You’re 17. You’ve gotten into Hansraj College for their B.A. (Econ.) (Hons.) programme, one of the best in the country. It’s not hard to stick to that, graduate from one of the best colleges in the country, and vie for a job in the corporate world. But Sidharth Rawat, currently India’s No. 6, did not choose the easier path. He chose to grind it out and play professional tennis. He has evaded several hurdles that have come his way, and has come out stronger every time he has had retirement thoughts.
In this interview, Sidharth Rawat talks about his introduction to tennis, the several challenges he has faced as a professional tennis player, his relationship with the other Indian tennis players, and much much more.
Could you tell us about where you grew up and how you got introduced to tennis?
Rawat: I was born in Delhi. I started tennis in Noida at the age of 5. My father introduced me to tennis. He was in the merchant navy and he liked the sport, because it’s an international sport. So when I was 5 I started and I loved it. I did not feel it would be a profession back then. It was only at the age of 17 I felt I could pursue it seriously, after getting my first ATP point.
The number of junior tournaments played were far and few between. Was this a conscious decision?
Rawat: My family wanted me to balance between academics. Once I got into college at 17, luckily I made my first ATP point. In fact, I was about to leave tennis before that, but luckily I made my first ATP point, which gave me some hope. I wasn’t particularly good in juniors. I was also doing Economic Honours from [from Hansraj College, Delhi University], which is very difficult. So all this made me tilt towards quitting the sport. Luckily I made my first ATP point [at a Futures event at Kazakhstan], and things changed after that.
There was again a time last year when you contemplated quitting tennis. What were your thoughts on it? How did it affect your planning, your plan for your future then? You said in your previous interviews you were contemplating retirement.
Rawat: In the beginning of the year I wasn’t able to get into the entry list of Challengers. It was favourable for players ranked in the top 350, but I was ranked 500 and I couldn’t get into any Challengers. That was when I was contemplating quitting the sport. I was wondering what would happen to my career if the rules don’t change. Luckily in June 2019, I won my first Futures title. Luckily for me in the last minute things have been changing.
[Sidharth subsequently informed me that he got into Delhi School of Economics for his Masters after winning the All India Inter-University Championship for Delhi University. He however left the course after a month to focus on his tennis career. He terms it as a tough decision]
Was that a big factor in pushing away any retirement thoughts you had?
Rawat: Yeah, yeah definitely. I got so much confidence that I can do it, I just needed to give it some more time, cause I’ve seen the level also. To be honest, the top 100 are really good, but it’s not impossible to get there. If you have good coaches, a good system, it’s definitely possible. That confidence I got after winning the Futures.
What are your thoughts on the transition tour itself. Do you think the ITF messed up?
Rawat: Yes, they messed up quite a lot. Many players suffered for 6 months. It was horrible. Good thing that they changed it at last. If it remained many players would have quit.
Are you happy with the current Challenger system with just 4 qualifying spots?
Rawat: I would say the Challenger rules are pretty good for the main draw. 48 players, free hospitality, it’s good. Increasingly the qualifiers to some extent is good. Players who are doing good otherwise will have to grind in the Futures and come up slowly. So it increases the process to come up to a higher level. It would be nice if they increase the qualifying draw, but then that will burden the tournament organizers. It’s good for the main draw players, but it’ll be nice if there’s a little more for the qualies.
You’ve been largely playing Futures and Challengers. Could you talk to us about how life on tour is?
Rawat: I’m lucky to be part of the Indian players family now. There are so many ranked players who play Challengers, so we have a nice big family. It’s definitely a lonely life, you have to travel alone, but somehow we get Indian players travelling with you who help you a lot. We are all coming up together and we all have an attitude to help each other out. I’m lucky.
Could you talk to us about the relationship you share with the current crop of Indian players?
Rawat: I would definitely single out Prajnesh, I stayed with him during Korea Challenger in 2015. That’s when he told me he’s going to go for big, aggressive tennis. For 2-3 years he was not able to do it, but from 2018 it definitely changed for him. He also used to tell me you have to go big. My style of tennis is different now than what it used to be a while back. Now I am more attacking. So definitely Prajnesh helped me and I would say he is a mentor. Even currently he helps me a lot. Balu Sir also is helping me out. What he tells me is too good. I have a coach in Delhi in Defence Colony also [Mr. Gaurav Sharma]. So you definitely need all this support, you can’t do it alone.
Any specific aspects of the game people like Prajnesh help you with?
Rawat: We discuss a lot, even very small details. He coaches me also, during tournaments, even if he has a match the next day. I practice with him and if I miss a shot, he coaches me and he will grill me. That’s not something you’ll find too many top 100 players doing anywhere. I’m lucky to have all these guys.
What about Balu sir? Does he help you out during tournaments?
Rawat: When I’m at home, my coach Gaurav Sir helps me out a lot. But it’s tough for him to come from there because he has an academy. So Balu Sir helps me out then. Thanks to Prajnesh I got introduced to Balu Sir.. When I’m training with him, he gives me full attention.
You worked with Balu sir during your off season. Any specific aspects of your game you worked on then?
Rawat: Yes, Balu sir has been seeing me for several years, so he knows what exactly he needs to work on. So we worked a lot on my forehand, serves, everything. After the camp I went to Bangkok Challenger. I was playing quite well and had the belief that I could beat even top 50 players, so definitely the camp helped. Thanks a lot to him.
What do you think your major strengths are? What is your favorite surface?
Rawat: I would say I can still play long matches. Earlier I used to grind, I still have that belief if I’m losing I can find a way to fight back. I still have that mentality. Apart from that I would say backhand is my favourite shot.
Favorite surface would definitely be hard courts. I don’t spin the ball so much, so clay doesn’t suit me so much.
What are your specific goals for this year?
Rawat: I would say top 250, so that I can at least play grand slam qualifiers from next year. I will have short term goals, I wouldn’t say direct top 100, but I believe top 100 can be done.
You move to about rank 430 with your performance at the Bengaluru Open. What does your schedule look like now? Would you be focusing more on Challengers?
Rawat: Definitely, I was looking to play many Challengers. However, because of this China issue [Coronavirus], everything is so messed up as China had a lot of Challengers. China used to be of support to Asian players. So now I have to either the US or to Africa now.
How was your experience being a part of the Davis Cup Squad?
Rawat: When I got to know I was a part of the Davis Cup squad I was so so happy. It’s a dream come true for every Indian player. Thanks to the selectors who picked me. The experience itself was very good. I was lucky Leander was also there, he makes the atmosphere so friendly. I hope I can be a part of this experience more regularly because I really enjoyed it.
Could you describe your relationship with Leander? [Leander also hi-fied Sidharth during the course of this interview while walking past us]
Rawat: We interacted for the first time during the camp only. I was a little nervous and scared. He is so humble and he helps a lot. He was treating us all the same. It was very good to see him.
Any player you look up to outside of Indians?
Rawat: For me Federer and Nadal are both equal. Djokovic I think is the best player of all time. People fight between Federer and Nadal, but I think Djokovic is the greatest player. But I still like Nadal and Federer because I grew up watching them. You cannot replace them.
Before you play somebody you haven’t played before, how do you go about preparing against them?
Rawat: I watch their videos so we can decide what to do since every player is different. I ask my friends, all these guys, since they’ve played almost all these players.