Somdev leads from the front with IIT Aspire High Performance Tennis

Huddled amidst a lush forest, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, IIT-Madras plays host to the Aspire High Performance Tennis programme, headed by none other than Somdev Devvarman himself. The programme which aims to produce the next generation of tennis players, has already been in action for a year, but was officially launched on 21th December 2019 in a closed affair at the Gandhinagar Club in Chennai. It is a non-profit organization founded by Aspire Foundation and run by Mr. Rajeev Vijaykumar & Mr. Karthik Athreya, who are also the trustees in the organisation.

With great facilities on board and Chennai being an ideal place to train before Australia, the Aspire Tennis Programme hosted Sumit Nagal and his team – Coach Sascha Nensel, Trainer Milos Galecic, Physio Yash Pandey for the preseason training from December 14-27.

Somdev Devvarman, Mahesh Bhupathi, Sumit Nagal & his team adorned a star-studded media interaction where we get to know the vision behind Aspire Tennis Programme, the intense work put in a pre-season, Project 61 and much more.

Here are a few excerpts from the session about IIT-Aspire High  Performance Programme.

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Somdev Devvarman, Mahesh Bhupathi,Sumit Nagal in the media interaction

About Aspire-High Performance Tennis

Somdev: The vision, with my mentorship, was to provide tennis players a home and, Chennai was a great place to do it. IIT has been incredibly supportive in joining us in this vision, which we’re very thankful for. They provided us an excellent place to train at and we couldn’t be, we literally couldn’t be in a better place to train in India. So that’s something I am very proud of. So moving on, one of the things we wanted to do was to bring down some of the best players in the country. Because when I was a player myself, I realised that it was one of the most difficult things to do, to find the right place to train in India was incredibly hard. So we wanted to kind of fix that problem. And so over the last few years, pretty much every player from Chennai has been welcome to come and train at IIT with Aspire which has been invaluable to all of them. There has been Jeevan, Prajnesh, so on and so forth. And then obviously this year we wanted to take it one step forward.

Mahesh Bhupathi About Aspire Tennis Programme

Mahesh: Firstly I would like to commend everyone at Aspire and the initiative Somdev has been leading from the front here. He’s already kind of detailed how difficult or complicated it is to become a professional tennis player. I’ve seen this journey play out at so many levels in so many generations over the last 25, 30 years that there’s never been any doubt in anyone’s mind that there’s always a lot of talent in our country. Chennai has always been a hotbed for tennis obviously with both the stalwart families like Amritrajs and the Krishnans coming from here.But across India there is an immense amount of talent and it’s not a specific reason why talent fails to get to the men’s or women’s level, it is the lack of experts when it comes to coaching and fitness and obviously lack of resources.

I can name at least four or five boys, during my time who were one, two, three, four in the world at junior level. I mean Sandeep[Kirtane], Nitten[Kirrtane], Rohit Reddy, they were all in the top five in juniors, but they were never able to get the right guidance and the right resources to get to the next level. There’s so many different moving parts to making a tennis player. And there are so many different variations on how this thing can go wrong, people don’t really understand that when they do actually make it, the sacrifice in the work that’s going on behind the scenes.

Mahesh Bhupathi on what a player needs

Mahesh: The coaching, the fitness, the recovery, the mentorship is all part of it. But the biggest problem in India is resources, I never buy the argument that India lacks any infrastructure because to play tennis, you need a track, you need a gym, you need tennis courts. And if you know the right people, those are easily accessible. So resources to be able to compete with what the kids are doing in the West, be it diet, be it fitness, be it travel, be it competition. I mean that’s the main thing. And again, great job Som and hopefully over the next few years, you will be able to churn off this from here. I can see two big giants standing at the back there[Sascha Nensel & Milos Galecic] and hopefully they will also benefit from this camp.

More about Aspire Tennis Programme

Somdev: I think we’re at a position where we just want to help out players who reach out to us, especially the interested people. And if we believe that they have the right kind of abilities, that kind of attitude. So we just want to start with that. And then I’m sure in the next few months you’ll see a lot of progression.This training camp is just Sumit and his coaches coming down with a bunch of players.

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Mahesh Bhupathi in an exhibition match at Aspire- A celebration of Indian Tennis

About support system for players

Somdev: I think the support system, there’s a few players of course, under full scholarship, one of those players is Dhakshineswar[Suresh]. We try to take care of everything we can and some of the most important things, the most valuable things to a player at a young age is the right guidance and advice. And along with that, of course, training and fitness, I guess setting into the right tournaments, making sure the education is done right because that’s also very important to do at a young age. Helping every kid possible to do the right things in order to take the right steps to progress in tennis.

Sumit: I think it’s having a staff – the team. This is perfect for me. I can compare this to any European, but, unfortunately not everyone gets this opportunity. So that has been the difference. I think having a team really matters. So for me, this is the most important thing.

Davis Cup format advantage or not?

Mahesh: I don’t know. It’s too early to tell. We have to see after 2 or 3 years. I think 2 out of three sets is definitely advantageous to India because we are always the lower ranked team. So when you are trying to beat top players, beating them in 2 out of 3 sets is always easier or less harder than 3 out of 5. So from that perspective, I think it’s better. But I think going out at this Asian qualifying might not necessarily be better for India because we have to compete Europe in new group one as well.

Physical Peak for an Indian player

Milos: I don’t know if the question’s right to say “Indians at a physical peak”. I think we just see humans. I don’t think there’s any difference between a European or Asian or American or African, for that matter. Obviously, both Sumit and Somdev are extremely gifted athletes. So I was fortunate enough to get a race horse in a way to work with.

I’ve told Somdev that maybe he could have stuck around for a few more years, but he was ready to move on with life. Having said that, Sumit has a long, long way ahead of him. He’s only 22 and his best years are ahead of him. We’ve seen that in men’s tennis that the age and the lifetime of players is getting longer, guys are playing into their 30s. Roger’s close to 40, we’re talking about singles here. So, I think between 28 and 32 is when we get to a physical, emotional and mental peak. I wouldn’t say this is just for Indian players, this is just for any professional player, in men’s tennis at least.

After Sania Mirza, lack of women making breakthroughs

Mahesh: Sports except Cricket in India don’t have a culture. I think there was a big opportunity for the Indian ecosystem if they wanted to capitalize on Sania’s success, but nobody did anything about it. Nobody took any initiative to promote it in the right state associations, to bring girls to take tennis as a sport. And you know, unfortunately that’s the pitfall of it.

[Learn more about Sumit Nagal’s pre-season camp and Project 61 in the upcoming article]

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