In his last event before the Covid break in Feb 2020, Saketh Myneni had beaten a certain Aslan Karatsev in straight sets. And then he didn’t even touch a racquet for the next 8 months, owing to the lockdown restrictions. Saketh then eased back into training and made a comeback at the ITF Lucknow Futures a couple of weeks back, finishing runners up in the singles & winning the doubles title with partner Yuki Bhambri.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Indore Futures (the week after Lucknow), Saketh shares insights into how he used his time to pick up new skills during the lockdown, his plans for the next few weeks, partnership & friendship with Yuki Bhambri, thoughts on Karatsev’s magic run, and much more.

(PS – Watch out for the rapid fire at the end)

Saketh & Yuki beat Prashanth and Kaza in the doubles final in Lucknow

Q) These were your first set of tournaments post-pandemic. How did you spend your time during the lockdown? Where were you based?

SM : The last tournament I played was in February 2020 in Bangalore. After that, I hadn’t touched the racket till mid-November. I hadn’t even gone anywhere close to a tennis court because of the lockdown and the restrictions.

I was in Hyderabad for the initial two months. After that, I drove with my wife to her place in Vijayawada. It was difficult to anticipate and plan out a timeline during this period. It was okay for the first two weeks since it was good to rest. But after that, it got tricky since you’re used to traveling and living off a suitcase, shuffling between different places. I tried to find a new hobby during the lockdown. I got into gardening activities, trying to revive dying plants, propagate them, growing vegetables, and learn more and more about them. I put these beautiful plants in my house. It was one way of trying to adapt to a sustainable way of living, and the lockdown has given me the time to incorporate a few changes into our lifestyle. That’s the only thing that I had done during the lockdown.

The first time that I stepped outside was in Visakhapatnam, to sneak in a walk along the beach when there are no other people. But fitness-wise, everything was back to almost zero. I did regular fitness with resistance bands and body weight, but that’s not enough for professional sport. I had come back to Hyderabad in mid-November, after having gained a decent amount of weight. That wasn’t because I hadn’t trained. It was because my in-laws had fed me quite a lot when I was with them. 

After that, I had to cautiously take it slow before starting playing and full-fledged training. It was important to take it slow to avoid injuries after the long hiatus. I wasn’t sure when to expect to be back on tour because of COVID and a lot of other travel-related restrictions. But we got to hear about these tournaments in India about four weeks ago. Getting my first COVID test done before the tournament, learning the safe travel guidelines, taking the first flight in a long time, and eating food in a restaurant after almost a year is an experience. I had only heard about how tough it gets.

Q) How does it feel to be back on tour, playing and competing again after a considerable amount of time?

I’m glad that India got to do these tournaments. I’m happy to play as much as I can. I’ll have to see how far along I am in terms of preparation and playing. I’d say that it has been a good journey so far. As I said earlier, the aim is to take it slow and not overdo things.

We’ve never had this kind of impact before where the entire world almost came to a standstill. Everything had been shut down and there were restrictions, leading to a complete change in our lifestyle. It’s a tough situation for many people, and as tennis players, we should be thankful we get to compete in our home country. Overall, I am just happy to be back on tour and competing.

Q) In Lucknow, you had a finals finish in singles and you were the winner in doubles along with Yuki Bhambri. How would you describe the first week in your comeback, and how do you see yourself going ahead from here on?  

To be honest, I couldn’t have expected a better start by getting a lot of matches in the first week. The conditions were getting hotter each time. I wasn’t sure how my body was going to react after a few matches. It was good for me to get a decent number of matches. I feel like I’m still not playing how I want to. Naturally, that’ll take some time. It happens. When you get your confidence back with more matches, you will find a rhythm and the game will improve.

And I’m glad that Yuki and I got to play. It has been a while since we’d played together. We’ve known each other for a while. Both of us hadn’t played in quite some time. But we know each other well. We know each other’s strengths & weaknesses on the court. He’s a good friend. Glad we got the title there. It was great confidence-wise too. I think that both of us played well, but we’re still a long way from our potential, both together, and individual.

Saketh with the singles runners up trophy in Lucknow

Q) How did the pairing come about? And can we expect to see this in future tournaments?

He had asked me a week before the tournament. I had said yes after checking if he was willing to since he was already playing in an ATP 250. That was his first match in two years. For him, too, it was a different journey. But as of now, we plan to get back into playing more and more. We’d love to play with each other. Whenever we’ll get the time, we’ll work it out for the tournaments. The comeback is going to be crucial for him as well, especially with his body and the number of matches that he’s going to get.

For me, I want to focus more on singles and see how my body feels. We’ll play in the future. But we have fixed no tournaments yet, since he’s going to play at bigger tournaments- 250, 500, and the Majors, because of his protected ranking. So, initially, it’ll be a different scenario altogether. For the first few months of the comeback, it’ll be different. But we’ll pair up and play with each other down the line.

Q) In your last tournament before COVID, at the 2020 Bangalore Challenger, you had beaten Aslan Karatsev, who made the semis of the Australian Open recently. Any thoughts/feelings you had when you saw him reach the semis at the Grand Slam?

It was great to see that happen. I know Aslan pretty well from the tour. Apart from Bangalore, I’ve played a couple of matches with him in other tournaments too. It was great to see the guy do that well. Qualifying and then making the semis was a big deal, which we hadn’t seen in a while. You’ve got to give big credit to the way he played and what he has done. He went down to playing Futures at one point because he too had some injuries in between and he had to make a comeback. But he was very physical. The guy can go big, that’s his game style. I’m glad he got his big chance and broke through. Making the semis at a Grand Slam is never easy.

This achievement is an inspiration for players playing the Challengers, and who want to motivate themselves to perform on the big stage. It was a big motivation for everyone, whoever has played with him on the circuit. He was playing extremely well by the start of the second week. It’s not just about hitting the forehands and the backhands. It’s about both physical and mental aspects and putting it all together in one place. That was pretty motivating to see.

Q) You’ve not entered the 2nd half of the Futures series to be played in Pune and New Delhi. What are your plans from here on in terms of scheduling?

For now, I want to get enough matches. I didn’t expect to play all four futures from the very beginning. But it’ll all depend on the body and how many matches I get. It’s great for me, I got a lot of matches in the first tournament. I’ll hopefully do well this week, and then I have a week off to get some rest. I’m not sure about Pune yet. But maybe I’ll pick New Delhi to finish, provided I get enough rest and training to get back and finish the Indian circuit. I haven’t looked at the schedule after that.

Owing to the restrictions in Europe, etc. I am still a little hesitant to quarantine, and it’ll be tricky to get my schedule right. Eventually, I want to plan, maybe not to do back-to-back tournaments in different countries because right now it’s difficult to travel to different countries. As of now, I prefer staying in one country. The only problem is that the cuts are very high since there are very few tournaments happening around the world. Because of COVID, things have been difficult for everyone to schedule properly.

Q) Your thoughts on the sudden increase in the number of ITF tournaments in India, right from juniors to Men’s and Women’s. How important is it for the up-and-coming players?

I believe that it’s great to have tournaments in India, doesn’t matter what level. It’s good for the players in India since it means that they have to spend comparatively less on travel and have the home-court advantage. Most of the players compete better in India because the conditions are hotter and tougher. Many people who haven’t traveled a lot struggle when they go out. I think that’s where we have to find a good range for players, get some decent points and try to be consistent with the results even though they play enough in India, they have to be consistent outside too. But these tournaments give players the confidence to believe that they can last at that level too.

Moreover, it’s a good thing to see that they can earn points in India and move up in the rankings high enough to get to the tournaments outside India. The expenses might go down in that case. But if they’re traveling outside India with no points, that’s a high expense, adding to the uncertainty of making it to the main draw too. So, it’s great for them to have these tournaments in India, to get some points, confidence, and matches under their belt. Especially during the COVID times, it’s great for them to play in their country.

But the number of tournaments in India is still not enough. We need to have a lot more, to help and encourage the next generation of players.

Saketh Myneni during the Indore Futures

Q) What are your thoughts on the current state of Indian Tennis? Where do you think it stands and where it needs to be?     

I think the fact is that there’s absolutely nothing happening. In the past 10 years that I’ve been around, there has been very little growth. A lot more can be done, but we have no proper system or a cycle to produce more and more players to keep pushing each other. We lack a lot of things such as proper sponsorship, funding, resources, infrastructure, training/coaching, or everything in one place. In the last 10 years, few players are training in India, almost all the top players train abroad. They start here and then they move out to get better coaching and resources to get their game better. But not everyone can do it, as it is extremely expensive. Plus, we don’t have as many tournaments in the country so that the players can test themselves in the home country. It’s mostly that the people are playing abroad, again adding to their expenses.

They call it the rich man’s sport for a reason since it has been played in clubs historically. Tennis remains a very expensive sport even today, and without holistic support and resources from the institution, it will remain a rich man’s sport and affordable by very few in the country.

We don’t have that cycle to take the players to the next level, especially in tennis. From what I’ve seen, a talented batch of players, when they’re at the age of 17-18 have been missing from the sport. The lack of resources makes them and their family feel burnt out and quit. This is something that should not be happening. Because of this, we’re losing the good amount of talent we have in the country.

There is no system in place to track, support, and guide the young players. Right now, private support is available to very limited people. And any government help available in the form of PSU jobs is also based on recommendations and not on merit or achievements. And not every player can afford recommendations or connections and end up discouraged because of a lack of recognition and fairness.

We have a rich history of tennis back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the last 20-30 years, I don’t see positive coverage for the sport. The off-court drama is being covered more than the achievements of the players, it makes the sport lose its color. The sport should be known for the achievements of the players, but not the off-court drama. Everyone should know about the results of the players in the country. This applies to all sports in our country. That helps in the growth of both the player and the sport. It’s a step-by-step process. And it’s not a one-man show. It will take some time to put everything into place. If we take an example of the Russian players, we have a lot of players coming from there. Even though they all train differently, they all have a set thing.

It’s about the entire community, association, and country coming together. Everyone has to be on the same page to make it possible. We need that for all the athletes in our country. We need to become a sporting powerhouse and we have the talent for it.

Rapid Fire –

Hobbies                       Gardening/planting                       
Favorite type of cuisine                       Italian                       
Favorite song on your playlist                       “Arere Aaakasam” from the Telugu movie Colour Photo                       
Favorite tournament/travel destination                       Australian Open/ South Africa                       
A place that you haven’t been to in India, but would like to visit                       Jammu & Kashmir                       
Best win of your career so far                       Asian Games Mixed Doubles Gold Medal & Men’s Doubles Silver                       
A loss that hurt you the most                                                     Davis Cup loss vs Spain in New Delhi (Myneni and Paes had lost a close match to Nadal & M.Lopez)
Career track, if you weren’t a tennis player                                                  Electronics/computer Engineer                                                  

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