An Indian Samurai walked away into the warm embrace of a Chennai sunset. Somdev Devvarman was a warrior whose armoury included his agility and fitness. It is ironic then that one of India's finest singles players was forced into retirement by a string of injuries. One might rue the fact that his early promise remained largely unfulfilled, but we also need to celebrate the fact that it was never for a lack of effort from the hardworking young man.
Rising during an era in which doubles became the primary vocation for many Indian tennis players, Somdev proved to be a wonderful exception. He proved that it was possible for India to produce world class singles players with the right attitude and tireless effort.
Somdev was a tennis sensation at the University of Virginia – winning back to back NCAA titles in 2007 and 2008. He accumulated a sensational 44-1 record in that second season, a feat that remains the best in NCAA history, before turning professional.
India received the first taste of Somdev’s potential when he swept into the finals of the Chennai Open in 2009. Somdev, 23 at the time, upended Carlos Moya and Ivo Karlovic, both ranked inside the top 50, before losing to Marin Cilic in the finals.
But some of Somdev’s finest moments on the court came while he played for the national team. His Davis Cup World Group playoff victories over Dusan Lajovic (2014) and Jiri Vesely (2015) injected faith and belief into men like Yuki Bhambri, Saketh Myneni and Ramkumar Ramanathan, all who are mainstays for India today.
Somdev also collected three treasured medals in 2010. He won gold at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi before going on to produce a rare double, by winning the singles and doubles gold in the Asian Games.
It is no coincidence that the current crop of young men are leading a rejuvenation of sorts in Indian tennis. The spring of new belief among the ranks can be ascribed in a large measure to the exemplary effort of Somdev to shape a meaningful career in singles.
There was some hope that Somdev had the appetite for a final hurrah, when he hired Greek coach Theodoros Angelinos to join his team in 2015. The man from Tripura had worked with Scott McCain for several years before that, but this move late in his career underlined continued ambition.
Unfortunately, injury struck again and the last we saw of this vigorous champion was in a quarterfinal loss at an F10 event in Bakersfield, California. The last time he played an ATP level match was in 2015, when he tried in vain to qualify for the Indian Wells event.
In the end though, his decision to retire from the professional tour was driven by a diminishing return from his mind, rather than body. Somdev admitted on Sunday to have reached a stage where extending his career made no real sense.
“I wanted to play for right reasons. Playing for me was always super fun and passion, that was dying or slowing down,” said Somdev with disarming candour. “That is my biggest strength, my fighting spirit and that passion and heart, more than forehands and backhands. Second, I knew I would not be able to play my best tennis. I wanted to be in top-100 and started reaching a point through injuries where I felt it will be tough for me to come back to top-100. Once I realised that, I decided that it was time to stop,”
But it is very apparent that Somdev is not marching too far away from the sport he loves. He was seen working with Indian Davis Cup reserve Prajnesh Gunneswaran on the sidelines of the Chennai Open. There was also talk of Somdev having thrown his hat in the ring to serve as a coach to the Davis Cup team. It appears that the sprightly legs will pack in plenty of work for the Indian team in the years to come.
It would be naïve and unfair to consider measuring Somdev through the prism of statistics or titles. The fact that he rose to World No 62 in 2011 was no mean achievement, but he stood out more for his attitude. What Somdev lacked in numbers, he made up for with his spirit, camaraderie and an unforgiving appetite for hard work.
Somdev’s love for food and music also meant that he was great company for the boys and his tenacity and spirit helped him emerge as a leader within the team. In standing up for the cause of his men against the might of the AITA in 2013, Somdev showed great spine and character. There is no doubt that he is much loved and respected for his deeds on and off the court, a factor that should help him integrate easily into the Davis Cup structure, sooner than later. Indian tennis may hurt from the void created by his absence in the short term, but he might more than make up for it by turning into a fine mentor.
There is no doubt that the team will miss his energy when they play New Zealand in February. But it will not be long before we see him backing the boys again.
Updated Date: Jan 02, 2017 13:36 PM