By Ravishankar Krishnan, 5th February, 2019
Siddharth Vishwakarma, India’s men’s reigning National Champion is not your run of the mill tennis player. Unlike most Indian tennis players, Siddharth doesn’t come from a metro city. He comes from Varanasi, a town which doesn’t exactly have the richest tennis history. Yet he has established himself as a tennis player to watch out for. Earlier this year, he was named as one of the three players who would train with the Indian Davis Cup team, prior to their tie against Italy in the World Group Playoffs, and with good reason. Apart from winning the men’s singles title at the Fenesta Nationals in 2018, Siddharth made it to the final qualifying round at the Bengaluru Open 2018, after defeating two significantly higher ranked opponents. He would have progressed further, had he not been hampered by a groin injury. Siddharth was also named as the best pro in the Pro Tennis League 2018, which featured the likes of Saketh Myneni, Arjun Kadhe and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan. After having a successful 2018, it will be interesting to see what 2019 holds in store for him. We caught up with Siddharth to talk about his introduction to tennis, his unusual training regime, his fascinating tennis attire and much more!
Q. You come from the town of Varanasi, a city not particularly known for its sporting history, especially for a sport like tennis. How did you come to be introduced to tennis?
Ans: My uncle’s friend, Mr Rajesh Mishra who used to play tennis in Varanasi, was the one who introduced me to tennis. I was about 6 years old at that time. At that point, to me it was just a sport of bat and ball. It was when he took me to a tennis court for the first time that I really enjoyed playing the sport. Thereafter, Mr Rajesh Mishra shifted to Mumbai, but he got me admitted with my first coach, Mr Anil Chauhan, before he left. That’s when I started improving my tennis and winning matches and tournaments.
Q. Were there any challenges you faced in particular coming from a smaller town?
Yes, the facilities weren’t particularly great in Varanasi at that point. My coach, Anil Chauhan was great though. The lack of facilities forced me to shift to Lucknow, where I train now. That’s where I met my current coach Mr Kamlesh Shukla. I think the move from Varanasi to Lucknow has helped me immensely. I also genuinely believe that of all the coaching academies I have been to, the academy I train at in Lucknow has been the best, in terms of the facilities, as well as the coaching. I practice on clay courts there, which I think has the most scope to improve a player. I believe clay courts have played a huge role in the growth of European players, and also generally ensures that the movement of players is smoother and better.
Q. At what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to play tennis professionally?
When I was about 13, I was playing quite well and winning a few tournaments, even at the U-16 and U-18 levels. That’s when it occurred to me that I had it in me to play the game professionally. A big problem is that in India there is a lack of support and sponsorship. Compare that to a country like Spain, where you have huge support and sponsorship, when upcoming talents are spotted. This was and still is an issue for me, as it is for a number of other Indian players.
Q. Tell us a little bit about your coach, your fitness trainer and your training regimen.
Mr Kamlesh Shukla been a brilliant coach. Recently I’d been struggling a bit with my game and injuries, but Mr Kamlesh Shukla has been extremely instrumental in ensuring that I’ve improved both game wise and fitness wise. He himself was an excellent player, and was top 10 India player at one point, so he knows the game well. He takes care of every aspect of my game, right from my fitness and diet to my tennis. Apart from him, I also have a fitness trainer trainer, Mr Nittin Shukla who has also helped me out a great deal.
Regarding my training regime, Mr Kamlesh Shukla recent procured an extremely expensive machine, which has been really useful for me. The machine works like a bowling machine in cricket. The balls are released from the machine from a 13 feet height and at a speed of about 280 km/hr. The machine has helped me a great deal in improving my game. It’s only the second machine of its kind in Asia. Initially I struggled to even play a simple return against the machine, considering that balls were being consistently released at a faster speed than the fastest serve ever recorded (The fastest serve recorded is 263.4 km/hr, recorded by Australia’s Sam Groth in 2012). But I enjoyed practising against the machine, and over time I was able to hit my forehand returns and backhand returns fairly consistently. Hitting continuously against serves of that speed meant that I felt very comfortable returning against most serves. This held me in good stead for Fenesta Nationals as I had spent hours practising against the machine. But after Fenesta Nationals, I haven’t had even a single opportunity to practise against the machine, due to a back injury. I feel that had I practised against the machine more prior to Bengaluru Open 2018, I would’ve done better, especially with my movement and hand eye coordination. I believe it could benefit Indian players, if others get to practice against it as well.
Q. You generate a lot of topspin, especially on your forehands. Is it something that came naturally to you or is it something you worked on? Now post the new training methods, how do you ensure that you still continue to generate a lot of topspin while also ensuring that your shots are powerful?
I have two kinds of topspin, topspins that spins both ways. Topspin comes quite naturally to me, presumably because I have a long wingspan. So considering it kind of comes naturally to me, adding more power to my groundstrokes hasn’t really affected the amount of topspin I generate on a ball.
Q. Have you considered going abroad for training? Do you have any particular academy in mind?
While I have thought about it, I personally don’t see the point of it. I think Mr Kamlesh Shukla has been tremendous for me as a player. I really don’t see training abroad as a necessity.
Q. You won the title at Fenesta Nationals in 2018 defeating some significantly higher ranked players including Arjun Kadhe and Manish Sureshkumar. What do these wins mean in the context of your career?
To be honest, I was confident that I could win the Fenesta Nationals, even before the tournament began. I had reached the finals in 2016, so I had the belief that I could do well. The biggest challenge for me was to stay injury free, which has been a challenge for me throughout my career. But prior to Fenesta, I was feeling good about myself, my serve was going well, my backhand, which was my weaker shot, had also improved significantly, so I was confident of doing well going into the tournament.
Q. In an interview given to Indian Express, you said “Mera tennis me mann nahi laga kabhi.” What did you mean when you said this? Has the win at Fenesta Nationals changed this belief ?
The context I said this was in was very different. When I kept getting injured on a regular basis, it frustrated me a great deal, especially because I was playing well when I was fit. At one point, I even considered giving up the sport. Being injured and sick on a regular basis, was mentally a very difficult process. But now considering the way I’ve played the last few months and the kind of players I have defeated, I feel a lot more positive and upbeat.
Q. What part of your game do you think needs some working on?
While my backhand has improved significantly, I think it needs to improve a little more. I think even if it gets 50-60% as good as my forehand, I’ll be happy with where my game is at. I currently ocessionally mishit my backhands, and I think if I can cork the flow of such errors, I can improve significantly.
Q. I’m sure you have read about the proposals regarding the new transition tour. What impact do you think it will have on players ranked below say 400? Are you in favour of these changes?
I think it’s a good thing. Let’s take India for instance, we have a lot of talent. But when they play qualifiers in challengers and make it to the main draw, they often end up drawing the first seed. The nervousness of playing someone much higher ranked gets to them and they struggle in those matches. Whereas when they play on the transition tour and defeat slightly higher ranked players, it increases their confidence. It also gives them a higher chance of winning these tournaments as some of the higher ranked players who used to play futures previously, but can’t do so anymore.
Q. Do you think the transition tour will result in India hosting more tournaments, to encourage Indians?
I really can’t say much about that. India unfortunately hasn’t been hosting too many tournaments in the recent past. This I think affects a lot of Indian players who have the talent to do well, but don’t have the financial resources to travel abroad. I know a lot of players who go abroad to play after saving up some money, but a loss ends up demoralising them due to financial pressure. If India hosts more tournaments, the Indian players would be spending in 5 matches, what they used to spend on 1 match while playing abroad, and obviously playing more matches will improve their game as well as their confidence.
Q. What goals have you set for yourself for 2019? And what long-term goals have you set for yourself?
I would ideally like to get into the top 300 by the end of 2019. I have to play more and more matches for that. Currently, I only play 7-8 tournaments a year, I would like to increase that count significantly. That’ll give me a good understanding of where exactly I stand. Regarding long term plans, I have to take it step by step. I obviously realise saying I have to be in the top 10 directly doesn’t make sense. So once I reach my short term goal of top 300, from there I have to break it down to top 200, top 100 etc.
Q. Do you have any sponsors for coaching, travel, equipment etc?
I don’t have any sponsors for coaching and travel, but my equipment are sponsored. My rackets are sponsored by Babolat and my strings by Solinco. I don’t have any kit sponsors.
Q. Talking about kits, your tennis attire seems rather unusual, a full sleeved shirt with a 3/4th trouser. Anyone in particular who inspired you to wear such an outfit?
I wear such attire because of a skin condition I have. Whenever my skin is exposed to the sun, I get rashes. It is to avoid this that I wear full sleeves and 3/4ths. In fact, I used to wear half sleeves, and applying an antibiotic cream to deal with the rashes, but this meant that the racket started slipping from my hand. So the doctor recommended that I wear full sleeves and play, and since then my skin condition has visibly improved.