Somdev's Route To Success
by Alison Kim|
Somdev Devvarman grew up by passing through the U.S. collegiate system. Now a regular on the ATP World Tour, the Indian is realising his potential.
Chennai has a population of 7.4 million people according to the CIA World Factbook.
That fact was not lost on University of Virginia tennis coach Brian Boland as his cab zigzagged through the colourful and congested streets of India’s fourth largest city following a 48-hour, 8,500-mile journey beset by flight delays.
Boland’s promising new recruit, Somdev Devvarman, lived in Chennai, but exactly where he wasn’t quite sure. He rang up the young prospect upon checking into the Park Hotel and informed him where he was staying.
“With a large city of millions of people I guess some things are meant to be”
“You’re kidding, right?” responded Devvarman. “Walk across the street and I will be waiting.”
Though Devvarman figured the coach would be staying at one of the big hotels in the city, he laughs as he remembers, “This was literally 20 feet across [from our house]. I thought it was little freaky in the beginning. Just coincidence, I guess.”
Boland, meanwhile, chalked it up to fate. “I was in complete shock. With a large city of millions of people I guess some things are meant to be. We connected right away and that meeting started the greatest journey a coach and player could ever take.”
Collegiate tennis hadn’t been on Devvarman’s radar growing up. “My goal in life was always to be a professional and play for India,” says Devvarman, who picked up a racquet at the age of nine.
Devvarman professes that he was “just okay, not one of the best” when he was 14-15, but by age 18, he had developed into a Top 50 junior. It was at that time that he ran into a couple of good friends who had played collegiate tennis and broadened his perspective. “I realised, if you want to play professional tennis, you’re going to play till you’re 31, 32. If you’re really doing that well in college, you’ll always have the option to go pro, so I decided to give it a shot in my late teens, early 20s, and see how I liked it,” he says.
While playing a tournament in Florida, Devvarman made a side trip to Charlottesville and was immediately taken in by the historic town. “One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to,” he attests.
If that wasn’t enough, Boland’s visit to Chennai two weeks later sealed the deal.
Over a dinner of south Indian cuisine in the Devvarman household, the coach quickly put Somdev’s mother, Ranjana, at ease with his honesty. “I can remember struggling to eat some of the food so she asked if I liked it and I said, ‘Actually I do not,’ and everyone laughed,” he recounts.
“His love of the game and attitude about the game was second to none”
Ranjana, in particular, had been anxious about sending her youngest of three children halfway around the world, but Boland calmed her fears as he explained how the University of Virginia would be a good fit for Somdev.
“When she met him, she kind of could picture who was going to take care of me for four years,” says Devvarman. “I think she was very comfortable and that kind of got me a lot happier too because I knew kind of what I was getting into and he’s a man of his word.”
Devvarman entered the University of Virginia as part of a 2004-05 freshman class that included highly-touted recruits such as top-ranked USTA junior Treat Huey, and even today, states, “what’s weird is I don’t know why [coach Boland] really wanted me at the time”.
He weighed a mere 135 lbs, and according to Boland, “hit the ball short, had a weak serve and was not comfortable at the net”. But superseding those weaknesses was what Boland described as tremendous potential. “He was as fast as any junior in the world and made some great decisions on the court for his age… His love of the game and attitude about the game was second to none for a young man.”
From his first day on campus, Devvarman put his head and heart into getting the most of his college experience. The inquisitive student embraced the advice of his tennis coaches, strength coach and nutritionists, improving all aspects of his game through increased fitness and strength.
“He improved his serve, his anticipation, his net game, and his forehand started to become more of a weapon over time and he really worked hard on his depth,” says Boland. “He was patient and understood that although he needed to become more of an offensive player over time he had to do these things on his watch.”
Devvarman was subsequently named ACC Freshman of the Year after his first season, reached the NCAA singles final the next, before coming to a crossroad. When he started at the University of Virginia, he envisioned that he would play for two years and turn pro, but the camaraderie he had built with his teammates made him rethink his original plan.
“We were a big family and I was having the time of my life,” says Devvarman. “My parents were really happy for me. They said I was really going along my life well. At that point, they wanted me to finish my degree as well, and so it became a no-brainer after two years to stay on and finish two more years, get a degree, hang out with my friends, and then try and do as well as I could for the team.”
“We were a big family and I was having the time of my life”
Scott McCain, Devvarman’s coach for the past three years and a former coach at the University of California at Berkeley, says, “It was absolutely the right decision for Somdev. College was a wonderful time for him and he became a confident tennis player.”
Over the next two years, as he completed his course work in sociology and attended parties at the house of the Dave Matthews Band’s Boyd Tinsley, Devvarman tore up the NCAA circuit.
He capped his junior season in dramatic style – “One of the greatest college tennis matches I have ever seen,” says Boland – stunning the Georgia crowd into silence as he hit an ace past John Isner on championship point to claim the NCAA singles title. Isner, who was playing his final collegiate match in front of his home crowd, had not dropped serve during the match.
After losing just five matches during 2006-07, Devvarman still found room for improvement. He went an unprecedented 44-1 in his senior year and became just the fourth player in 50 years to win consecutive NCAA titles. The University of Virginia named him Male Athlete of the Year, ahead of Chris Long, who went on to be the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft.
“Deciding to bring Somdev to UVA was one of the best decisions I ever made,” says Boland. “The impact he made at UVA goes well beyond just being a student athlete. He impacted the entire community in a way I have never witnessed in my life as a coach.”
Devvarman, in turn, turned pro with an extra bounce in his step – with that certain big man on campus confidence he would’ve lacked had he turned pro two or four years earlier.
Just weeks after graduation, he won the first three tournaments he contested – a pair of Futures and a Challenger. He then qualified for the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington and reached the quarter-finals. In less than two months, his ranking soared more than 500 spots into the Top 250.
“I got fortunate to not have to go through the initial really tough phases because I was confident after doing well at the end of my college career and kind of carried that into the pros, did well the first two months, and put the really, really tough work behind me,” he says. “After that, it was a lot easier.”
Devvarman returned to Chennai for the start of the 2009 season, the place where his journey began, and thrilled his hometown fans by reaching his first ATP World Tour final.
Three years removed from his university days, Devvarman has found a new fraternity of sorts in Austin, where he first went to train with Andy Roddick in December 2008.
Devvarman made the move to Texas’s capital city last year, seeking the opportunity to work consistently with his coach as well take advantage of the abundance of solid practice partners – a number of players ranked between 200-400 and student athletes from the University of Texas.
“He impacted the entire community in a way I have never witnessed in my life as a coach”
Now, Devvarman is enjoying the benefits of working with two other top pros: American teenager Ryan Harrison, who joined the McCain camp in May, and Roddick, who often partakes in their training sessions.
“We do a lot of two on one, movement, play for position type of drilling,” says McCain of his two protégés. “They work very hard and push each other. They both have benefitted from Andy Roddick's work ethic and training and comments.”
For a person like Devvarman, this arrangement has already made a difference. “Somdev does thrive in the team environment. He enjoys camaraderie,” attests McCain. “Players have their goals. The successful ones make good use of their training and implement what they work on into games. Both Ryan and Somdev have made a jump to a higher level this year. I think Somdev’s improvement has been a positive for Ryan and I think Ryan’s improvement will have a positive impact on Somdev.”
Harrison, who has reached two ATP World Tour semi-finals since joining the team, agrees. “We both push each other,” he asserts. “We love practising together. We both work really hard and so it’s a good set-up because we both have a good mentality about it and we both understand the professionalism of the sport.”
The past year has been Somdev’s best to date at the professional level. He landed Sports Person of the Year honours from Sports Illustrated India after capturing the singles gold medal at the Commonwealth Games and the singles and doubles gold at the Asian Games in the autumn of 2010.
A few months later, he reached his second tour-level final at the SA Tennis Open in Johannesburg, finishing runner-up to Kevin Anderson, and shone in matches against two of his idols, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. “Som enjoys playing the best and knows he needs to go up another level in order to compete evenly with them,” says McCain.
Consistency will be key as Devvarman looks to work his way up the ATP ladder. He reached a career-high No. 62 in the South African Airways 2011 ATP Rankings, but recognises that he’s far from done. “I’ll continue working on my game, try to get better in every aspect, and hopefully by the end of the year I can break 50. If I get to that, then you don’t kind of stop, you go for the next one. It’s always just trying to get better.”
The man who believed in him from the start, who helped Devvarman begin his incredible journey, has every faith in the young man whom his four young children jealously guard as a big brother.
“He is without question one of the fastest and best defensive players in the world and he is now hitting a much bigger ball with more depth and precision,” says Boland. “Through a lot of hard work he has become one of the best players in the world. I could not be more proud of him and I believe the best is in front him. His attitude and self belief is amazing.”
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