Somdev Devvarman spent a week during this off-season under the watchful eye of Tony Roche, coach to Grand Slam winners, in Kolkata. The verdict of the ace Australian coach was succinct: Devvarman needed a big serve and a bigger forehand to compete consistently at the top level.

“I agree with him, but it is not easy to just go out and change your game completely," comes the slightly irritated response from India’s top singles player.

It’s been the story of his life so far.

Serve? Solid. Forehand? Solid. Backhand? Solid. Volleys? Well, when he has to. But there is a lack of any discernible weapon in his armoury. That becomes even more apparent when he is down, and he is down to 138 in the Association of Tennis Professionals, or ATP, rankings currently.

But the fact is, he didn’t have that one defining weapon even when he rose to a career-high 62 in the ATP charts in 2011, the farthest any Indian man had gone in more than two decades.

It doesn’t take more than one sighting to understand that Devvarman is a player who relies more on his work rate and foot speed while manning the baseline. No free points—he sweats every one of them. But we keep wishing he would reel off super shots and turn into a chip-and-charge player, not realizing that it is as unrealistic as hoping for Roger Federer to start playing with a double-handed backhand. Devvarman understands his limitations better than anyone, but he refuses to let them define or deter him.

“It is no secret that you need a good serve on the tour nowadays," he says. “I did work with Tony on that. There are a few technical things we’ve talked about. I understand that there is a lot of work ahead. But for me, regardless of the result, the philosophy has always been the same: Dig deep and give it your best shot. I have confidence in my game; I wouldn’t have achieved what I have otherwise.

“He (Roche) obviously had a lot of great feedback for me and every minute spent on court with him was valuable. He tries to instil the importance of hard work every day, in every session," says Devvarman.

Roche, a former top-10 player and 1966 French Open champion who has coached the likes of Lleyton Hewitt and Federer, visited India in December for a camp arranged by the Indian Tennis Players Association (Itpa).

Time spent with a tennis colossus like Roche might just help him hit the reset button ahead of the new season, beginning with the Chennai Open (5-11 January) where, back in 2009, he had finished second-best.

With Leander Paes in the men’s doubles in November’s Champions Tennis League. Photo: Sanjeev Verma/HT
With Leander Paes in the men’s doubles in November’s Champions Tennis League. Photo: Sanjeev Verma/HT

“Yeah, the season was a little bit of a disappointment," says Devvarman. “Towards the middle (of the year) I was struggling with a few injuries. The thing was they weren’t big enough to completely stop playing, but small enough to kind of hinder you from having a good performance. But I feel like I have dealt with them now and (am) getting closer to my best.

“It’s not easy to get back into the top 100. But as a player, that’s always the first target. You want to be a permanent member of that club. On the flip side, I won’t have too many points to defend in the coming season and have to make all the chances I get count."

Even though he seems to be swimming against the rankings tide, it is still the singles game that fires his ambitions. While a lot of his compatriots have taken the doubles route to success, Devvarman, who will turn 30 in February, believes he still has a lot to offer to the individual sport.

“Definitely not," he says when asked whether he’s contemplating a switch to doubles. “It may still depend on how my body holds up. Doubles may be a good option sometime down the line, and I quite enjoy playing it, but as of now, singles is my priority."

Having spent considerable time on the US college circuit during a tennis scholarship to the University of Virginia, Devvarman turned pro only in 2008, at the age of 23. This may have shrunk his window of opportunity considerably, but it also means that he is not as mentally or physically jaded as most tennis players his age.

“Being the No.1 player in India is nice, but that’s not a goal," he says, aware of the highly global and meritocratic nature of his sport. “I am feeling good about my game now. I want to compete with the top players, play in the ATP events, Grand Slams."

In the past year, all he won was one ATP Challenger Tour title, in New Delhi in February, and a smart, draining but memorable victory in Bengaluru over Dusan Lajovic, to draw India level in the Davis Cup tie against Serbia—this helped India push the World Group play-off into a fifth rubber.

The many days of defeat and disappointment can be challenging, and lonely. “You have to pick yourself up," Devvarman says. “You take whatever little help from books or movies or anything else you can, but when you are out on tour for 150 weeks of the year you have to rely on yourself."

There is a little break from that week-in, week-out intensity as tennis is officially in the off-season. Devvarman has been keeping himself busy, playing in the Vijay Amritraj-led Champions Tennis League in November, and using the opportunity to battle it out with two top-20 players, Kevin Anderson and Tommy Robredo.

Devvarman also played a role in bringing Roche down to India—the player is one of the vice-presidents of Itpa. The association was established in 2013 to represent player concerns and inject more professionalism into the system after India’s top players, led by Devvarman, revolted against the All India Tennis Association (Aita), the governing body.

“We haven’t had the time to have fund-raising events this time around, but having Tony Roche come down for a camp was great," says Devvarman. “At this point," he adds, “Itpa can’t be a 100% priority for any of us, but we do what we can."

Devvarman rounded off his off-season training with a camp in Doha, Qatar, where he trained with Serbs Janko Tipsarevic, a former top-10 player, and Lajovic to set the focus on his goals next year. To test his limits, once again.

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