Tennis star N. Sriram Balaji's route to the Paris Olympics

N. Sriram Balaji and his doubles partner Andre Begemann after winning the Sardegna Open. (Mike Lawrence/ATP Tour)
N. Sriram Balaji and his doubles partner Andre Begemann after winning the Sardegna Open. (Mike Lawrence/ATP Tour)


N. Sriram Balaji has had a terrific few months as a doubles player in the global tennis circuit. He will now be partnering Rohan Bopanna in the Paris Olympics

Over the years, and especially after spending a decade on the professional tennis tour, N. Sriram Balaji has learnt to temper his expectations. 2023 had come with its own dose of disappointment as he missed out on a spot in the deferred 2022 Asian Games squad, despite being in the world top-100 in doubles. When the talk of golden ticket to the Olympics started swirling in the Indian tennis community, he deliberately blocked it out and focused on his game.

“I didn’t want to get my hopes high, especially since I was unlucky not to get selected for the Asian Games last year," Balaji tells Lounge. A place in the Indian men’s doubles team opened up since Rohan Bopanna is ranked in the top-10 (currently No. 4) in the world. As per Paris Olympics qualification rules, this entitled Bopanna, 44, to take an Indian player of his choice to the 2024 Summer Games. And he had a few options as four Indians, apart from Bopanna, are ranked in the top-100 on the ATP men’s doubles charts. But Bopanna had zeroed in on his choice by the time clay season had rolled around.

Also Read Gukesh D. and the rise of Indian chess

“We had a chat before the French Open where Rohan hinted that he would be suggesting my name (as Bopanna’s partner) for Olympics," says Balaji. “I was not sure how it would turn out because I was not sure of playing Roland Garros at the time. Also, the final decision would be made by AITA (All-India Tennis Association)."

As it happened, Balaji and his Mexican partner Miguel Reyes-Varela got into the French Open as alternates. Once there, they got stuck into the competition and made it past the first two rounds. It was the first time that Balaji had posted main draw wins at the Grand Slam. In the third round, Balaji and Reyes-Varela took on second seeds and reigning Australian Open champions Bopanna-Matthew Ebden. Despite the difference in ranking and success, Balaji and Reyes-Varela made a match of it, only losing 10-8 in the third-set tie-breaker. Balaji’s movement and explosive power on the red dirt made a strong case for his selection, especially since the tennis competition of the Paris Olympics will take place at Roland Garros.

Last Thursday, on 13 June, the AITA officially announced that Balaji would partner Bopanna at the 2024 Summer Games, handing the former an Olympic debut.

“I was overwhelmed when I heard the news," says the 34-year-old. “It was always something of a distant dream but I never thought I would be playing the Olympics. My parents were also overjoyed on hearing this; the first thing my dad told me is that we are coming to watch you. They have applied for the visa already."

It has been a whirlwind few weeks for the Indian tennis player. Not only did he reach the third round of the French Open, a finals finish at the ATP Challenger in Perugia last week also lifted him to a career high ranking of 62. A chance at an Olympic debut has been a result of consistent performances in the last one year, and a life dedicated to his craft.

Coming from Coimbatore, Balaji didn’t have the best of tennis facilities at his disposal. His father Narayanaswamy, a volleyball player, was the one who supervised his physical training. Balaji would go to Chennai to train before tournaments, once he started playing tennis seriously at the age of 15, and moved his training base to Germany at 20.

Also Read Neeraj Chopra in competition mode as the Paris Olympics beckon

He was the first student of the Alexander Waske Tennis Academy (formerly known as the Schuettler-Waske Tennis Academy) in Offenbach, Germany. Even though the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA) sponsored him briefly, from 18-20 years of age, it is his hustle and graft that has kept him afloat since. Though he doesn’t talk about it much, there were times when he was stranded abroad after playing tournaments without any money. Balaji and his then doubles partner Vishnu Vardhan also tried to crowdfund their way to 2018 Wimbledon.

“There is no doubt that tennis is tough sport and can be financially straining," he says. “But I don’t like to use it as an excuse. Yes, you have to travel either in India or abroad, but tennis gives you a chance to earn money every single week and it is up to you what you make of it. I don’t expect someone (sponsors) to spend their money on me just because I am playing tennis."

On the Indian tennis circuit, Balaji is known for his quiet diligence. He hasn’t taken giant strides on the tennis tour, but ever since he made doubles a priority, around 2018, he has clawed his way up the rankings. One of the fittest players on the tour, he is adept on clay, a rare quality in an Indian tennis player and one that may have swung the Olympic spot his way.

Also Read Sunil Chhetri looks back on his career

“I have performed consistently in the last 12 months," he says. “I also think I am more confident in my game now. I have been working on my second-serve returns, my serve, my first volleys. In tennis, there are so many avenues of improvement, you just have to go to work every single day. Playing higher-level tournaments has also taught me to be patient."

What has also helped the Indian players on tour is the launch of the ‘Doubles Dream of India’, in early 2023. The programme helps players with support staff, meaning they now have access to a coach—Balachandran Mannikkath—who travels with them for bigger events. Small measures, big gains for Indian tennis.

Before the Olympics, there is the small matter of Wimbledon and Balaji has already begun his transition to grass. He travelled from Perugia, Italy, to Ilkley, Great Britain via two stopovers—typical for players aboard the tennis travelling caravan—for his first grass event of the season. After Wimbledon, Bopanna and Balaji will play two tournaments—ATP 500 in Hamburg, Germany and ATP 250 event in Umag, Croatia—together to prepare for Paris. A chance for the hard worker to be the headliner.

Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.

Also Read How the World Cup has spiced up the T20 format

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.