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As Somdev Devvarman worked his way into a small portion of tomato basil pasta, a bright smile played on his face. He set down his fork and looked across the table. "I'll tell you this story, " he said, "It's funny. " His eyes sparkled at the memory.
At the University of Virginia, where he was majoring in Sociology (2004 to '08), when most of the student population flew home during vacations, Somdev attended summer school. The articulate young gun took those extra classes to afford himself the luxury of focusing on his tennis when term began. He also worked on the side, coaching and doing odd jobs, so that he could make good his tuition fees. He wasn't on full scholarship and he didn't want to ask his parents for financial help. In 2006, Somdev got an opportunity to play the qualifying competition of the Legg Mason Classic, an ATP event in Washington DC. He couldn't break from summer school as he needed the credits, he couldn't shift his classes either, as time was tight and tests were approaching. So, every day for four days, he did the two-hour drive, leaving Charlottesville after finishing his classes, playing his match and driving back. Most days, he got to the venue with only enough time to pull on his match shoes and take the court. Somdev survived the qualifiers and made the main draw, where he lost in the first round.
'Funny' is an unusual way to put it, but that is typical of Somdev. He didn't just make the most of a tough deal, he embraced the hard yards.
In the looks department, Somdev, 25, unruly hair, toothy grin and the very definition of six-pack abs, is a cross between football super star Ronaldinho and kung-fu artist Bruce Lee. He may not be the obvious pick for athletes who embody the spirit of youngistan, but he dances the dare better than anyone else. There's nothing in-your-face or attention-seeking about his moves. That's passê. He's cool, confident and combative right down to his toe-nails. Excuses are not his story. And if there's a song that will tell you his tale, if only in spirit, then it must be Frank Sinatra's I did it my way.
Somdev is a product of his ambition.
The biggest names in Indian tennis are torchbearers of their parent's vision and sacrifices;right from Ramanathan Krishnan down to Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Sania Mirza and Yuki Bhambri. That's not to say that these glorious talents didn't get the job done, but someone ran the distance with them. Somdev didn't have that luxury. Maybe he found he didn't need it. His parents - father Pravanjan, who held a government job in the income tax department, and mother Ranjana, a housewife - put the fight in him before setting him off. Like with a lot of promising Indian juniors, Somdev had a choice to make at 17. Like most of them, he decided to take the American collegiate route, but unlike all of them, save for Bhupathi and to a lesser extent Harsh Mankad, he stuck with tennis. The bulk of Indian juniors are quickly lost to collegiate academics. While their athletic ability falls short of what is required, they're usually ahead of the pack academically, so invariably they end up making what to the sports-centric mind is the soft choice. In 2004, Somdev opted for college in the US, but quite reluctantly. He was burning to get on the Tour, but didn't have the resources to take the plunge and was smart enough to understand that.
Four years later, when Somdev exploded onto the consciousness of Indian tennis on the back of two NCAA singles crowns, a first for this country, he was welcomed by a world divided by the Bhupathi-Paes feud. India's tennis icons were in the midst of a bitter row that saw everyone from players, coaches and even the federation take sides, riding on the differences of two men who were the pillars of Indian tennis at the turn of the millennium. Somdev, however, refused to wade in even though there were opportunities aplenty.
A student of conflict management in college, Somdev said, "Whatever their problem was, it was not my problem. It didn't concern me. Lee and Hesh have always been nice to me. They've guided me and given me advice if and when I have needed it. My brief was not to take sides, I was required to be a professional, get a job done and that's what I focused on."
The tattoo on Somdev's left arm is fittingly an anchor with the No. 13 (the day he was born) punched in. 'Anchor' is an apt description of his place in Indian tennis. His American coach Scott McCain said, "The first thing about Somdev that hits you is his ability to fight. He will fight to the end and never concede until he is beaten. Somdev has come up through the US collegiate circuit, where the emphasis is on team work, so when he's out there he is doing it not just for himself, but his team, his staff, his country. " It is the Indian's attitude more than his array of shots that has had people talking both on the Tour and within his team.
"You have to respect the effort and the ethic, " Paes said, "This is his time. He is the present and the future. " Bhupathi rolled his eyes and said, "Boy! Can he fight!" It is that single ability along with supreme fitness that has seen him rise to No. 96 in the world ranking. This weekend in Chennai, he carries the nation's hopes in a difficult Davis Cup World Group play-off against Brazil.
Three weeks later, he will return to New Delhi to lead the home challenge in the Commonwealth Games.
In the two years since he graduated from college, progress has been visible as much on the court as with the rankings. Criticism of his play still remains directed at the fact that his game lacks a big weapon, so crucial in modern tennis. As a player, the India No. 1 from Tripura is most un-Indian in that he is a grinder, at times a shrewd counter-puncher who relies on his legs. Unlike the artists that came before him - Vijay Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan and Paes - all of whom used their wrists like magicians, Somdev's tennis revolves around tireless legs and stubborn groundstrokes.
McCain said, "Most players' tennis is a reflection of their personality. It is true of Somdev too. He is an engaging person and gets along well with lots of people. Most times, he waits for the action to come to him instead of taking it to his opponent. " Now ranked 113 in the world, Somdev dwells on criticism that is constructive and allows the rest to go with the wind. "I have hired people (coach McCain and trainer Milos Galecic) to make me a better tennis player, " he said. "They know my game best and we are working towards a goal. " The American said he thinks his ward has the ability to play consistently in the top-30 to 50 bracket.
Family is the core for Somdev. A week ago, when the Indian ace was home in Agartala, his gmail status read: Back where I belong. "We get along great as a family, " he said. "That's the part I miss most when I'm away. I think the most Indian quality about me is my sense of family, " Somdev said. The young pro, who lives in Austin, Texas, is the youngest of three children, his brother Aratrik is a designer and sister Poulomi is a photographer. "Our parents were firm with us, but they allowed us to make our own choices when we grew up. We are all doing such different things, but our values are the same. They always told us to treat people like the way we wanted to be treated, " he said. Somdev, who arrived 10 minutes late for this interview for no fault of his, was profusely apologetic. "I hate to be kept waiting, " he said, "And I don't like to do that to anyone else."
At a critical week for Indian tennis Somdev is back again in Chennai, where he spent 11 of his growing-up years, since the age of eight, and also the city where he first weaved dreams of life as a professional athlete. "The first couple of years of the Chennai Open, " he said, "I came to the stadium every day with my father. I never left until the last ball was struck. I watched the prize-distribution, the finalists' speeches. I still remember it all. This was the stuff of my dreams. " About a decade later, in 2009, Somdev was one of those men in the finals of the Chennai Open, the only Indian to get that far in the country's only ATP Tour event. "All those kids in the stands, screaming their heads off all week, " he added, "I was one of those boys."
When Somdev is done with his career, he may claim many victories on and off the court. His single biggest achievement, however, would be that of a boy from a middle-class Indian home who survived the treacherous quicksands of international tennis on his own, without any help in his transition years from the juniors to the professional ranks. With Somdev Devvarman the era of excuses for Indian athletes is officially over. 'No infrastructure', 'no sponsorship', 'no godfather'. That waste basket is at the exit point. Somdev lived this non-existent system and beat it.
Changes every three days, right now it's Bob Dylan's Tambourine Man
I prefer vegetarian food.
People who treat other people disrespectfully, bad manners.
I always put on my left shoe before my right shoe. I don't cut my nails or hair on a Sunday and Wednesday. I was born on a Wednesday.
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