One interpretation of his name could be ‘god of booze’. And it would not be all that incongruous a stretch. After all, our Veda-minding, somras-loving country has fallen for Somy, who has intoxicated us with the moves of his legs — legs that make him a speedy whirl and the best news for Indian tennis in over a decade. They also let us hope that he won’t be just another shooting star that’s consumed by its own brightness. We hope that they can carry him far.
Mom Ranjana is, however, quick to dispel the boozy theory, asserting that the name Somdev is another sobriquet for Shiva. He fits that bill too, given that he has emerged as the great destroyer of apathy towards a future beyond our quirky veterans Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. He is also the destroyer of former world number one Carlos Moya and Ivo Karlovic. Both fell to the blaze of his court coverage and wall-like ability to keep shoving back balls.
Somdev’s legs have also helped him cover a lot of ground in a short time. The 23-year-old turned professional last June,
and, by mid-August, he had leapt from the 797th spot on the ATP ranking to the 239th. That made him the fastest mover up the charts among players who had competed in less than 10 events in 2008.
Five years ago, when Somdev was just another brick in the vast base of the tennis pyramid, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) did not find him good enough for inclusion in a team to Europe. Those with foresight in the national federation then created India’s own team for the European summer circuit. The boy didn’t do too well, but his work ethics had inspired those who worked with him. Sunil Yajaman, his coach at the time, had shot off a mail to ITF predicting it was making a mistake, for Somdev was destined to be among the top 100 one day. Those who sniggered at the time aren’t doing so anymore.
“He was different, he inspired confidence. When our National Tennis Academy was just coming up, there were frequent power cuts. The facilities were rudimentary. Most kids complained. Somdev just grinned through it all. That’s the attitude of a man who will bend the odds to mould his own destiny,” says Yajaman.
He has already begun to do that. By the end of 2008, he was ranked 201 and now he is 154. All that in a mere six months on
tour. But Somdev told HT after the dream run at the Chennai Open: “I have never put a number on my game. Everybody puts numbers, right? They talk of top 100, 200. The important thing is not to get there but to stay there. That’s why I am not getting ahead of myself with this one performance. And I am not looking at going higher… What counts is winning consistently.”
Ask him to break down his intense off-court training programme and Somdev grins: “I have never counted, but I do at least 1000 sit-ups a day.” During the Chennai Open, he would get back to the hotel and hit the gym for at least an hour a day to “maintain the work put in during the off-season”.
At the end of the day, this young man, who is related to R.D. Burman, relaxes with a guitar. Throw in some time with a harmonica and he’s happier. “He can also sing a bit to save his life,” says friend Vishal Uppal. A bit? Actually, Somdev has been singing and playing acoustic guitar in pubs around the University of Virginia. On campus, he’s a star for being among the only 13 players who have won back-to-back single titles in the 124-year history of the American intercollegiate championship. And even on such hectic world tours, the guitar travels with him. And he counts Boyd Tinsley, violinist with his favourite, Dave Matthews Band, as a friend.
As with music, Somdev indulges in food, too, in substantial quantities. “Boy, can he eat! He once gulped down 35 idlis at my house, much to the chagrin of my poor wife who had volunteered to feed him,” laughs Yajaman. His favourite cuisine is South Indian — after all, his formative years were spent in Chennai. And already, this hungry boy has the nation eating out of his hand.