Sasi Kumar Mukund is a name that even casual Indian Tennis fans would have gotten familiar with in the last couple or months. He’s made two Challenger QF’s back-to-back, one on hard and one on clay, beating players ranked much higher than him, cracking the top 400 in the ATP Rankings as a result.
He attributes this to the change in mindset and the quality of work he’s put in with his new Austrian coach, who he started working with earlier this year. He also highlights the roles of guys like Balaji(Sriram), Prajnesh(Gunneswaran), Vishnu(Vardhan), etc, who have acted like big brothers and mentors to him.
Mukund with Vishnu, Bala and Prajnesh
Q) When did you start playing Tennis? What got you interested in the first place?
I started playing at the age of 4. My Dad wanted me to play Tennis as I was quite hyper-active as a child, and he wanted me to play an individual sport. So Tennis was the natural choice.
Q) When did you realise that you were going to make Tennis your career?
I realised very early actually, maybe when I was 7 or 8. For me, it was not about doing very well at tournaments, to be honest, In fact, I did not do too well as a juniors.
I remember losing in the first round qualifying of the ITF Juniors Grade 3 tournament in Kolkata that Sumit(Nagal) won. So the gap was that much. I was losing quailes in Grade 3 or Grade 4 in India, which is not a great thing. So I was not phenomenal or anything, but I liked the sport, so I thought I would give it a shot. I never looked at Tennis for success or as a medium to make money, I just followed it as a passion. I am glad that my parents were also on the same page.
Q) What has been the role of the TNTA in your career?
Nothing actually. I have got a few wildcards here and there, but nothing more than that. It’s good that they helped other players like Ramkumar(Ramanathan) and Mohit(Mayur Jayaprakash). I remember Karti(Chidambaram) Sir helping me out with a few thousand rupees here and there, but nothing big as such.
Everything I have done till today, in my career, has been on my own. I’ve had zero sponsors.
Q) You did not play much juniors after turning 16. Was that a conscious decision?
Yes it was. As I mentioned, I was not phenomenally talented to be ranked in the top 5 or top 10 in the world in Juniors. I was not like Yuki(Bhambri) or Sumit(Nagal) or Karman(Kaur Thandi), who were phenomenal talents from such a young age. On the other hand, it wasn’t like I wasn’t talented or anything, but it was just that I didn’t have the body to play Tennis. Even now, when you look at me, I still don’t look like a complete adult. Even at 15 or 16, my body was not there yet.
Also, I wouldn’t call myself poor, but I didn’t have the kind of money to play a full circuit in juniors, and then again play the whole men’s circuit at the age of 20-23. So I thought I would rather save up for later. For me, it didn’t make sense to travel the world and play tournaments without prize money, to be just top 100 in the world in juniors.
In fact, in my first few Futures tournaments, I didn’t even get entry. So I used to be just present at the venue, warming the senior guys up. Then again I would try signing in next week, and wouldn’t get in, and then again I used to hang around to warm the other guys up. The first few weeks went like that only, but eventually, I found my place there.
Q) You have spent a fair time training on clay in Europe. Has that made a difference in your mentality/physicality?
I trained there for 7-8 months in a row in 2012, and I think that’s where I made a change in my life. Before that, it was a stage where I was losing early in Grade 3’s and Grade 4’s. During my stint, I was under the Spanish Federation and the players there. After those 8 months, I was a completely different player when I came back to India. It was not like I was winning everything left, right and centre, but at least it looked like I had a chance in Tennis.
Also there, you have a lot of good players to hit with, which is not the case in India. And there are so many tournaments there. So if you want to play a Futures or a Challenger there, you just get onto a train or a 1 hour flight, even to another country. But here in India, you first have to plan to get the Visa, hotels, etc. So Europe as a continent, is very accessible to each other. And the day you lose there, you can just go back to the academy and train.
Q) You’ve had a recent spate of positive results on the tour. Has there been a specific change in approach or anything else in particular?
Yes actually. I give complete credit to my coach from Austria(Martin Spottl), who I have recently started working with. We have made technical changes and the level of work we put in is pretty high. I’m currently training in Austria along with a good group of players who are around the 200-300 mark in the world. Being in such a positive environment has also made a huge difference. You just feel good being around such people.
I’ve also started working with a trainer in Spain(Javier Capitaine), who works with Kyra(Shroff) as well. Work has been really structured.
Also, a lot of changes off the court as well. Attitude, social skills, talking to people, etc. Everything put together has made a lot of difference to my game on the court.
Mukund working with his trainer Javier Captitaine in Barcelona
Q) You won the Commonwealth Youth Games gold medal in Samoa a couple of years back. How did that feel? Is getting into the Davis Cup team now your goal?
Samoa was fun. It was a really ambience as compared to a normal tennis match. I played doubles also with Dhruthi(Venugopal) and she was a great team-mate. We enjoyed a lot and had a nice experience. I am sure if it would have happened now, I would have handled the pressure differently.
About Davis Cup, getting into the team is not a goal, and will never be, because I am always available for national duty, whether it is to be a hitting partner, whether it is to play #1 singles, or whether it is to be a coach. It doesn’t matter if I am rank 380 or rank 50, I am always available for India. If they don’t call me, I am completely fine with that too. I am always supportive of the cause of the team. If they think that a certain player is better equipped to win the tie for the team, they’ll have my 100% support. Davis Cup is one tournament that shouldn’t be taken for personal interest saying that “Oh yeah, I’ll be in the papers”, it should not be taken for cheap things like this.
Q) You are known to follow Indian Tennis very very closely. In fact, you had gotten up early on one of the mornings of your Futures finals to watch Yuki play a Davis Cup match. Where does the motivation come from for you?
Most of my best friends are my teammates. In fact, I would call them elder brothers. Prajnesh, for example, has been more or less my coach. When I didn’t start working with my coach Martin, Prajnesh, along with Bala, used to plan my schedule and everything for the past 2-3 years.
Now they have stepped back from this, because they know that I have a team around me. So all of them are basically my friends, and I want my friends to do well. And I want India to do well. So that is where it comes from.
Q) You’ve mentioned how VSP, Prajnesh, Bala and others and others have been mentors to you. Explain their roles in your career.
Prajnesh – When he was injured, he was helping me a lot, as he was not playing the tour. He was the one who emphasised fitness on me. He always talked about intensity, and how fit you need to be. At that time, I was not much into fitness. He told me that fitness should be your obsession for the next few years, and you should aim to be the fittest guy in the world.
VSP – He’s given me feedback on my game a lot of times. He’s sat for my matches, when I was not travelling with my coach, and gave valuable feedback.
Bala – I became close to Bala only of late. Because Bala is initially a very introvert person. Although I met him in 2013, it took me a lot of months to understand him, and develop an equation with him. The moment we got comfortable with each other, he started helping me a lot. Before I started working with Martin, he helped me with my scheduling.
I would also like to mention Adi Sir(Aditya Sachdeva), who’s helped me for the last 10 years now.
Mukund with Bala
Mukund with VSP
Q) Also, this is your last eligible year for the #ATPNextGen Finals in Milan. Is that in mind?
Not at all. If that happens, a lot of other things happen along with that. For that, you need to be top 100. And if I crack top 100, then nothing like it.
Q) How steep a jump do you think Futures to Challengers are? How can our players bridge the gap more swiftly? At 17 you created a huge upset in the Chennai Challenger by taking out the top seed in qualies. From then to now, how tough has the transition been for you?
That time was the period I was training with Prajnesh. If I had the infrastructure, and a team like Martin and those guys around me, I could have made the breakthrough a year or two back itself. It’s not a big deal actually. But the thing is, playing Futures in India, is not going to be, to be honest.
A lot of players move around Asia and go to Africa to earn points, but that is not going to help in the transition, in my opinion. Affordability is an aspect I agree, but playing the tough Futures is the only way out. Because it’s ultimately the top guys in the Futures who play the Challengers.
What happens is you start playing passive in Futures just to gain points, as the quarters is just 2 points, semis is 6 points. That is not going to work in Challengers for sure. But someone like Ram, who doesn’t fear going for it, are the ones who are going to succeed in Challengers. Even I am trying to adopt that mentality and try to put that into my game.
Q) What do you consider strengths and weaknesses in your game?
My strength is I am mentally sorted out, at least now. My biggest strength is I always look to do the right things in life, in general. I don’t look to run away from responsibilities. I will not run away to Africa to play a Futures. If someone tells me I am not ready to play a tough Futures or a tough Challenger, I would be like “What do I need to do to be ready for those tourneys” and will start working on those things. That reflects a lot not he court also. Even if I make a double fault going for a big second serve, so be it. But I would always look to do the right things.
I think the only weakness I would say is fitness. I mean I would not say I am not fit, but if I can get even fitter, I can do big things in Tennis. This was not my mentality a year back, but now I believe in it, along with my coach. In fact, my coach was the one who pushed me to play these 6 big Challengers. I was like “I am 500 in the world. And you want me to play 6 big Challengers in a row?” He said “Yeah you are ready. Go for it. You will never know whether you are ready or not unless you play”
When I say getting fitter, I don’t mean bulking up. I already can hit the ball very hard, so I don’t need to bulk up. You look at guys like Novak and Grigor, they are lean only. It’s about maintaining the intensity for three sets and being explosive.
Even in Karshi, I lost the tournament only because I was not fit. Coming from quailes, I was just super exhausted. After winning the first set against Ilkel, even if I had around 80% energy, I wouldn’t have been surprised at all if I had won that Challenger. Tennis-wise, I would not say I would have won it easily, but convincingly. Even if I had won against Ilkel, I would have had 0 energy for the semis. So it’s basically about how fit and ready I am for the next match.
I am working on it, and I will get there one day.
Q) You were a part of CTL as a junior. How great an experience was it to rub shoulders with top players and legends of the game?
CTL was good. Fortunately, the guys in my team were very receptive and very humble. It could have been worse, but fortunately it was not.
I was there as a junior in the first edition. My best friend, Vasisht Cheruku, was in the Bangalore team. So it was a lot of fun for me.
Mukund with his best friend Vasisht Cheruku
Rapid Fire –
|Racquet You Use||Yonex EZONE DR 98 Blue|
|Dream Mixed Doubles Partner||Karman Kaur Thandi|
|Favorite Food||I am a big foodie. If I had to name one, Hyderabadi Biryani|
|Favorite Surface||All. I can play on any surface|
|Favorite Tournament||US Open|
|Biggest win of your career||Quentin Halys in Anning on clay|
|Celebrity Crush||Gal Gadot|
|A place that you haven’t been to and would like to visit?||Playa del Carmen, Mexico|
|Favorite Shot||Backhand slice and backhand volley|
|Favorite Song||Wavin’ Flag by K’naan|
|Cricket or football||None|