By – Vatsal Tolasaria, 25th February, 2018
Fresh off his win at the inaugural ATP Chennai Challenger, this 6 ft 2 inches tall, big serving player is taking a short break to rejuvenate himself for the gruelling season coming up.
The list of accomplishments is rather long, so I shall mention just the couple of big ones. He is an Asian Games Silver Medalist with Sania Mirza (China 2010) and ITF Player Of The Month (April 2011). He also partnered Leander Paes at the 2012 London Olympics where they lost to eventual Silver Medalists – J.Tsonga/M.Llodra. Right now, he has set his sights on playing at Wimbledon with his partner N.Sriram Balaji this year, and is working hard to realise that dream.
In conversation with Indian Tennis Daily, he talks about how he got into tennis, how he started playing with Balaji, his Olympics experience, and also shares a few interesting anecdotes with Somdev.
Vishnu with Bala after winning the ATP Chennai Challenger, 2018
Q) When did you start playing tennis and what got you interested in the first place?
I started playing when I was 7 years old. The only reason why I got into tennis was my parents wanted me to do something after school. I used to come back from school and spend a lot of time watching TV and was putting on a lot of weight.
So my parents wanted to put me into some extra-curricular activity. They put me into cricket, and I went there for about 15-20 days, but did not enjoy it. They tried basketball as well, but to no avail. Then they put me into tennis, and I showed some kind of interest at least. So that is how this journey began.
Q) You did not have a very successful ITF Junior career. So what were the factors that influenced your decision to turn pro?
It’s always about giving equal importance to tennis and education until I was about 14-15. Once I finished my 12th standard, my parents to had to make a decision to take up say engineering or pursue a tennis career.
At that time, I had won the Junior Nationals, so was showing a lot of promise. So my coach took that decision for me then, and told my parents that he saw a lot of potential in me, and that with hard work, I could make it big. He was my first coach and is still my coach. His name is C.V. Nagaraj. So he suggested for me to take up commerce and ensured that my attendance issue in college was sorted, so that I could concentrate on my tennis.
One of my elder cousins was actually an IITian, so it was very tough for my family to say that “No, we’re not going to focus on education.” But it was my coach who took the lead and help us made the choice. He also suggested us to stop playing Juniors and play Seniors where there was at least some prize money. Because there was no way I could fund my junior career, travelling all over the world without any returns.
Q) This is actually a very tough decision for tennis parents to make. What would your advice to them be in this regard?
There was one point in my career where I played for almost about 2 years, without winning a single ATP point. I once qualified for 10 straight Futures tournaments, but was unable to win a single match in the Main Draw. But my coach showed a lot of faith in me. Then the next year, I made 6 ATP points and won the Men’s Nationals and played the Chennai Open.
But nowadays, I see parents pressurising their kids just after they don’t do well in one particular tournament. This is not the right approach, as you need to have patience and confidence in your kid’s abilities. Results will come.
Q) Your coach Mr. CV Nagaraj, has been an unsung hero of Indian Tennis. He’s churned out one player after the other. Yourself, Saketh. Tell us a bit about him.
He takes everything as a challenge. We did not what tennis was. Myself, or my parents. We used to listen to whatever he had to say. There are times even now when something is not working out for me, and he’ll still be happily willing to sort my issues out. He’s very old school, and he’s so good with all the technicalities of the sport. He has an incredible eye, and can fix anyone that’s going wrong very quickly.
He’s been a father figure for me on court ever since I held the racquet. Even now, when I won the Chennai Challenger on Saturday, he calls me up on Sunday night and asks “When are you coming to the courts on Monday?” And I go like “Whaaattt! I’ll focus on my gym for a few days”
It’s always work for him. That is how he’s always producing player after player. He’s on court from morning to evening. I tell him that he can rest and sit and manage things from there. But then he says “Like that, I won’t be able to produce another Vishnu or another Saketh”
Q) You’ve had a career high singes ranking of 262. What do you think is the difference between a top 250 player or a top 100 player. Where is the gap?
When I was 260, one thing is that we did not have too many tournaments in Asia. To break into the Top 150, one had to go to Europe/US to break through. Now also you have to do that. But you have this nice Asian circuit to make points.
To bridge the gap, you have to focus on fitness from the very start. From that aspect, I am very happy that Sumit(Nagal) has given so much importance to his fitness from the very beginning. That is what will help these guys to break the top 150, and then have one big run to break into the top 100.
Unless you are supremely talented like say a Yuki, who starts the year at 800 and finishes at a 100, it is a tough grind to keep performing well, defend points. Ramkumar is one great example of being that guy who’s solid at the Futures level. He would make his points in the Futures, ensure a top 250 ranking to play the Slam quailes.
Q) Talking about Yuki, do you think he would have made the leap to the big league sooner if he had big sponsors?
When Yuki won the Junior Slam, we all thought that he would sign a big contract and everything would be taken care of. But that never happened. He has had to fend for himself. But I am happy that he’s still grinding it out and is almost Top 100.
The Korean(Hyeon Chung) had a great run at the Aussie Open. And there is no reason why he cannot have a run like that. It’s just a matter of time. And I’ll be the happiest person on earth when he does have that kind of run.
Q) Talking about your career, tell us a bit about your Olympic experience. Tsonga had good things to say about your game back then.
It was amazing. As a junior, I had not been at a Grand Slam. So it was an incredible experience. I had a very good preparation going into the Olympics. That was the reason we did so well in the event. Everything was properly planned. I had gotten into the Singles Draw as an alternate. But the priority was to give my best in doubles.
I told myself that I will try to do my best. I was not Top 50, I was 170-180. I knew my limitations. Looking back, I gave my best. We were very close to beating Tsonga/Llodra who eventually won the Silver Medal. Things could have been different if we would have won the match.
Tsonga had some nice words to say at the net which was very encouraging. I carried that confidence into the Davis Cup tie later when me and Yuki led India to beat New Zealand at home.
Vishnu partnered Paes at the 2012 London Olympics
Q) You’ve decided to focus on doubles now. How did the doubles partnership with Bala come along?
Until the start of 2017, the focus was singles, and I used to play doubles wherever I could. I got some decent sponsors then, and that allowed me the luxury to play a full schedule. That is when I asked Bala if we could plan our schedule together and play doubles. We were good friends and help each other off-court too. We decided that singles would still be our priority. But it so happened that we had a good run in doubles, and our rankings shot up.
Then in the middle of the year, we decided that if we get into Challenger doubles main draws, let’s try to target that, and play singles alongside. Our singles rankings were still high enough to play at some of the Challengers.
If I am called to play singles in Davis Cup, I want to be match ready. That is why I would keep playing singles.
Q) What are your short term and long term goals?
Short term goal is to play the Wimbledon qualifying. That is a very realistic and achievable goal. As things stand, we should be ranked high enough to play the qualies. If we have a few good runs, we should be pushing for a main draw spot as well.
Aim is to finish around 70-80 individually at the end of the year, have a combined ranking of around 150. Earlier, we used to use our singles games in doubles. But now we’re trying to focus on doubles specific skills, and developing those to challenge the best teams in the world.
Q) Best win of your career
I think the Asian Games Silver Medal in 2010 with Sania Mirza. I was not sure of my career then, I didn’t have sponsors and funds to travel for tournaments. That is when I got a call to play mixed doubles with Sania Mirza at the Games. It was a dream come true. And then I got back on track in my career.
Q) You’ve received support from the Sports Authority of Telangana via KTR.
KTR is the CM’s son. He’s young and dynamic. Takes decisions very quickly. He’s a huge sports and tennis lover. In 2016, I wanted to play a full schedule but did not have the funds to do that. I got a meeting scheduled with KTR Sir and Dinakar Babu. They started with a small support, and my rankings picked up. They were also very happy. So I carry their logo with me.
Q) Do you think Somdev can take up a role with Indian Tennis like Hewitt has done for Australia? Someone who’s at the centre of all activities.
Somdev is always in touch with us. He is just one phone call away. He wants to give back to Indian Tennis. He was planning with the government to start up a training base, but it never took off. He need at least some kind of support to help us. Hewitt is a part of Tennis Australia, but Somdev is not a part of the AITA. That is the difference I guess.
A few years back, Somdev asked me what I was doing for the off-season. So I just said I would go back to Hyderabad and do whatever Nagaraj Sir asks me to do. So he asked me to pack my bags and go to the US with him where he was going to train with his coaches, Scott(McCain) and Milos(Galecic). I said, “Som, I know how much you are spending on Scott. Even if we split, there’s no way I would be able to afford that.” So he said, “It’s on me. Just book your flight tickets and everything else will be taken care of.”
That is what I did. He was there at the airport to receive me. And the 2nd day of fitness, I threw up on the track. Milos gave instructions to us saying if you throw up, throw up on the grass. I was like why would we throw up. And then I actually threw up. The next day Somdev threw up, and he was 60 in the world back then. So that’s how tough it is!
Rapid Fire –
|Best win of your career||Asian Games Silver with Sania in 2010|
|Dream Mixed Doubles Partner||Sania Mirza|
|Celebrity Crush||Drew Barrymore|
|A place that you haven’t been to and would like to visit?||Greece|
|Song thats been on loop recently||Afreen Afreen|
|Cricket or football||Cricket|
|Favorite Cricketer||Rahul Dravid|