The transition from player to coach in an individual sport as gruelling as tennis usually spells time on a professional playing career. So when injuries hampered Indian Davis Cup player Karan Rastogi’s progress, donning the coach’s hat was a natural progression.
Little did he know then that he would not only play competitive tennis again, but would also turn out for Hong Kong in the Davis Cup.
It was a hot, summer day in April 2012 that changed things for Rastogi. Up one set in the second round of a $10,000 (about Rs667,000) Futures tournament in Mysuru, he lost the next two sets and the match to an opponent he should have beaten easily. His back was acting up again after surgery four years earlier. There were plenty of questions staring him in the face, especially the dream of making it to the top 100 in the world.
“Right after the match, I realized I wasn’t going to make it (to the top 100). It was the only reason I was playing tennis. I was spending that kind of money without any returns, and it became an easy decision once I was honest with myself. I returned home to Mumbai and shared my thoughts with my family and coach,” says Rastogi, who had hit a career high of world No.284 the previous year.
Rastogi had tried coaching while recuperating in 2009. It was the best way for him to stay connected to the game and help other players. So until November 2012, Rastogi worked with local players such as Purav Raja and Shahbaaz Khan.
“Being a coach is not physically demanding, but the responsibility is huge, especially when you are working with juniors. They are looking to you for guidance, so you have to be careful what you tell them. I think coaches need to understand this responsibility and always do what’s right for the player’s interest and not their own,” he says.
It was around this time that the seeds of an extended playing career were first planted. The Hong Kong Tennis Association (HKTA) invited Rastogi on a week-long visit to work with some of their players. The recce translated into a year-long stint after he moved there in November 2012 to help the players of this fledgling tennis nation.
“The association at the time was making a few changes and was ambitious in what they wanted to do. That was my motivation to be a part of their project to put Hong Kong on the world map,” he says.
“It was the perfect time for me as well as I was maturing as a person. Just because you are a good player doesn’t mean you are a good coach, so I had to work extra hard on things that were not my strengths,” he adds.
From the vast set-up in India, where players usually train in their individual capacity with their own coaches, Rastogi found himself as the assistant head coach at the Hong Kong Sports Institute, where the top players train under one roof. About 20 of the top players, including the Davis Cup and Federation Cup teams, were under his supervision.
However, he found the “sport culture” missing—it was all about making the cut for an Ivy League school in the US.
“There is loads of talent in Hong Kong, but the belief and ambition is missing, simply because over the years, not many players have come through. We are slowly trying to change the way they think and put in the work accordingly to get them to realize that they can achieve a lot more,” he says.
In 2013, at just 26, Rastogi was appointed the Hong Kong Davis Cup team coach. That year, Hong Kong made it to Group 2, but were relegated the following year after going down fighting to Indonesia.
There were other highlights for coach Rastogi. In 2016, No.1 junior player Anthony Jackie Tang played three junior Grand Slams, while Jack Wong, 18, made the final of a $10,000 Futures in Indonesia, which is the best result for their men. In addition, the under-14 girls’ team won the Asia leg of World Junior Tennis and finished sixth in the finals in the Czech Republic.
But there was more in store for Rastogi, the player. After finishing two years as a coach in Hong Kong, the HKTA asked him to consider playing for the national team. He had been playing local tournaments, but getting match-fit while managing his coaching responsibilities tested his physical and mental abilities. He groomed himself, as well as those around him. When he started playing for Hong Kong, some of his teammates were players he had coached as children.
“It was great because I know their games and personalities and they know me as well. It was a lot of fun—I was particular about not being too much of a coach, more of a teammate,” Rastogi says.
“A few friends from the tennis fraternity jokingly called me a traitor. Not many have played Davis Cup for two countries, and it was exciting to be able to compete and help the team out. It was a bit weird at first when I saw ‘HKG’ against my name. I’ll always support India, unless, of course, some day, Hong Kong come up against India; that will be slightly weird,” he adds.
In the last Davis Cup campaign, in July, Hong Kong was clubbed with Iran, Turkmenistan and Pacific Oceania. Playing at home in Tehran, Iran had the upper hand in warm conditions, on clay and at high altitude, a tie they eventually won 2-1. The tie saw Rastogi lose his only match as a player during the campaign.
Hong Kong won the other two ties and, after finishing second in the group, took on Lebanon with an eye on promotion to Group 2 of the Davis Cup. After Tang lost the opener, it was down to Rastogi to keep Hong Kong in contention. After winning his singles rubber in straight sets, he teamed up with Chun Hun Wong 30 minutes later to win the decider.
“There’s not as much pressure on me now. I think I’m more calm; I’ve matured emotionally as well. I am not as physically fit as I used to be, so I have to make up for it by being a little smarter on court,” he says.
The draw for next year’s Davis Cup came out last month. Hong Kong will take on Vietnam in an away tie in February. There is a long way to go. For one, Group 2 means better opponents, in addition to possible five-setters that the players need to gear up for.
“The players motivate me. I have been in their shoes and I know how lonely tennis can get without any professional guidance. So just to see the player listening to you and trusting you, and knowing that you can make a difference in their game and life is motivation enough. One thing that I have learnt along the way is that you can never predict what turns you might take in the future,” Rastogi, now 29, says.