“Give them a smile.” Mustafa Ghouse, former India Davis Cupper, tells Somdev Devvarman as he poses for a few pictures. “I am smiling, bro!” Somdev retorts, with a slight leftover American twang.
It’s not a smile that will launch a thousand ships; rather the toothy boy-next-door grin is enough to wipe off any notions of ‘celebrity’ you’d want to attach with India’s top-ranked player.
He’s a tennis pro, an amateur guitar player, a Dave Matthews Band fan and wants to become a “crazy guitar collector”. But as the faded blue t-shirt and ruffled hair would suggest, a largely non-flamboyant guy. Critics will tell you that, the element of bling is also missing from his game. “It depends on who’s analysing the game,” he says, of the common grouse that he lacks a weapon, a cracking serve or ground stroke deemed so essential in the age of power tennis.
“You are going to have a lot of critics whether you do well or you don’t. I know my game well, I think I have been playing really smart so far in my career and that’s one of the reason I've got to about 60 in three years. In 36 months, I've made it this far. “Doubting myself and doubting my abilities is something I don't do.”
But a little constructive criticism, especially from his coach Scott McCain, is only welcome. “It’s weird,” he says… “Because, it’s probably the only sport where you hire someone to tell you that you are not good.”
Hard at work
It’s been a bittersweet time for the Indian. Only this week he was presented with the Arjuna Award. But also, for the first time in his three years on tour he’s sitting out due to injury.
Somdev had to pull out of the reverse singles during India’s Davis Cup World Group play-off tie against Japan, in Tokyo last week, due to a shoulder strain. He had lost the first singles to world no. 175 Yuichi Sugita 6-3, 6-4, 7-5.
“It was very painful to play that match and more painful to lose in that fashion because I really felt if I had won on the first day things could've been different,” he says. India lost the tie 1-4, and their place in the 16-team elite competition.
Somdev says he “doesn’t want to overthink” injury. But his physical conditioning has almost been a badge of honour for the 26-year-old.
“It is one of my strengths,” he says clamping his hands together, momentarily hiding the scraped knuckles.
He doesn’t have a big serve or a cracking forehand, the staple fodder for most of the top guys. Which means there’s little space to hide on the tennis court; and a quick set of wheels is as much a necessity as it is an asset. Having moved base from Charlottesville, Virginia to Austin, Texas has given him an opportunity to train with players like Andy Roddick and Ryan Harrison, two Americans on completely opposite sides of the career spectrum.
“We are extremely competitive when it comes to anything,” he says of the training sessions. “We challenge each other. It’s all tough and we have a good time doing it.”
“Off season is the worst, in December,” he says, recalling the strenuous workout sessions.
“The only reason is because it’s not one session that kills you. You can always do one. But the problem is you know when Monday is tough you got to wake up on Tuesday. And by the time Friday comes around you are really, really fried.
“The second and third weeks are just killers because then you wake up knowing you have five days to go. The best way to deal with it is not think about it at all.”
That’s the Christmas ‘vacation’ players get after a bruising 11 months of non-stop jet-setting, training and breaking their bodies on the tennis court.
“Tennis is incredibly tough as a profession,” Somdev says, somewhat rhetorically. “Because a) its very global, b) its very expensive to travel around c) its not very rewarding, to say that you are a 400th ranked tennis professional in the world is not really saying too much, and its not very rewarding financially. A lot of times, for a lot of kids out there it’s tough to stay motivated, because you have to play 11 months, which means you have to lose for 11 months.
“So, for guys who do make it, you have to give them a lot of credit because they have gone through the tough road.”
And though the road was a little smoother for the “cocky kid” from college, who came in after winning back-to-back NCAA (US Collegiate) titles, the Indian has had enough scars of the battle to be humbled by the enormity of the task.
“In college, maybe, I was a little over-confident and arrogant. I didn’t know what the professionals had to go through. After the first year on tour is when I started to realise how tough tennis was going to be. And that’s why the second year was a struggle.”
That winning feeling
In this third year as a pro, Somdev has made it all the way to world no.62 this year-- riding the highs of making it to the finals of the Johannesburg ATP, playing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the early part of 2011— mainly because he’s been able to keep away from those dark places in the head.
“Every player goes through a phase like that when they are really down in the dumps,” he says. “But I think once you have done it enough number of times then you start to enjoy the grind.”
“More than the trophy presentations, the accolades and the fans shouting and yelling, it’s the sense that you get for the first five or ten seconds after you've won the match.
“That sense of happiness, of joy, of accomplishment, you can’t really duplicate. Whenever I am down I think about how I felt in those times and how I overcame a lot of difficult situations to get there. And it’s an easy road back from there.”
Time of his life
Non-controversial, popular, and in his own words “calm and laidback”, Somdev’s sunny personality, as much as his success, has also been able to soothe a fractured Davis Cup team.
“I've been focused on my job, and everyone around in the tennis circles has seen that. I wouldn’t care to fight with someone,” he says. “Or, maybe I just do a good job hiding from controversy.”
Whether studying sociology in the University has helped him put things in perspective or not, his pragmatism, in a sport that spawns fragile psyches, is striking.
“The way I look at it, I'm pretty fortunate to be in the situation I am in. I really enjoy playing tennis. And to be paid to play, is something I am very fortunate to be doing. I count my blessings every day.”
“It's challenging, its fun and I'm enjoying it,” he says of life on the road.
“I'm only going to get to do this one time, so I want to do it right.”