They had just been at the receiving end of a 3-0 thrashing from Kazakhstan in the Fed Cup tie, but the Hong Kong girls weren’t prepared to leave the court just yet. With the warm February sun beating down, the players threw themselves into taxing groundstrokes drills, as captain Karan Rastogi steadily emptied a bag full of balls, only to gather them back and start all over. The next thirty minutes were filled with several exasperated grunts and “aha” moments.
“Most of the time, the little things can make all the difference. The team looks forward to it because they are willing to learn,” former India Davis Cupper Rastogi told The Indian Express. “Working on one particular thing, even if only for 10 minutes. Whatever we can to maximise our chances.”
Rastogi knows about maximising his chances. Plagued by recurrent back injuries, he called time on his career in 2012 at the age of 25. After a short coaching stint in Mumbai, he shot out an e-mail to the Hong Kong Tennis Association on a hunch. The reply came within a day, extending an invitation for a ten-month stint.
“It has been five years now,” says Rastogi. “I think it’s because of the work ethic. If you ask my peers, they’ll tell you ‘Karan has been very disciplined.’ I tried to be fair in Hong Kong and made them work hard. Maybe they saw that. The results have been encouraging so far. But the attitude change has been the biggest achievement. Tennis is not just a tool to get scholarships into US colleges now.”
Rastogi, who achieved the career-best ranking of 217, says he decided to quit “after realising that I wasn’t going to break into top-100.” There are no regrets however. “I achieved my best ranking after I was out for 18 months. It’s disappointing that maybe I couldn’t achieve what I could. But you need to look at the bright side. How many players can say they have won a bronze at Asian Games (2010). How many have played Davis Cup for India?”
Rastogi is the only one to have played for both India and Hong Kong. By taking the court to help the team out in crucial ties, the 31-year-old has now played eight rubbers for his adopted homeland, four more than for India. “There is a lot less pressure now,” says Rastogi. “Because my career doesn’t depend on me playing. Physically not as fit as I used to be, but with experience you learn a few things which make it easier.” Satisfaction, however, comes through mentoring. The ongoing Fed Cup Asia/Oceania leg has resulted in another “bittersweet” homecoming for Rastogi, who remembers winning “many, many matches here at DLTA,” including a Futures title in 2006.
While he admits it doesn’t give Hong Kong any on-court advantage, Rastogi adds: “But being in Delhi, I know the places where I can take the team to dinner. We went to the Ambience Mall, because it’s close by. We have also been to Punjabi By Nature. Obviously I did all the ordering, but they like the food.”
The last time he led a Hong Kong team against India was in Astana, 2014. The underdogs prevailed (their only win in five clashes) over an Indian side featuring Sania Mirza. “Everybody was joking around how I was a traitor,” recalls Rastogi. “Sania isn’t here now, but it still is a tough tie for us. This is a young, motivated Indian side. Defeating them would be another incredible result for Hong Kong.”