It has been a year of firsts for young Mukund Sasikumar – earning a maiden Davis Cup call-up for the World Group Playoff tie against Italy in Kolkata, making his first ATP Challenger final, taking part in his first ATP Tour event.
He has been working on playing courageously and not changing his game in tight situations, a practice that he says has helped him touch a career high ATP ranking of 229 this year. At the fag end of the season, he reflects back on a memorable 2019 season. Excerpts below –
Q) You have been moving up the ATP Rankings year on year. What worked for you this season?
A few months back I didn’t know how to volley. A lot of work has gone in. I cannot expect perfection in a matter of months. It’s just been a few months since I have been working on variety, the more and more I do it I will get better.
One match, win or lose, is not going to change my life. But five or six years down the line, I have to learn the art of playing similar even on tight situations. A Challenger match can go any way. But if I want to play big rounds in the Slams, I have to know to smack balls in tight moments. Once when I played in Stuttgart, Lucas Pouille(top-20 at that time) told me “At one level it’s riskier to play safer.” That’s a fact. I have to learn to do my job better in tight moments and optimise my chances.
Q) You have been knocking at the door of playing Grand Slam Qualifying. Has that affected you mentally in your matches? Put extra pressure on you?
Definitely. I have not played any Slam so far, so … I lost many matches because of the Slam qualies this year, but I learnt my lesson. Aussie Open is still far away. One fact is it definitely hurts(losing to Duckworth in Pune) because I could play the Aussie Open. Another fact is also that I will be there soon. It’s just a matter of time.
Before Wimbledon qualies, I was two points away from playing Wimby and US Open. There were many tough losses, but hopefully I learnt the main lessons that I would need for the next few years.
Q) You made your first ATP Challenger final this year. How was that feeling?
Every day was a challenge. There were many, many moments when I was freaking out. But I came back and I made that final in China, a good comeback I think. There were times when I went to the extreme of negativity, but I also know that it could turn around in one week. And I did just that.
Q) Extremes of negativity? Could you please elaborate?
I mean, I was quite average till a point and then suddenly you are 260 and knocking the doors of Grand Slams, it’s not easy for anybody to handle it. For someone who has not played juniors at a very high level, it can be overwhelming. It’s like winning a lottery suddenly, you don’t know what to do. Also, I reached a level of tennis in practice where I knew how good I was but obviously it take a lot of time to transfer that to a match court. Maybe I forced myself that it has to happen now … whenever you force something to happen in any walk of life, it’s not going to happen.
Also lost two-three close people. It’s not that they died but some things happened. I had to deal with it.
Q) How would you describe your relationship with your coach, Martin Spoettl?
Relationship as in, he is definitely hard. He is a perfectionist, not in the way of playing, but he expects me to do my job everyday. That’s definitely tough, especially when you are tired … it is not easy to keep up the quality the same way. But he is definitely the reason why I am here. I don’t know what I would be doing this year if somebody like that didn’t work on me.
I definitely had the potential, I don’t know if I have to say thanks to God or nature or whoever is up there, I don’t know because I have never met him. I have to just say I am really lucky, to have everybody. Mom, dad, friends. In this aspect, life has been very kind on me.
Q) When did you start working with him?
A year and a half, we started last Feb.
I am myself obsessed when it comes to tennis. I am myself a perfectionist when it comes to many things. I cannot sleep without doing somethings, I am also pretty crazy. It is a pretty good combination, in the sense that he is expecting and I am also trying to give it, instead of saying why you are asking me to do this.
Sometimes he has definitely been unfair where I probably couldn’t do it but gave my 100 percent to try and do it. He is definitely of the extreme. I owe him hundreds of euros when we were travelling. He didn’t charge, he is paying for the food and hotel so many times. Whoever it is, coach or wife or dad, if they are good to the extreme they are also tough on the other side. They are not that chilled out and balanced. It’s tough but if I am accepting the good moments, I have to take the bad moments as well.
It’s not bad but …. emotional, especially when you are spending so many weeks in a year with a person. There are no relationships where there are no bad moments, otherwise something is wrong.
Q) What do you make of Indian Tennis this season and going into next season?
I think things are now better. Hopefully Yuki gets back, Sumit has almost made it and knocking at top-100. If I am injury free I should also soon be knocking there. Praj(Prajnesh Gunneswaran) hopefully gets out of this tough situation and gets back on Tour soon.
Q) You, Praj, Bala(Sriram Balaji), etc seem to be a closely knit group of friends. Tell us about your camaraderie with them.
Praj, Bala, Vijay, Vishnu … I wouldn’t call them my friends … it’s more of mentoring, it’s not friends … I don’t abuse or make jokes on them. It’s a senior-junior relationship.
If it’s Saturday and Praj is playing at 2 am, it doesn’t matter. I put an alarm and watch. Even they try to watch my close matches and text game plans and tournament scheduling. Once I twisted my ankle, Bala called the physio and asked how my ankle was.
In general, we are close. That’s the base. So many times they have trained me. Bala, there are so many things that I have learnt from him over the years … to organise rooms, how to get to the airport, how to be there on time … and with Praj, the tennis. It’s a much better team effort. If Praj and these guys were here it’s 100 percent sure they will be watching this match, doesn’t matter whether they play tomorrow or not.
I know that when I lose five first rounds, I can call one of them and really talk my heart out. I can be sure that if I share a secret with one of these guys it’s not going out. Over this I can bet all my money I made.