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Somdev Devvarman, the leader

Spartacus in tennis shorts


NEW FACE: With his stand for players' issues, Somdev has pushed the unsavoury Paes-Bhupathi feud into the background

Who is Somdev Devvarman, the man who has led the most cultured revolt in Indian sport? Always leading from the front, fighting for his team's cause and never once losing his poise, this tennis player from Tripura has proved quite a leader.

It was the fall of 2010. The mid-afternoon air was hot and heavy. A shirtless Somdev Devvarman was being put through his paces at Chennai's sunkissed Nungambakkam Stadium. The US-based pro, ranked just outside the top-100 at the time, charged the baseline like a sentinel - quick, short steps and dark watchful eyes. Once in a while he paused, hands on his hips, a toothy grin lighting up his countenance.

Even though he showed no signs of being weighed down, Somdev, positioned as he was at the front of a challenge, was carrying a load. For the first time in more than 30 years India was playing a Davis Cup home tie - a crucial World Group relegation clash against a formidable Brazilian side - on a surface other then grass. The powers that be in Indian tennis had bowed to the wishes of the country's No. 1 player, who went with outdoor hard courts, a surface that worked equally for him and his team. For India, the move was tantamount to surrendering home advantage, given that for generations grass was the favoured surface for home ties.

American Scot McCain, one of the most experienced coaches on the ATP Tour, is a heavily built man with an opinion or two. He crossed his legs and leaned against the wall of the spectator gallery, his eyes fixed firmly on his ward. "Som is a leader, he likes responsibility and he shoulders it well, " the Californian said, "He is your No. 1 player and his surface of choice is hard. For any team it's always a sign of confidence to play to one's own strengths rather than to the weakness of the opposition. When he enters competitions like these he knows his role, he doesn't shy away from a challenge, he understands what's expected of him, and I've always known him to deliver. "

At that time and for a couple of years after, not in the least because he didn't log in performances - he led the country's charge into the World Group for two successive seasons, won gold medals in multi-discipline events like the Commonwealth and Asian Games and more importantly climbed to No. 62 in the world rankings - leadership wasn't a trait one associated with the Somdev. Classic manners and unerringly polite, the pro looked more like a fresher on his first day at school, rather than someone leading a line, even though that was exactly where he was positioned.

Then, at what was numerically the lowest point of his career, ranked 664 in the world, thanks to a near 18-month lay-off due to a shoulder injury that went under the knife for dual procedures - Acromio-Clavicular joint and a tear of the Superior Labrum Antro Posterior - last January, a side of Somdev that had hitherto gone unnoticed became plainly obvious.

On New Year's eve, Somdev led a group of eight players - Yuki Bhambri, Vishnu Vardhan, Sanam Singh, Divij Sharan, Saketh Myneni, Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna - in taking up issues with the All India Tennis Association. After that three more players (Sriram Balaji, Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan and Vijay Sundar Prashant) joined in, The players, while pressing for better playing conditions for team India, also asked for an increased percentage in prize-money, equal and fair treatment of team members, transparent and professional functioning of the parent body and change in support staff - captain, coach, doctor and physio - some of who had been around so long they were beginning to merge with the woodwork.

Bangalore-based coach Sunil Yajaman, who worked closely with Somdev when he was a junior, recalled how as a teenager he was always the leader, the man in the front, even when he wasn't necessarily the best player around. Yajaman went on to narrate an incident from the 27-year-old's Delhi days to illustrate his point. It was a particularly brutal summer afternoon in the Capital, a little over a decade ago, when a group of a dozen trainees at AITA's academy threw themselves on the ground at the end of a taxing workout. Somdev quickly took his place among the boys, lying on his back, in the shade. After a little while though, Somdev was back on his feet, kicking a football, urging the others to join him for a game. Within minutes the rest of the boys, who only a short while ago appeared to be plastered to the ground, were on the their feet trailing the boy with the unruly crown, who by then was running with the wind.

Yajaman said Somdev was a natural leader. "He has this ability to create a following wherever he goes. I've never known him to bully or boss people around. He is respectful of others and their position and has a great sense of responsibility. One thing you must know about him is that he isn't easily influenced. "

Brian Boland, head coach at the University of Virginia, where Somdev graduated from after winning a record back-to-back NCAA singles titles, picked the Indian's attitude that made him see things in a 'us rather than him' manner as his No. 1 distinguishing trait especially in a team situation. Boland said: "Deciding to bring Somdev to UVA was one of the best decisions I've ever made. The impact he made went beyond being a student athlete. He impacted the entire community in a way I have never witnessed in my life as a coach. "

Typically Somdev hasn't made the players' duel with AITA about himself. He has looked to give the younger players credit, saying they were the real heroes. "You should see the energy and sense of purpose among the kids, it's amazing. We have this group chat enabled on our phones, and they're constantly reminding each other of why we are in this. They are the ones who've made the big decisions, the ones who stand to lose the most. Some of them may never play Davis Cup after this, they are aware of that, but if you take a look at the bigger picture, they would end up doing more for Indian tennis than people who've played a few ties. Each of these guys have had serious issues with the federation at some point or the other. They don't want younger players to go through the same stuff. We want to secure the future of Indian tennis. "

Earlier when the Paes-Bhupathi feud was fought in public domain, people tended to tire of the endless rally of words, but this time the players' issues are being followed with renewed interest mainly because the boys are in a selfless fight with the federation. They're asking for the basics, the genesis of which is professional functioning. It's unlike Leander Paes' 1993 stand with the federation or any other battle in Indian tennis and perhaps all of Indian sport.

Still theories abound on the why and how of the players' move. Was Somdev influenced by the Bhupathi faction in the latter's battle with Paes? Is it AITA vice-president Karti Chidambaram's fight against the national body that India's star player has made his own? Somdev brushed aside the talk saying people drew upon likely theories only when they did not understand what was being done. "Why can't people just get that all we want is what's best for Indian tennis?" Somdev said.

On the other hand, AITA had openly considered dropping Somdev from the Davis Cup squad for the February 1 to 3 tie against South Korea in New Delhi given his ranking of 551 which saw some 10 Indians ranked ahead of him. That he had only dropped so low down the rankings because of a prolonged injury-enforced break from the game that saw him reduced to the sidelines for nearly 18 months was obviously lost on the authorities. So much so that AITA was negotiating with junior players, refusing to talk straight to Somdev, during the final round of negotiations before the national body selected a rag-tag outfit, leaving out the country's best players.

Not surprisingly, the Indian has also been at the receiving end of a vicious rumour campaign, which questioned his game, linking it to his 500-plus ranking. Besides there were marked questions on his ability to break back into the game's top-200. The top-100 is already being considered too much for him. Somdev's performance in Melbourne, in the opening Grand Slam of the year, where he beat the 78th-ranked German in the first round and then came up with a battling performance against the tournament's 24th seed, the giant Pole Jerzy Janowicz must put those rumours to rest.

They say the mark of a leader is where he positions himself in the battle zone, that's if he's willing to put himself out there at all. Somdev has refused to hide behind a senior pro like Mahesh Bhupathi, who has known controversies aplenty in his career, or a bunch of spirited junior players. Every letter from the players to AITA has gone out from his inbox. He has made all the statements, repeatedly calling AITA's bluff, pointing to a clear pattern in their functioning that has been far from professional. He hasn't neglected his tennis either, putting in the required time on court, and thriving in competitive environs. So much so he said the tussle with AITA hadn't put any additional pressure on him. He was actually enjoying the tug and pull.

On the other hand, the Anil Khanna-led AITA - CEO Hironmoy Chatterjee, Secretary Bharath Oza and executive director Development and Marketing Col Ranbir Chauhan - has resorted to half-truths and threats that has left the reputation of the parent body in tatters. It must be asked where exactly Anil Khanna was during this exchange?

Somdev, whose favourite quote on leadership is a line that leans on Mahatma Gandhi's words, "Be the change you wish to see in the world", said, "Leadership is all about leading by example." India couldn't have found a better example.

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