the Indian off the court early in the match, Bopanna recovered in time to outclass the South African No.1 on the opening day after Somdev had beaten Izak van der Merwe in the first singles. The 2-0 lead on the opening day proved too good for India. “It helped that Somdev played the first singles and won. It gave me the confidence and put pressure on South Africa,” Bopanna recalled. “However, within 15 minutes of the start of my watch, I was down 0-5, as Rik was playing so well. I told myself that this set was gone, and I had to first try and get on the score board.”

Here began the dramatic turnaround. Bopanna served hard and stroked with ease on either flank. He ripped his backhand shots with panache.

“Once I started serving better, I found my rhythm. And once I broke him, he was trying to catch up. I focused on my serves and made sure that I didn’t give him many chances to get back into the match. I lost my concentration a bit in the eighth game of the fourth set while leading 4-3 because of a bad call. Anyway, I served out the match at love. I had three aces and the other one he barely got to touch with his racquet,” said Bopanna.

Bopanna has played a lot of good matches, particularly in the World Group play-off stage. He had lost a marathon encounter against the then French Open finalist, Martin Verkerk, 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, 6-7 (7), 10-12 at Zwolle in the Netherlands in 2003. He had also lost in three tie-breaks against Thomas Johansson of Sweden in 2005.

“Over the years, I have learnt from experience. All those defeats have taught me tough lessons. Perhaps, that was how I was able to play this match so well,” he said.

“I was coming out of injury, and not many thought about me, or expected me to do anything. But I believed in myself. The conditions were perfect for me. Self-belief is the key. Even when I lost that first set, I knew that I could come back,” said Bopanna.

“Rohan was the knight in shining armour,” said coach Nandan Bal.

Bopanna was all praise for Somdev, the spearhead of the Indian team. “All credit goes to Somdev. He is a great fighter. He likes to be part of the team, and has gained in confidence. It was hard for me, not knowing whether I would have to play a ‘live’ fifth rubber when his match lasted nearly five hours, but the fitness and spirit carried him through,” said Bopanna.

For Yuki, the world No.1 junior who had to endure the disappointment of losing in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open junior event, it was a fine education in coping with fast indoor conditions.

“I had a week’s practice with the team. I had a lot of time to prepare,” said Yuki who enjoyed the pace of the court. He executed winners with aplomb after losing the first set in the dead fifth rubber.

“Yuki was a revelation. It was a lovely match he played,” praised Misra.

The remarkable thing about Yuki was that he stayed calm in the match, playing as if he was competing in a Futures tournament or a junior event. This kind of maturity should help the youngster in his career. Yuki’s Davis Cup debut was possible only because Leander Paes had pulled out owing to injury. And he got to play in the last singles only because Somdev had sealed the issue in the fourth rubber.

Yuki, nevertheless, shows signs of merging with the team even as he develops into a solid player.