Any story on Somdev Devvarman should start with his shoes. Not what he wears. But how many he wears down. Because essentially this is a running man with a racket. You don’t see how much he runs, of course. You don’t count his kilometres. You see him in the tournament, he wins, he loses, you flick the channel, you move on. We all do. But he keeps moving, he has to, he has to run down balls, run down his future before he, already 26, runs out of time.
It’s nearly Christmas and he’s in Austin, Texas, on his off season, and he’s on the phone and even down the line you can hear his exhilarating exhaustion. “It’s been a tough day,” he laughs. No, it’s been a tough week of short sprints, long sprints, shuttle runs, agility runs. Breaking his body down, building it up. Then, after this running, he practises tennis. Two hours. Exhales. Sucks down water. Then 2 more hours. Just in case you were thinking differently, he’ll tell you, this two-footed whippet whose body is like cables glued together and whose intensity hovers around him like a force field: “I take my work seriously”. No kidding.
On the rise: Somdev Devvarman will play in the Aircel Chennai Open from 2 January. Photo: Adam Pretty/Getty Images
I had my first long conversation with him only in Shanghai this October after watching him practise for 2 hours. Shot, run, shot, turn, run, like some wind-up toy. I like him because he never got sucked into that greying soap opera that has become Leander-Mahesh. Never done anything but love this struggle to find his best self. Never made excuses for not being some muscular European who dines on horse-rump steak and makes a racket look like a light cane. Never done anything but work.
And he, not quite tennis-tall at 5ft 11 inches or wearer of Nadal-ish biceps, will tell you straight up, because he is straight up, that this small, unmuscular, disadvantaged Indian thing, well, that’s crap. He’ll point to skinny Novak Djokovic, he’ll point to the 5ft 10 inches Kei Nishikori who’s risen to No. 25. He’ll say, “You are what you are, you play the hand you’re dealt.” He’ll tell you he’d rather not train in India because “I can’t stand the excuses”. All that official talk of no coaches, no infrastructure, no sponsors, no good players—and it’s not all untrue, of course—but he, this boy from Tripura, really wants to tell them, dude, you won’t find all this in a room but on a court with the right work ethic.
I think he means running.
Devvarman is the world No. 84—with a highest of No. 62—and this may appear an average number. Till you turn back time and remember no Indian has been ranked better than 62 since Ramesh Krishnan hit his No. 23 about 26 years ago.
Till you go to any court, practice court, Challenger court, Futures court, qualifying court, and listen to the whup, whup, whup of everyone’s forehands, which have the repetitive sound of a helicopter rotor, and understand the sheer quality of talent out there.
Till you see the quantity of dreamers and the ambition written into their movements, and if they’re over 1,900 players ranked just on the ATP Tour, you have to imagine the thousands in 200-plus countries whom you never see.
It’s all a trifle frightening because there is so much sameness, talent with such a thin separation point, where the divide between No. 80 and No. 70 and No. 50 is infinitesimal, a shot here in the first set, a break point there in the third set. But it’s uncommonly hard to grasp these moments, these chances, again and again, today, tomorrow, next week, so you have to build yourself into some relentless machine, a sort of warrior whose warpaint is only sweat.
Devvarman wants to be this No. 50, this No. 40, he wants to be all this desperately. It’s why he runs, why he works. He does it because of a lesson he learnt as a child when he and his father cycled to the courts. In football, he wouldn’t get picked sometimes; in tennis, he understood there is no favouritism, it’s a collision of individuals, if you’re good enough, you just have to get picked.
He does it because tennis is not drudgery for him, its charm—an ever-changing game of wind, calm, quick courts, slow ones—infects him, its subtleties intrigue him. He likes its testing loneliness, a man surrounded in a stadium yet isolated and exposed and vulnerable, an athlete with no caddie, or coach, or second to talk to him, reassure him, drive him. “You don’t talk to anyone, you figure it out yourself. I have great appreciation of the top guys, how they do it day in, day out, people watching every single move and yet they hold it together. It’s incredibly tough to do.”
As much as he runs, he thinks, a student (a word he uses for himself) in sneakers who sees matches as “problem solving” exercises for, as he says, “you don’t have to hit it bigger, a lot of it is tactical, you can make a match very physical, very mental”. So he experiments with different styles, figuring out which player doesn’t like the low, firm slice, which one is uncomfortable with a change of pace. And he’ll say, with a sort of apostle’s zeal: “I like the challenge, and figuring stuff out, paying attention, being emotionally there. One of the beautiful things is that whenever you’re out there, you forget about the rest of what’s going on in your life.”
He’s still talking on the phone, it’s almost an hour, and his sentences go on without punctuation, and as you might figure he doesn’t run out of breath. He has something becoming about him. And it is faith, I figure.
He tells me a story about Alex Bogomolov Jr. The Russian was world No. 250 in September 2010 and now he’s No. 34. Devvarman knows him, he watches him playing, he knows Bogomolov hasn’t deeply changed his game, he’s still 5ft 10 inches, still runs hard, still hits his forehand—like a semi-carbon copy of the Indian—and so he asks the Russian: What happened? As in how did you do this?
And the Russian tells him, well, it “just clicked”.
But it clicked, it came together, for a reason. Or as Devvarman says, and knows, “Bogomolov did it by showing up every day and giving himself the best opportunity.” So now he’s preparing for his “click”. He knows he’s beaten guys in the top 20, 30, 40, 50, “so it’s not just a fluke, it’s just a case of doing it more often”, but to “click” in 2012, to take that opportunity, he has to be ready.
Which is why he was running in Austin.
Which is why he will be running in Chennai this coming week.
Which also brings us back to his shoes and how many he wears down a year.
“About 35-40 pairs.”
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Strait Times, Singapore.
Also Read | Rohit’s previous Lounge columns
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