When Karan Rastogi was junior world No. 4 in 2004, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were yet unknown to the world. Frenchman Gael Monfils, who had beaten Rastogi in the semifinals of the Australian Open boys, was world No. 1 that year, having won the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon junior titles. And Andy Murray was the world No. 2 junior and had won the US Open.
“I remember I was drawn to play Djokovic in the first round of the Australian Open. Later, they changed the draw as there was a mistake,” recalled the 33-year-old Rastogi, who is happily coaching the Hong Kong Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams.
“It took a while to gain their trust, as they had not seen me,” he said about coaching in another country.
Having quit the game owing to a back injury that did not go away even after surgery, Rastogi had taken the best option to be a coach in 2012.
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“After coaching a few players for about six months in Mumbai, I came to Hong Kong on a 10-month contract. It is already eight years, and I have got permanent residency here,” Rastogi said in a freewheeling Instagram chat with coach M. Balachandran.
Rastogi had the best support from his parents and had training stints at BAT in Chennai and Nick Bollettieri’s IMG Academy in Florida, where he used to train with Maria Sharapova.
The memory was fresh about sharing a room with Kei Nishikori at the IMG Academy, and how the Japanese already had a sponsor and a physio to help him.
“Nishikori was three years younger to me. He was special, so quick and agile,” said Rastogi.
The stint in Florida opened his eyes to the need for higher levels of physical fitness.
The semifinal at the Australian Open juniors in 2004 quickly fetched him a ticket to New Zealand for the Davis Cup, as Leander Paes watched him in Melbourne and encouraged him.
“I remember going to Sydney to get the visa. It was best week of my life,” said Rastogi about his Davis Cup initiation. He later played Davis Cup for Hong Kong as well, and helped the team qualify for group II in the Asia Oceania Zone.
During the junior days and on the professional circuit, it did cost a lot of money to train and travel, but Rastogi’s parents assured him: “Don’t worry about money. We are right behind you.”
“The sacrifice of my mom and dad, you can’t put in words. All credit to them,” acknowledged Rastogi.
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He recalled competing against Nadal in the under-14 World Junior Tennis finals, and later at the Chennai Open ATP event. Spain proved too good for the Indian team on clay in the first, but the second meeting was interesting for Rastogi.
“I was in the locker room, and Nadal and his coach were trying to look me up on the computer, as I could hear them mentioning my name. Nadal was world No. 2 and had already won the French Open two or three times. He wanted to know about the No. 350 in the world. It showed his professionalism,” said Rastogi.
Not one given to complaining, Rastogi said he would have been able to handle his playing career better with the knowledge he has now.
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“I wish I had the knowledge then. I could have done a little bit more. Some things you control, some things you cannot,” he said.
Rastogi was categorical in stating that the time in the juniors should be used for developing one’s game and getting physically strong.
“To make the jump from 300 to the top 100 was difficult. I didn’t prepare myself in a better way,” conceded Rastogi, who reached a career-best rank of 284 in singles and 217 in doubles.
In fact, he won a Challenger doubles titles with Vishnu Vardhan and Divij Sharan, but his mind was not in doubles.
Rastogi believes in bringing a lot of intensity to training.
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“It is better to train for 45 minutes with high intensity than fool around for two hours,” he said.
Having worked with a few coaches as a player, Karan had high praise for Sanjay Poddar, who trained him at the age of eight and later for a few years from 18.
“He was always direct, sincere and very honest. He got me into a lot of things like yoga. He changed me. Made me disciplined and focused. He was the driving force. He made a big difference to my career,” he said.
Rastogi was equally warm about his coach from Australia Marc Sophoulis.
“Marc was young and we clicked right away. I was not a tactically smart player. He made me think very different and analyse my game. I became a more complete player after working with him,” said Rastogi.
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Even though he did not set the court on fire, Rastogi, on a lighter note, recalled that his room was on fire twice, once in Thailand during his junior days and once in Delhi during the national grass court championships.
“I had left the heater on while going out. The carpet caught fire. Luckily, my grass court shoes and racquets were on the other side of the room. Everything else got burnt, including $1,000. It was very scary. I borrowed clothes from Purav Raja,” remembered Rastogi.
Even though he has been working in Hong Kong, Karan has his heart in India. That is because his wife and child could not join him back in time in Hong Kong from Mumbai before the lockdown was announced in March.
On a serious note, Rastogi’s friend from the junior days, Somdev Devvarman, suggested that he coach India.
“If Somdev offers the role, I will take it. I wish it was that simple,” Karan signed off.