India’s 22-year-old Ramkumar Ramanathan had won most of the lower-rung tennis events he participated in, including two this year. But there’s only so much being a Futures circuit champion could get him. So this season, the Chennai lad mixed up his schedule, throwing in a few Challengers and the odd ATP 250 event.The Antalya Open was one such in which the faltering star of Indian tennis produced one of the biggest upsets anyone from the country has managed.
Facing top seed and world number 8 Dominic Thiem in the Round of 16, Ramkumar, ranked 222 who started the tournament as a qualifier, got the better of the Austrian to win 6-3, 6-2. Throughout his career, Ramkumar has faced constant criticism of being an underachiever. For all his talent, he has mostly played in lower-rung tournaments. It’s a level that hasn’t allowed his potential to blossom. But today, the script changed.Ranked 214 places below his fancied rival, Ramkumar started the match the way he finished – with an ace.
“My coach told me to enjoy myself, which isn’t easy. But I was serving well,” he said after his match. “I’d like to use this (win) and build on it. But it’s good to have a win over Thiem.” The last time an Indian singles player beat a top 10 competitor was back in 1998, when Leander Paes got the better of Pete Sampras at an ATP event. Somdev Devvarman brought in hope, becoming the first Indian since Paes to reach an ATP event final, at the Chennai Open in 2009, later even breaking into the top 100.
In 2013, at the Chennai Open, a teenaged Ramkumar burst onto the scene when he got the better of Somdev who was the country’s highest-ranked player then. It was a match that brought him into the limelight. He was Indian tennis’ big hope. “He’s got the big serve, the big forehand, and he’s not too bad when it comes to volleying,” says Zeeshan Ali, coach of the Davis Cup team. All that was lacking was the mentality to get out of the comfort zone – play bigger tournaments.He chanced his luck this time, in Turkey, and came up with the win that is expected to give him a great deal of confidence.
“Something like this will give him the belief that he can indeed play and compete in the bigger tournaments,” Ali adds. Ramkumar’s rise to this level, though, hasn’t been a steady journey. In fact, he had a terrible start to the 2017 season. A first-round defeat at his favourite Chennai Open was followed by a failure to make it to the Australian Open qualifiers. It was then that he took the decision to travel to Florida to work on his fitness at the Emilio Sanchez academy for a two-week camp.
Call-ups to the Davis Cup team for the tie against New Zealand and Uzbekistan saw him lead the team to 4-1 wins (with him winning all of his four singles rubbers over the two ties). But there was still something missing. That spark of confidence he needed to step out of his shell.It comes now, in the win against Thiem. “This will give him the indication of what he is capable of,” said Mahesh Bhupathi, Davis Cup captain.
“If he continues to put in the work.” The add-on statement from the skipper is a message. That the world number 222 needs to keep up his participation in bigger events. Subsequently, the words of encouragement and praise too have changed.“That’s what you want to play for, you want to compete against the best and have a chance to beat the best. To get a top-10 win is a really good accomplishment,”says Devvarman.