In the middle of a stuffy August New York night, an Indian star was rising.
Even though Saketh Myneni was not one of the marquee acts at the US Open, he had found quite a following in one week. The tennis player had won three qualifying rounds without dropping a set and was attempting to become only the third Indian man to win a round at the US Open after Leander Paes and Somdev Devvarman.
He was serving for the match at 5-3 in the fifth set against Jiri Vesely in the first round. His fans, in bright mood and bright yellow T-shirts, with “Saki Squad" printed on them, had grown in number during the week and were roaring their support.
That’s when the cramps struck.
“My quads really tightened up," Myneni recalled during the KPTI-MSLTA Challenger event in Pune in the last week of October. “It was really humid and after such a long match, I was cramping. I could barely stand, but my only thought was that I wanted to finish the match, the first main draw match of my life, and walk out (of the court) on my own feet."
Myneni lost his serve, and eventually lost the set 5-7 and the match 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 5-7 after battling for 3 hours and 47 minutes.
Sitting in the air-conditioned players’ lounge at the Challenger event, in which he lost in the quarter-finals, Myneni talks about his most successful year on the tour with a fixed smile. An ice pack rests on his shoulder. “Ice is my best friend currently," he says.
Are the rigours of the long season taking a toll on his body? “Not really," says the 29-year-old. “I have constantly played with these niggles, pretty much from the beginning of the year."
He had started 2016 ranked 170 on the ATP, and peaked at 137 in September. He played the qualifying events of all four Grand Slams for the first time in his pro-career, and made the main draw at the US Open. He also made his Davis Cup singles debut against South Korea in July and played all three days against Spain in the Davis Cup World Group Play-off in September.
“I’ve had a great time," he says. “The shoulder has been a problem for some time now, but it kind of helped me focus better. It helped me play within my limitations. Sometimes on court you have too many options, too many shots to choose from. But because I was restricted, I knew I could hit the ball in only one particular way, so the focus was on the execution.
“I haven’t really played on clay that much, especially not European clay, so playing the French Open qualifiers was a great experience. But New York felt like home."
Myneni, born in Vuyyuru in Andhra Pradesh, got the first real taste of top-flight sport when he went on a tennis scholarship to the University of Alabama. As a lean teenager, who was still growing into his 6ft, 4 inches, Myneni honed his athletic pursuits there.
The summers were spent teaching tennis at the Burning Tree Country Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. That’s where most of his “Saki Squad"—who have been doing the rounds at Flushing Meadows since 2015—come from. All through his four years at the university, Myneni says, not once did he go back to India. It prepared him for the tough, lonely life on the pro circuit.
But going to college meant he missed out on some crucial years on the tour. He turned pro in 2011, at 24.
“It does feel sometimes like I’m catching up," he says. “But the fact is I haven’t had as much match time as players the same age. I never did the junior circuit. I wanted to play a Futures event in India after coming back from the US (in 2011), but for that I needed a national ranking. I managed to get a wild card into the Nationals, after S.P. Mishra (the former Indian non-playing Davis Cup captain) put in a word for me, and then reached the semi-finals."
Just like that, Myneni had arrived on the national stage. After five years on the international tour, he believes he has enough “tennis mileage" to make the next step, play on the bigger stage. Getting enough points by December to make the cut for the Australian Open qualifiers is a priority, even if it means playing with the shoulder injury.
“Once you enter a tournament, you can’t think of the injury," he stresses. “Once you’re in, you’re in."