The last time Ramkumar Ramanathan travelled to Pune, he still had a lot to do to come good on his potential. It was at the Davis Cup, a zonal tie against New Zealand in February, and all the team India staff swore by his talent— which had yet to fetch any concrete results.
Nine months later, just days after his 23rd birthday, Ramkumar returns to the Balewadi Sports Complex for the USD 50,000 Pune Challenger with high-profile scalps under his belt, the experience of playing and winning matches in his first ATP Masters appearance, and having jumped 126 places in the world ranks to stand at 150.
And it was at the Davis Cup that he laid the foundation to his first breakthrough season. “My season started at that Davis Cup tie,” he says of the two singles wins in the tie against the Kiwis. “It gave me a lot of confidence.”
The belief has reflected in his performance and results. Topping the list is the straight-sets win over then world no 8 Dominic Thiem at the Antalya Open back in June. “It was my first grass court tournament in two years, and I was not even supposed to go to Turkey because I was unwell the previous week,” he recalls. “But I spoke to my coach and he said to give it a go.”
Before toppling Thiem in the second round, he came through the qualifiers and outplayed former world no 63 Rogerio Dutra Silva in the main draw opener. Finally, he fell short in the quarterfinals after stretching 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis to three close sets.
“It meant that I can play that kind of tennis, and I felt that I have that chance to push forward,” he recalls.
The start of the season however, gave no indication to how his performances would pan out. In his very first match of the year, he had been dealt a rude awakening – that too in front of his home crowd at the Chennai Open. A 6-1, 6-1 thrashing by compatriot Yuki Bhambri, who had just returned to the circuit after a lengthy injury lay-off, sent the youngster scrambling back to the drawing board. So much so that he took two weeks off after failing to make the cut for the Australian Open qualifiers.
He chose to travel to Florida to work on his fitness with coach Emilio Sanchez, a three-time doubles Grand Slam winner. He marked his return on tour with the wins in Davis Cup and made the jump from playing Future events to the higher Challengers and ATP events.
In the 2016 season, Ramkumar played nine Futures, compared to the four he’s played in this year. Yet importantly, his calendar has been flooded with 20 Challengers – including two finalist finishes – and six ATP events. He even managed to get to the second round of his maiden appearance at a Masters main draw, when he was granted lucky loser entry. Previously criticised for dawdling around at the lower rung of Futures, Ramkumar took the next step this year.
“I’ve played everything this year, and that’s the only way to get to the next level,” he says. Subsequently, his rank moved up from the 276 it was the last time he was in Pune, to 150.
On Tuesday, the fourth seed will step onto centre court to take on Australian Marc Polmans in his penultimate tournament this season. For a change, the Chennai-lad is not anxious at this stage of the year. In the past few seasons, he’s packed his off-season with Futures events just to gain a few more points to enter the Australian Open qualifiers.
But he’s coming close to ending the season that has seen him play his best tennis, and take strides in the direction that he was long expected to have taken – he’s already secured a spot to the first Grand Slam of the year. Now, the focus is to make sure he continues to progress and break into the top-100 next season.
“I’ve grown more as a player this year. I’ve learnt to be relaxed in the important moments not be rushed. That’s been the key for me,” he says. “But I’m still just starting.”