Ramkumar Ramanathan had a good season last year, moving up close to 400 spots on the ATP rankings list. But as is the case with almost all young talent — Ramkumar turned 19 last November — the question is not how much ground he has covered until now, but how far he can go.
Despite the promising run in 2013 and a bright start this year, Ramkumar is still ranked only 407 as of now, a rating that won’t get him a direct entry even into a fifth-tier tennis tournament — like the Challenger series event currently going on in Delhi. Ramkumar was granted a wildcard here, something that spared him from going through the qualifiers, which is a bit of a bonus.
At the Kolkata Challenger, needing to win three qualifying matches to even get into the main draw, he was knocked out in the first. The wildcard here, though it spared Ramkumar from slogging it out on the outside courts against other journeyman tennis players who populate the lower rung of the tennis ladder, pits him first up against one of the tournament favourites in Ilija Bozolijac, who won the Kolkata challenger last week.
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Still, the Serbian (currently ranked 204, but with a career-high 101 in 2007) will not be a shoo in for a second round spot. At the Chennai Open this year, Ramkumar gave the first big sign of his talent when he stunned Somdev Devvarman, ranked more than 400 spots above him, in the first round. It was as much the result as the aggressive tennis Ramkumar played that caught the eye. He served big — at 6 feet 2 inches he can put a fair bit of thump on the ball — and climbed into forehands. When he missed, the point ended rather prematurely, but when he hit, it looked good.
The win over the top-100 player was surely not expected?
“If I felt it was unexpected, then I could not have won,” he says. “It was a good week. It gave me a lot of confidence.”
Confidence is one of the very few things Ramkumar packs in his bag before a contest. He usually goes into a game with little baggage, choosing not to clog his mind with details about his approach regarding a particular opponent or the specifics of his game plan.
“I just play aggressive tennis, that is how I have always played,” he says. “You can’t really think between games, you just play to win every point.”
There is certainly something to be said for tactical flexibility and construction of a point in tennis, aspects of the game Ramkumar will probably figure out over time. Right now, though, the former junior national champion is busy tooling his game and concentrating on fitness.
“Other players mature fast physically. For Indians, it takes a while. Right now, I am working on my upper body and back. I play tennis for around four hours a day and then we have about two hours of stretching and exercises,” he says, about his routine at the Sanchez-Casal academy in Barcelona, where he has spent close to two years.
He stresses on the not-overdoing-things bit once more.
“The coaches there know when you are stressed out. They are former players themselves. They don’t push you like crazy. If you’ve had a hard week they give you a day off, sometimes two. We all go out for a dinner or to a movie, the players and the coaches,” he says.
The uncomplicated approach and uncompromising aggression Ramkumar brings to his game may not light up the tournament beyond the first round, but it will surely make for very watchable tennis.
Sanam Singh, who was one of the few Indian singles players in action on Monday, made the higher-ranked Illya Marchenko dig deep, but was eventually beaten 2-6, 6-3, 4-6. Sanam inexplicably refused to approach the net, keeping one of his better suits locked firmly in the closet until midway through the second set. His baseline battles with the bigger, harder-hitting opponent yielded little, as the 140th-ranked Marchenko claimed the first set 6-2 in about 20 minutes and was up a break in the second.
No sooner did Sanam (ranked 352) start venturing forward than Marchenko began to lose a bit of rhythm. The Indian claimed the second set and despite going a break down early in the decider, levelled soon and at 4-4 had several break point opportunities to serve for the match. However, Marchenko held on and broke Sanam in the next game to move to the second round.
Somdev, Ramkumar and Yuki Bhambri will play their first-round matches on Tuesday.