Pretty quick off the blocks

HE has the biggest and heartiest grin in Indian tennis. Behind that, Somdev Dev Varman hides his steely determination to make it big in the tennis world.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

HE has the biggest and heartiest grin in Indian tennis. Behind that, Somdev Dev Varman hides his steely determination to make it big in the tennis world.

Somdev Dev Varman... the youngest Indian to win a professional singles title. — Pic. S. PATRONOBISH-

The 19-year-old Assam boy gave himself a strong reason to sport a bright face by becoming the youngest Indian lad to win a professional singles title, on the clay courts of Kolkata.

Winning a title in the $10,000 level may not in itself be a great achievement, as the 17-year-old Sania Mirza would testify, having won more than half a dozen of them, around the world, albeit in the relatively less competitive world of women's tennis. But, on his way to the trophy, Somdev showed that he had made the transition from a talented junior with strong legs, to a professional who can handle the craftiest of players with dexterity and confidence.

Starting with the subjugation of Prima Simpatiaji of Indonesia, a wiry lad who had squandered a two sets advantage in a nerve-wracking fifth rubber in the recent Davis Cup tie against Gouichi Motomura of Japan on home soil, to beating the top-seeded Bulgarian Todor Enev in the quarter-finals, to humbling the French journeyman Jordanne Doble and then Yordan Kanev of Bulgaria in the last two rounds, with a rare authority, Somdev was at his fluent best.

Yet, it was a surprise to one and all, to Somdev himself, as the lad had just recovered from a debilitating viral infection, that had resembled jaundice, and returned to the circuit only a week earlier.

"Honestly, I didn't expect to do this well. I was playing freely and without any expectations. I was playing some of the toughest players in the circuit and the seeds most of the time, ranked much higher than me. I was playing on a wild card and had no pressure. The fact that I didn't think about anything, and just focussed on playing my game, perhaps helped me play the best", says Somdev, quite thrilled with what he has accomplished.

Of course, there was pressure on the young lad before the final, when his family members and a lot of friends called him to say that they would watch him on TV, as Doordarshan was covering the match `live'.

"Initially, I was nervous, but once I played a few games, I was much better and forgot everything. Once it finished, I thought, `Oh my God, what have I done'. It was overwhelming", says Somdev, as he recalls the heady feeling of winning his maiden professional title, beating five foreigners on the trot.

Somdev Dev Varman wound up the junior circuit by winning the boys' under-18 Asian doubles title with Karan Rastogi. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

This was a great start to the season, especially after he had wound up the junior circuit in December, with only a string of impressive doubles results including the Asian junior title with Karan Rastogi.

"Actually, I started playing the junior international circuit very late. I was a little inexperienced and was a bit tight at Wimbledon. At least in doubles you have somebody to back you, but in singles I felt stranded", says Somdev, with admirable honesty.

"I started travelling only last year. I started learning things a little late. I had a lot of chances, and could have done better, to perhaps finish in the top 20", he says about his junior career.

He could have still given a good finish to his junior journey, but for hurting his shoulder during an early round in the Asian junior championship.

"It was a good draw, and I was confident of doing well. I had just beaten Aisam Qureshi in the Futures in Mumbai the previous week. But the shoulder injury upset my plans", he says.

It was inexperience again that saw Somdev go for the big serves far too early in a match on a winter morning, when he should have paced himself judiciously before going for the big ones.

Forget the juniors. Far too many brilliant juniors have vanished after promising the world. It is important to make a mark in the men's world, and Somdev has started in right earnest.

He had been getting a feel of the men's circuit right from 2001 when he started playing the Satellites. A string of men's tournaments, when he had to play the pros in the qualifying event, has taught Somdev a lot about playing sharp and taking chances.

Even in the Challenger in New Delhi last year, when he beat Orest Tereshchuk of Ukraine and compatriot Ajay Ramaswami, Somdev came close to qualification before losing to Jonathan Erlich of Israel in three sets. He showed that he had imbibed the lessons when he beat Erlich in the first round of the qualifying event in the Tata Open ATP Tour event in Chennai this season. However, he felt weakened after the viral attack and thus could not do much except play a good set against Danai Udomchoke of Thailand in the next round.

After missing about two months of tennis, Somdev has returned with considerable hunger. Still, before he could appease his hunger, he has been forced to contemplate finishing his twelfth standard exams. He has been caught in two minds, whether to go ahead with his tennis and make the maximum of his good form, or go ahead with his education that is so important for a good career.

"It will really be ridiculous if I take a long break at this time, to miss tennis for school exams that will run till the end of May. Considering that I am not world No. 10, education is important. But, nothing has come in the way of my tennis all these years. It is top priority, and will continue to be so. I will discuss with people and decide the course of action now", he says.

Thankfully, Somdev has been getting sound advice, especially from the junior development officer of the All India Tennis Association (AITA), Sunil Yajaman.

Sunil himself is thrilled about the excellent run of his ward at the National Tennis Academy (NTA), which has convinced him that the right methods are being followed to help the talented kids handle the transition, with a touch of assurance.

Somdev reveals that he owes a lot to coach Karthikeyan who had been guiding him like a friend at the NTA, and to his coaches of the early days Ilyas Hussain and Ramalinga Reddy during his stint at the BAT in Chennai, apart from Abbas Ali Baig.

A diligent student of the game, Somdev has been learning a lot through his interactions with the seniors and with his keen observation. The good thing about him is that he has been discussing with the right people about his approach and clarifying doubts even if it meant making long distance calls during tournaments. Thus, Somdev has not felt the need of a travelling coach thus far, though he knows that quality coaching would make a huge difference to his fortunes at this stage of his career. He knows that he has to improve a lot to win titles consistently at this level, and fare better in the Challengers.

"I can't judge myself with one week's performance. The level of my tennis is high, but the results will also depend on how others play. I know that I have a good chance, if I stay focussed", he says.

His strength is his swift movement on court, and the energy he demonstrates in covering the court for long hours. Last year, Somdev realised after the trip to Australia that one needs to develop big shots, to make it big.

"I was moving unbelievably in Kolkata. I was putting away the short ball, hitting the forehands well and not missing anything on the backhand. Was serving very well too. Overall, I was happy with the way I played", he says.

Somdev has been training with Riaz Mohammed for physical fitness for the last few years, and looks forward to building up on his basic asset.

"It is a good start for him. Hope he gets the support. The key will be right planning", says Prahlad Srinath, who had won a few such titles himself.

Quite undoubtedly, Somdev Dev Varman looks set to being a big asset for Indian tennis in the years to come. He has got off the blocks pretty quick, and it should be interesting to see how well he works up pace for a brilliant career.