Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan and N. Sriram Balaji on the success on the ATP Challenger Tour, love for board games and plans for the next six months

At the end of the last month, I had the great pleasure to speak with Jeevan and Balaji who are having a great year on the ATP Challenger Tour. The boys from Tamil Nadu are two of the most humble tennis champions I’ve ever interacted with. We spoke at length about their tennis and their plans for the rest of 2022. Enjoy their humour and humbleness.

Q: Hi boys! Welcome to ITD. Congratulations on winning back-to-back doubles titles on the ATP Challenger Tour (in Bratislava, Slovakia and Blois, France). What would you say about this past month?

Jeevan:  It was a very good start for us as a team. It’s like a new chapter for the two of us. We’ve played a lot of tournaments together, all the way back from Futures (now  ITF Men’s World Tennis Tour) in 2011. A crazy, long and fun journey! This was just our 5th tournament together as new improved versions. Europe was the best thing that could have happened to us as a team. Because we were able to communicate and talk and really figure out how we can improve as a team and that really has made a difference in the way we play on the court. 

Balaji: What Jeevan said is 100% accurate. We won a couple of Futures together back in the day. Now decided to play together after my injury break. I was out for a couple of weeks and then once I was ready to hit the road, we decided to play together. We did have a couple of rough first-round losses. I wasn’t 100% fit. I was just coming back from the injury. But learned a lot from those losses. We got better at communication. And one week, Jonathan Marray (2012 Wimbledon Men’s Doubles champion) was with us which helped us a lot. We got to train with him. We fixed the small things. We kept working on them and once we started winning matches, our confidence level went up. And that’s how we won those titles.

Q: That’s excellent! I love the fact that tennis pros get to travel so much for their work. You were in Slovakia and France for a month. How was that experience? Do you get time for sightseeing? Or is it all work?

Balaji: Not really. Rarely. Let me tell you a story. In Bratislava, Jeevan wanted to buy a new set of headphones. So we finished the day early and rented e-scooters to go for a ride. Jeevan said it’s not too far – it’s just 2 km away. So we went and that place was 10 km far from our hotel. It took us more than half an hour to be there (laughs). So while coming back, I told Jeevan: “We have a match to play tomorrow. Let’s just go back by cab.” So yeah, funny incidents like this happen when we travel. Nothing more specific than that.

Jeevan: For us, it’s not traditional sightseeing that happens. It’s all last minute. Sometimes we rent a car and I like that. When you rent a car, you don’t necessarily end up going to famous monuments and all but it gives you some time to see the town. The older we get, we do realise that it’s important to have that vision on the court but also understand that we are not going to get this time back so we have to make the most of being in these cities also. 

Q: Professional players have strict routines, but can you tell us what your day off looks like?

Balaji: I don’t remember the last time I had a day off (laughs). My off days go into travelling from one city to another city. Once a week when I get free, I usually stay in. I don’t like to go out much. I sleep. 

Jeevan: Yeah, a lot of sleep. I was joking with Bala, I told him now that we are in Delhi to get visas, we can finally wake up at least one morning without the alarm clock. Rest a little bit longer. So yeah, days off are nothing too exciting, to be honest. We can’t schedule a hell lot for the days off.

Balaji: We usually travel to different tournaments on off days. So that’s tiring too. Not easy.

Jeevan: Sometimes when I get an off day,  I like to play board games. 

Balaji: Jeevan is the games person. So he likes to travel with board games all the time. 

Jeevan: Prajnesh and his wife Sudarshana also love doing all this. So many nights, Praj, Bala and I played Monopoly Deal – a lot! And the fact that we are still friends after all that…(both Jeevan and Balaji laugh). So I try bringing such board games and cards on the trips. 

Q: Jeevan, there is a question for you from ITD founder Vatsal (Tolasaria) – You had a taping on your left calf. Can you tell us a bit about the injury? And the recovery process and how you managed to play on with it?

Jeevan: Wow! Vatsal has very sharp eyes. He got the leg also correct (laughs). We were down a set in the quarters and early in the second set, the other team was serving, I happen to return the ball and that’s when I pulled my calf on the landing. It was a minor pull. Nothing major. But obviously, at the moment, you feel a lot of pain. Bala made a smart decision there – I was on high adrenaline and did not want to stop. But then he asked me to take a medical timeout. So the tournament physio Mr Silva came down and taped it. We didn’t want it to get worse. We are older players so we know what works in such situations. Silva did a good job because I felt great in the next match which was ironically our most dominant match. So yeah, the injury wasn’t serious. It healed over time completely. I’m at 100% again.

Q: Jeevan, you were a part of the French Open commentary panel for Sony recently. How did that come about and how was your experience? Could we see you commentating regularly?

Jeevan: That was a very special experience. It started with Somdev, so I must thank him. He sent me a text randomly a few months back saying – “Sony is trying to do Tamil commentary.” And he almost rhetorically answered the question saying – “You wouldn’t wanna do it, right?”. I was thinking the exact opposite – That sounds very exciting and fun! And it was an opportunity to get better and learn Tamil. Obviously, I can understand it but I am not very good at speaking it. Embarrassing considering my grandfather and his legacy.  

Balaji: Honestly, I was shocked by the second week because his Tamil improved a lot (laughs).

Jeevan: I think it’s the tennis player mentality. There’s a challenge and then I want to get better at it. All the other tennis boys – Vijay, Bala and everyone else on the panel helped me. We sat down and thought of phrases and sayings that I could use. My co-commentator Arun Venugopal was helpful too. He made me feel at home from the very beginning. And our producer Mr Venkat was fantastic too – he gave me a lot of insights. The Sony team did a great job with the idea of bringing in Telugu and Tamil commentary. That’s the best way to reach out to most people. It’s not really about TRP (Television Rating Point). If there is just one small girl or a boy who is watching Nadal play and happens to understand the regional commentary and wants to pick up a racquet or learn more about tennis, I think it’s a great thing. 

Q: Bala – You’ve cracked the ATP Doubles Top 100 once before in 2018. 4 years down the line, you are close again. Are rankings something you keep a tab on at all?

Balaji: Yes definitely! I think every professional tennis player should have a ranking goal. So yeah, that was the goal when Jeevan and I started playing together again. So I’m glad we are close and hope we can reach the double digits soon.  

Q: We have 6 Indians in the ATP Doubles Top 150 now. Any particular reason for this sudden, positive trend?

Jeevan: The fact that there are tournaments all around the world, it’s slowly getting better. There are more options to play in South America and Europe. There are a few lined up in Asia as well. So one is more opportunity for players to break through. You are saying 6 Indians but I would count 7 because Yuki (Bhambri) is just around the corner. It’s just a matter of time before he gets there. I also believe it’s because we Indians are more knowledgeable about playing doubles – we like to use angles and all a lot. Even combinations-wise, we play better than the field. Bala brings a lot of power and big serves, and I am crafty at the net. The righty-lefty combination for us works in our favour. We’ll see even a lot more Indians in Doubles Top 100 soon. Another reason for this positive trend is the help Rohan (Bopanna) provides. His initiatives are helping us with our performances – a few weeks where we can have a physio or a coach with us. Little things like this make a big difference. 

Balaji: The main sponsor behind this is KPIT from Pune. 

Jeevan: Yeah, KPIT has done a fantastic job of helping the doubles players. So yeah, it’s looking all hopeful for our doubles pairs. 

Q: That’s amazing! What are your goals for the remaining season?

Balaji: Our main goal is to get into doubles digits of doubles ranking, that’s for sure. And try to play ATP 250s and higher-level events, so that helps us with going up the rankings. At the end of the year, I would like to play tennis leagues back home. Pro Tennis League (PTL) is one of them. These leagues are helping us players financially. 

Jeevan: PTL is a great initiative by Aditya (Khanna). Obviously, there are other leagues too who’ve done a great job bringing in more money for players. As Bala said, the main goal is to get to the doubles digits of doubles rankings. We also want to be more consistent. 

Q: Do you follow the progress of upcoming Indian tennis players? If so, who are the players that excite you the most?

Jeevan: I would say the lefty Rushil Khosla excites me the most. Being a fellow Southpaw, obviously, I am rooting for him. I was reading an article where he said he is trying to emulate Rafa. I’ve actually met him once at Aditya (Sachdeva)’s academy. It was in Delhi a couple of years ago. He hits the ball very hard for his age. We also have players like Manas Dhamne. So yeah, I am excited to see their progress.

Balaji: Thanks to you guys at ITD, we get to know about all these juniors. If you guys weren’t there, we wouldn’t know anything. And thanks to these tennis leagues which I believe are helping these junior players otherwise where else will they get to spend time with the pros and learn from them? We hope to see these juniors thrive. 

Jeevan: When we were juniors, in our teens, it wasn’t easy to talk to the senior guys – the top guys. Because everybody used to be on their own. And they had a lot of things to do. What you guys have done at ITD – update every possible result, and let all of us know about it through Instagram and social media is amazing! We get to know the results immediately because you are covering these events. That also motivates young players. So yeah, these leagues and what you guys are doing at ITD are going to help more juniors to shine. 

Q: Thanks, guys! That means a lot to us. My final question was basically – Do you have a message for ITD and our followers?

Jeevan: First of all, I would like to thank all the Core Members of ITD. Congratulations on crossing 10,000 followers on Instagram. I can see constant growth from you there. Volunteers like Vishnu, Vatsal and Vandana –  I have the feeling of gratitude towards them. They’ve taken so much effort to promote Indian tennis. Abhijeet, we are speaking for the first time, you quickly made an interview like this happen. You are putting it out there. I hope you guys continue to grow and manage to sustain yourself for a long time. And we’ll champion you guys throughout this. 

Balaji: Before you guys, there was no one. Then you guys came. I’m actually not good with social media (laughs). But I come online to see updates from you. I’m just following you guys. It’s not easy to cover all the players you are covering. So a big thank you to you guys. 

This interview was conducted on Thursday, 23 June 2022 via Zoom.

Abhijeet Dangat is a lawyer and writer who loves playing, watching and discussing tennis. He has lived in India, France and the United Kingdom and has travelled across the world, many times witnessing sports history being made.

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