Indian No.6 and one of the most hardworking players on the circuit, Sidharth Rawat shared his journey so far with Coach Balachandran Manikkath in the light hearted interview.
During the interview, Sidharth shares several interesting notes on the crucial moments that shaped his career and also about his special camaraderie with the Indian Tennis family.
What is your routine during the COVID-19 break?
I am focusing on the other things like fitness and meditation which will help me when I am back on the court. I have been focused on education as well. I am trying for the Bank and UPSC exams which have kept me busy.
While we are on the tour, we do not get as much time. So we as players can take advantage of this time. See it as a positive thing.
You had contemplated quitting Tennis twice in your career
The first instance was when I was 17 when I had to contemplate between college and tennis. I was not doing that well in tennis. I was losing in the AITA qualies and I was not a good junior as well. Comparatively, I was able to manage myself well in studies.
I had got into a good college and course – it was tough to get in but somehow I managed. I had less hopes for tennis back then but somehow I was able to get an ATP point at that time. I got lucky as I qualified into a tourney and played a lucky loser. That point fetched me an ATP rank and my confidence grew from there that now I am an ATP player and I can make it if I give it my best. So I started balancing both tennis and education.
The next instance was when my father passed away in 2014. It changed things for me overnight. Tennis was on the right track only but then when you father passes away, a lot more responsibility comes onto you and you have to start supporting the family as well. I was on the verge of quitting but luck favored me again. I made the Fenesta National finals that time and then everything went right.
On both occasions, luck favored me to continue playing Tennis.
What kept you going in spite of having limited success as a junior?
In Juniors, I was not great but it does not mean that there was a lack of effort, I was trying a lot. I was working a lot from the age of 12/13. The results were not coming through. It definitely raised doubts in me. I was losing in the qualifications of Mens AITA 50K events and so on. There was no light at the end of the tunnel that I could see.
However, things shifted very fast within a year. I was getting seeded high in the same tourneys where I was losing in the qualies. This is the good part of tennis. Things can change very fast if you put in the hard work and the dedication.
In Tennis, it is easy to maintain a level but it is tough to break into the new levels. Once you break into the new level and stabilise, you can put in your best to stay there.
Mithun Murali played against you a long time back. He was telling me that you were on the heavier side then. It seems that he made you run and run on one of the points and then hit a dropshot. Apparently your mother was smiling on that point which stayed in his mind.
I remember the match and some of those points. I was around 90 KGs and really unfit. I was nowhere near being a Tennis player. I was trying hard but on the fitness side, I was not good enough and so people used to make me run during matches. From then on, I had decided that I should convert this weakness of Fitness into a strength. That’s why I like to run, even now.
What were some of the fitness routines that you adopted to bring about this transformation?
I had a lot of people supporting me. Adi bhayya gave me a fitness program video called Insanity when I was 16. I just needed something to be guided by. It’s up to me after that as coaches can’t force you beyond a point.
From that day, I went full-on with the fitness routines. That one video was really helpful. Many people supported me in situations when I needed them. Support is one thing that we definitely need because we are not used to getting that from the organisations involved.
Your support system in family
Family support is extremely important. My parents’ support was always there. There was always this collusion between tennis and education for me and my parents were supportive of following the path which is closer to my heart. Everything was my choice.
It was also not like that I made the choice and didn’t put in the effort after that. I was making the choice and putting in my full effort.
You need support at various stages as well and a player needs that, to move ahead.
Your coach Gaurav Sharma
Gaurav sir is like my second father. He was there to support me in everything. He was not only advising me in everything but financially also he was not putting pressure on me in anything. He has always maintained calm in spite of my actions. Now the relationship is more of a family and one of the most important people in my life is Gaurav sir.
How did you get into the calorie count approach?
I told you that I had got into the fitness video which Aditya sir had given me. So even though I was really working hard for 2 years, I had no diet plan. So the results were not upto the mark that they should have been. So when I was around 18, I learnt about how Calorie counting works through an online training. First 2-3 months were very tough as its not easy to do. However, it is an important aspect. One has to count calories as it is basic science. How much do you burn vs How much do you have to take in.
It came in a bit late but I am happy that the knowledge came in. It is not too much effort for me now, I can see the food and count roughly how many calories that good carries. Even if I don’t want to, it stays with me throughout my life now I think.
Whatever happens in the match, you have to accept things and move on.
The most important aspect in Tennis is the mental part. It is not just about playing on the court but off the court also. Off the court means accepting all the losses, how you are and so on. All these losses which I’ve been getting from the juniors, they’ve helped me.
So whenever I lose a match, I see it from a positive angle. I lost it and I can still make it on the Pro tour but what is it that I could have done better. Take a long term view and things will naturally fall into place. Accepting losses is good as long as you are learning. Accepting losses and being happy where you are is not right – its important to progress forward.
Mental aspects stretch beyond the court and these principles are applicable for all aspects of life.
Anything specific for mental training?
Meditation – I was introduced to it by many people. I have made many mistakes as well but I have learnt from them as well.
Off-court – I try to focus on one thing at a time which is continuous. On-Court – I go with less expectations. Whenever I have more expectations, it tends to backfire. I tend to play well when I am down, so I like to take pressure but there is a fine balance between absorbing pressure and choking. So I like to go into the match with low expectations and then during the match, take the pressure and play well.
Playing under pressure also needs to be practiced. That’s where mental toughness and focus helps.
Indian Tennis Family – How do you all support and influence each other on the tour?
I am lucky to be part of this group. Vijay, Prajnesh, Jeevan, Mukund, Vishnu, Balaji, Manish, Saketh, Arjun and so on. Everyone is there to support each other. We have made Tennis into a team sport now.
I met Prajnesh in 2015 in an Korean Challenger. I stayed with him as he had free hospitality. Prajnesh is friendly, so it was easy to get along with him. He was talking a lot and so I was gaining a lot of that knowledge. So it started in 2015 and it has been going strong.
He is one of those guys who can really push you. Any success he gets, he won’t get any attitude. He is one of those chaps whom you can take as an idol for that personality.
How did you manage your funding?
It is tough. One of the reasons I play mostly in Asia is due to funding. Within Asia, I am able to travel and play and break-even given the costs involved. I am not the type of person to eat out or spend money on other things, I am ok with how I am. I just need good food, that is it.
All these struggles contribute to the mental toughness. Having this kind of group support and camaraderie really help and any player needs it.
You were a grinder but switched to being aggressive. What made you want to change and how difficult was it to change?
Prajnesh can convince anyone. When I was there with him, he had started on the transformation thing himself from defense to aggressive and he was talking about it in detail with a lot of reasoning. So he was able to convince me. My coach Gaurav Sharma also mentioned that this grinding approach has a limit. It can upto a certain level but you need to be aggressive after a point to harm the opponent.
I tried a lot to be aggressive as it was a different approach compared to what I played since my junior days but it was not coming. Then around 6-7 months ago when we were doing a camp, I understood the definition for myself.
Being aggressive is not the same for every player – it varies from player to player. Initially I was trying to go for power like Prajnesh but it was not working for me. I understood the definition for myself through that camp. It is about cutting the options of the other player for me. Aggressiveness is easy to tell but its about everything around it as well – the mental side included.
Rawat considers Gunneswaran(left) to be a very good mentor and friend (Credits – Deepthi Indukuri)
Chirag Duhan from your academy is very talented. How would you advise juniors in terms of the mental aspects?
Chirag is very talented, has a good build for his age. He is very smart for his age and knows how to tackle the situations. I try to put a bigger picture in him. I have seen the level on the challenger tour and so my goal is to cut the time for these young players to learn what all I have learned on the way and to ensure they have a long term approach from the very young age.
There are a lot of distractions in Tennis at the Junior level. What would be your advice to the juniors on how to handle it? How did you handle it?
You learn from experience. I have some bad experiences myself and one learns from them. The support of people around you – they play a major role in keeping you on track. That is age where you can easily go wrong. I was distracted but I learnt and am not the type to repeat the same mistake twice.
You have to accept and keep learning from your mistakes. That is the most important thing.
You had an interesting experience of going to US College.
I was doing my college here for 1.5 years. I then took a transfer to the US to a New York based college – everything was going smooth till then. Once I landed there, the coach told me that I cannot play Tennis for the first semester of the college due to some rules. I had to waste an entire semester in terms of my tennis and I felt cheated and I was not told about this before.
I just took the decision to come out and left the place without even informing the coach.
Your first title in Thailand and the crazy superstition during that tourney.
I had this feeling that I will do well in this tournament. Mental part – I was feeling well in that tournament. There was some superstition also that was happening for me. I was playing the game PUBG – everyday I was playing once and winning and I was winning the actual match as well. So that continued every day and it happened on the finals day too. After the tourney win, I played PUBG on the next day and lost and ironically, I lost in the first round of that week.
So I got into a superstition that somehow PUBG has a strong influence on my results! Right now, I have come out of it and thankfully don’t play the game anymore.
The first tourney that you played – Any memories of that?
It was a local tourney in Noida – I did not do well. The feeling of losing was so much that I learnt a lot from losing that match.
Your Davis Cup experience against Pakistan
Everyone wants to play Davis Cup at once. I was lucky to have Saketh, Jeevan, Sumit and Ram around who are good friends. Normally, you are used to traveling alone and Davis Cup events are one thing where we are traveling together. I hope I get more opportunities in the future and it was truly a memorable experience.
I have many short term and few long term goals. I was hoping to break the top-250 this year but due to this COVID-19, not sure when it will reopen. My long term goal is to also make it into top-100 or top-50.
To make it further, we need to have a strong system / infrastructure and we lack that unfortunately.
A good system to train. Your thoughts – can you elaborate.
We need to have a strong federation and unfortunately, we are struggling in this area. I’ve heard that the federation was trying to get funds from the Sports Ministry but that the proposal was rejected. So we are likely not getting support from the federation at this time as well.
Without the support as well, we are still as players, playing together as a team and pushing ourselves. Without supporting the players playing on the challenger/ITF tour, it is very difficult to motivate the juniors as well. The juniors also need some motivation.
Do you think that starting a good domestic circuit will help the players?
Right now most of the top players skip the domestic circuit as it is not that good. However, if there is a plan in place to bring the top players with the juniors, it will motivate everyone involved.
A good domestic circuit initiated by the AITA will be very good.
Do you train for doubles separately?
I don’t. I was working on improvements for my singles. Sometimes I work on the returns and the volleys which help in doubles.
You have a successful partnership with Manish Sureshkumar. How did this partnership come about?
We have a similar equation. He also used to grind. He is good friends with him and so it is comfortable for me. When I am not playing that good, he lifts his level and so we match each other well.
You hang around a lot with the boys from Tamil Nadu and your doubles partner Manish is also from Tamil Nadu. Is your girlfriend also from Tamil Nadu?
Haha – She is not from Tamil Nadu. I really do enjoy hanging around with these friends. I have reached a stage where I can figure out what they are talking about now. I have watched a few dubbed Tamil movies too but not a direct Tamil movie yet.
How do you manage your recovery and rest?
First thing is the calories which I count – I never go a day without checking my calorie count. Second thing is the flexibility thing – it helps me recover well for the next day.
I also make it a point to sleep for 9 hours a day. I am slowly getting convinced by Jeevan for Golf as well. If Prajnesh starts Golf then nobody can stop him after that.
You were playing in South Africa during the COVID-19 state. How was that phase?
The day that tournament got cancelled, even before that, many countries were closing the gates. My family was getting worried. I lost a close match and then it was announced that the tourney was cancelled. My family told me to immediately take the next available flight and thankfully I was able to make it home soon enough.