Somdev Devvarman: An Indian unafraid to play game of attrition

The Indian tennis player announced his retirement from the professional game on 1 January


Somedev Devvarman. Photo: Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times
Somedev Devvarman. Photo: Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times

A walkover in tennis is usually the last resort. Players respect themselves and their opponents too much to use this card lightly. For Somdev Devvarman, it became his final act.

The Indian tennis player announced his retirement from the professional game on 1 January. On his résumé, the last tournament entry reads: lost in the first round of qualifying of the ITF (International Tennis Federation) Futures event in Calabasas, California, to Joan Soler in March 2016 through a walkover.

A contradiction, considering Devvarman had come to define attrition and doggedness over the past decade. Though he pulled out of that tournament because of a niggling injury, he knew by then that the fight was ending.

“There are certain things in life that you can’t fake,” Devvarman told the media on Monday in Chennai. “In tennis, it’s tough to fake passion. For me, throughout my career, that was one of my biggest strengths. When I was playing the top guys, the one thing that kept me going, kept me winning was the passion, the fight that I brought. That’s diminished, little by little, over the years.”

Devvarman had suffered injuries, undergone shoulder surgery in 2011, and still fought his way back into the top 100, but he chose not to use it as an excuse to walk away from the game at the still young age of 31. He also “never considered” the tried and tested career path of switching over to doubles.

In retirement, he was as much an anomaly as he was in his playing days. He shook a country still besotted with serve and volley tennis with his dazzling foot-speed and a slugger’s big heart. Devvarman showed there was more than one way to win and that India could once again have someone to cheer on in the singles draws even in this intense, physical age of tennis.

He was fitter than any Indian player we had seen. Much of his physicality came from the four years he spent at the United States’ University of Virginia, where he played college tennis and won the coveted National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) two years in a row—2007 and 2008.

“Somdev is one of the fittest athletes India has ever produced,” says former Davis Cupper Vishaal Uppal. “When he was still in college, he had taken me to the track where they train. He told me they would train as hard as they could, till they would throw up, then do another sprint. That’s the limits he pushed his body to.”

Devvarman is known to put in 5-6 hours daily of training and tennis. “A lot of times, players choose the style, but depending on their size sometimes a style chooses the player,” says Anand Amritraj, India’s Davis Cup captain and the one who picked Devvarman in 1999 for the now defunct Britannia Amritraj Tennis Academy in Chennai.

“Somdev is a small guy (5ft, 11 inches) and sort of got into this grinder’s mentality. The way he plays the game, you’ve got to be unbelievably fit; you’ve got to run down every ball. He got no free points because he didn’t have a big serve, big forehands,” adds Amritraj.

Devvarman copped a lot of criticism for that style of play. But he had an unwavering belief, and an even better work ethic to support it in the game that had helped him break into the top 100 and made him the highest-ranked Indian player on the ATP charts in more than two decades.

Devvarman, who hails from Tripura, reached a career high of No.62 in July 2011, the best by an Indian since Ramesh Krishnan’s No.23 in January 1985. Later that year, he suffered a shoulder injury which eventually had to be operated upon.

Could he have broken the top 50 barrier if not for that? “Yeah, I think so,” Devvarman says. “If I had done a few things slightly different in my career, that was a possibility for sure. But it’s all easy in hindsight. 2011 would have been crucial if I had not been hurt. Who knows, had I not been injured what I would have done?

“I have not lost any sleep thinking about it. I always gave my best even though I was sometimes criticized for my game style. Nobody could have criticized the way I fought or competed.”

That battling spirit really came to the forefront in his marathon five-set win over South Africa’s Rik de Voest in the Davis Cup World Group play-off in Johannesburg in September 2009 after being down two sets and a break. It was also the first time since 1998 that India had made it to the elite 16-team World Group.

While he was the country’s strongman in the Davis Cup—India retained their place in the World Group for two more years—he had also become an inspiration for younger players.

“Somdev is like a big brother to me,” says Saketh Myneni, India’s top-ranked player currently. “He’s always there to help. His work ethic is second to none. The fact that he put in so much physically and emotionally could be the reason why he has decided to stop.”

Tennis mileage seems to have fatigued his mind more than his legs. For a player who always aimed to get his game top-100 ready and play in Grand Slams, making a mere living didn’t appeal. In tennis, Devvarman had an all or nothing philosophy.

He believes the time had come to choose the latter.

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