In this interview, Mukund Sasikumar gives a peek into his journey over the past year and on the amazing run to the finals of the Italian Challenger to kick-start 2022
Congratulations on the finals run in Forli Challenger. From losing in QF in Futures in Doha in the previous week to a European Challenger final in the next week. What do you think clicked?
Doha QF was not a realistic result – there were many things happening in the background. I was supposed to play in Thailand but it got cancelled. I had gone to the Thai Embassy a day before for a Visa which ended up being a waste. I also had trouble with my arm and so I wasnt serving that well.
My opponent played unbelievably well that day which happens at times. In general, that standard of tennis in Doha was very high. Even when I played Digvijay Singh Pratap in R1, it was a very high quality match. These days, it is not that big of a difference between futures and challengers.
So my level was already high in Doha and so the result in Forli was not that much of a surprise. In Doha, I was raw without much match sharpness and hence there were several 3 set matches. All my matches had a similar pattern – lost the first set and then came back to win the next two.
So basically when I found my rhythm – I was able to pull through. So my level has remained the same.
After the 2nd week in Doha, I was pulled out of Forli due to the Thailand fiasco. During this break, Abhimanyu Singh sir was helping me and also had a trainer help me out. So I went to Forli physically in good condition and also was match sharp.
As I remarked to you before – the semis win against Zsombor Piros was the best I’ve seen you play. Talk about the match – what was your game plan coming in and what clicked for you in this match?
When I saw that he had defeated Cilic and others in the previous month, I knew that I had to play at a very good level. Unfortunately the whole week, I was a bit unwell and was on antibiotics. The covid tests came negative but not sure if it was Omicron or something else. My throat was gone and I was having mild fever everyday. I managed to stay strong mentally – having coffee before every match and staying focused. By the time of the semis match, I had recovered quite a bit physically.
I knew Piros before and I felt good about my game. It brought back memories of pre-covid in terms of my game.
In the first couple of games, I overdid things thinking that I would need something extra to win against Zsombor but soon I realised that if I play normal, I should have him. It’s something that my coach always believes in, that I can compete against anyone in this world. It is something that I should believe more, especially after playing against Piros as he plays at a very high pace and I was able to counter it pretty comfortably.
After the first few games, once I started getting into the match, it was great fun. I really enjoyed the match and the level which is what brought me to the finish line. It has been a long time since I have been in a Challenger final and to play an opponent like Piros, engage in those high quality rallies and be in front – it was a lot of enjoyment for me. This is what I play Tennis for, to play at the highest level possible – I am not here for money or anything else.
In all the previous instances last year of playing high quality players, I ended up losing easily. I wasn’t in rallies with them. It wasn’t a worthy matchup. The match against Piros was different and that’s why I was enjoying and smiling most of the time.
What do you think you should do to ensure you maintain this level and ensure it is not a one-time blip?
I think 2022 will be consistent. That’s my honest assessment. I understand that it will be impossible to play at that level every match but I genuinely think that I can breakthrough this year in terms of consistency.
The service returns – that’s how it has been for the last 2 months now. I remember Adil Kalyanpur – during our doubles matches – telling me that it was so much pressure playing doubles with me because I was not missing any return from my side. Almost every player I play, I am consistently up 15-30 up or something these days.
I feel super confident about my return game right now because my Coach has worked for hours and hours on it. It is a very tough foundation that he laid 2 years back when he forced me to return from inside the baseline. I was losing so many matches in 2019 and if we did things differently here, I would have been probably inside the top-200 but we stuck to that approach. So it’s a 3-year foundation that has been laid into it.
Return game was always my strength. Even when I used to play against Vishnu Vardhan as a 11-12 yr old, I used to enjoy returning the serves of Vishnu. So it is something natural for me to read the direction and reach – The Coach just amplified it over the last 3 years.
The serve has been strong for a few years now as well and I feel confident from the baseline. So the goal is to keep it consistent this year and not one run here or there.
You have one of the biggest serves in Indian Tennis. Has it always been like this or is it something that you developed over the past 3-4 yrs.
The fundamentals were always there. It got this big after I started with my coach here in Austria. He has a very different coaching methodology. He has dedicated several weeks of training only on my serve and return. There were a few days where we only served for a couple of hours.
I have also gotten a lot stronger in the last 1-2 years. I had also changed by racquet in 2021 which was part of that messing around phase but now I have returned to my usual racquet.
How do you describe the indoor conditions in Forli – did it suit your game in any fashion?
My game is adaptable to any surfaces, except for probably slow clay. I have done well in all conditions. Forli was tough with practice facilities – they only had 2 courts and so it was busy playing most of the time.
Taking a step back, in an interview with TennisHub, you had mentioned how surprised you were about the Tennis level in Futures (incl. qualies). You mentioned the same about Doha now. What do you think is causing it?
Things are accessible now. 10 yrs back, taking a flight to Europe was a big deal. Everyone has access to the best coaches and equipment in the world now.
6-7 yrs back – players used to be at the same level for several years in Futures. But in Sharm El Sheikh for example,
- Jiri Lehecka won one of the weeks and now he has qualified into the Australian Open main draw.
- Jack Draper – he was playing the same event as me. He went on to win a Challenger and then defeated Sinner and Bublik last year
- Flavio Cobolli lost in the ITF $15K Qualies in the week I played. He has won 2 Challengers already
So the people who were making the quarters, semis and finals over there – most of them have graduated to some other level already.
This was not the case before. There used to be one off guys who would take the leap while the rest of the players used to be there year after year.
Additionally a lot of information like top player interviews – everything is available with the palm of your hand. So all this has contributed.
You were enroute to cracking the top-200 ranking before the pandemic but had to take a couple of steps back in terms of rankings. What do you attribute this to?
Staying in India caused it as we were in severe lockdown. Even when one is injured, one is doing other activities like going out, playing other sports and so on. But in severe lockdown – you are idle most of the time – so you tend to lose some of the skills that you build up over time.
Your eyes get restricted to the surroundings and so it becomes difficult to suddenly change things.
At the beginning of this tough rut, you had a good week winning the 2021 Lotto Elite Pro Tennis Challenge and then were leading against Alexei Popyrin (ATP Top-60) in the tie-breaker with the set point before bowing out. How do you describe that match and the phase after that?
Same as the Piros match, I was respecting Alexei Popyrin a bit too much and over hitting things. He played really well as well – he is one of those guys that even the top players don’t like playing. He is very difficult to get into rhythm with.
In the tie break, I was a bit unlucky – I missed the serve very marginally.
During this tough phase – were there any moments when you questioned if this was all worth it?
There were many circumstantial things – we were playing in Portugal. The balls were changed at the last minute and it was much softer and didn’t suit my game style at all. We are generally the type to not offer excuses and just say we were not good enough but the conditions were tough.
In general – 2021 was just a tough phase for me. I was running against the wall on many occasions. For instance, in February, when I was trying to go to South Africa, Praj`s passport came back in 3 days and mine got stuck for 1.5 weeks and the day I was supposed to get it – the visa officer got covid and so my passport got stuck for 3 weeks more. So I lost about a month doing nothing.
My coach had come down from Austria to Chennai for the pre-season and we did it with Prajnesh and so all that work had gone down the drain. That’s why I went to Sharm El Sheikh to get into the groove.
Even in Portugal – I was hoping to get a few matches under my belt before trying challengers again but the sudden change in conditions with soft balls meant – the local players were much better than me in slow conditions.
In the US – I just did not play well. We experimented with several things but nothing worked out. It is one of those days where we have to just keep giving our best and wait for our time.
Did you run into any time frame where you questioned if it was all worth it?
Back in 2015-16, I did question things but at that time, I was not a good enough player. I genuinely questioned whether it was all worth it in terms of the finances but I was in a solid mental state.
For the last year through this tough phase – I knew that if I keep at it, it will work out.
There are several Indian players who got really impacted by COVID in terms of career trajectory – Sidharth Rawat, Manish Sureshkumar and so on. What would be your note to these Indian players?
Tennis is just a sport. For point sake – even if I complain that I would have made the ATP Top-100 without the pandemic – it is still nothing in comparison to someone losing their loved one.
There are several people who have lost their lives or livelihood during this pandemic. Even if someone wins a Grand Slam, it is still nothing more than just pure entertainment.
It is important to have this perspective.
Your Coach Martin Spöttl has been a big believer in you. Can you shed a bit of spotlight on your coach and the setup?
He is a really big believer in me and I have not understood why yet. He considers me as a special person. He has that deep desire to work with me. What made him choose me over several other special players from his country or Europe is something that is unanswered and probably might still be for the rest of our lives.
He has left everything for me. I do not think there will ever be anyone like Martin in my life ever again. During the pandemic when he wasn’t making any money, he had several offers to go away and I wouldn’t have been upset as he also has a 15 yr old daughter to take care of and a family to support.
He chose the path of waiting for me which is 1 year of completely no money. For his calibre, he would have made around £200,000 which is huge money. In 2021, he was only working with me which is nothing close to pre-covid when he had several players under him.
He decided to invest 2 years in me and prefers to stick to it no matter what happens. I consider myself to be extremely lucky in this regard.
When I joined Martin, he had a group of players. Even now, Fajing Sun from China is expected to be here soon. His former players – they all stopped playing now post covid. He doesn’t want to add new players as he wants to focus on me.
In the winters, we practice at Vienna Sport Hotel. In the summers, we practice at the clay courts next to Ernst-Happel-Stadion. It is a nice locality with several apartments around. It is a global city with good transportation.
The plan is to have him travel with me for most of the tourneys this year, similar to 2021. In Forli, he wasn’t there as he got sick while taking the booster shot.
You share a special bond with your parents and your mother is usually travelling with you. Any word on it.
We travelled a lot together. For about 15 years of life, I only saw her everyday as my dad had to travel with work. More than the part about travelling with me, she is in love with the sport. You can see her watching matches all day long. Even if somebody is serving, she can watch for hours together.
I don’t think anyone can do that unless someone really loves doing that. My coach Martin usually doesn’t get along with Tennis parents as he is a bit too honest with his views but he gels well with my mother.
What’s your schedule for the year ahead?
I will play the Indian leg of the tourneys. After that I am aiming to play the South African challengers – assuming the visa process is smooth this time.
I am also keeping the option open for the Indian futures but it all depends on my performances. I am aiming to get myself in a position to play the Grand Slam qualies soon.