Veteran Vishnu Vardhan on why he still plays on the ITF Tour, his fellow players, entrepreneurship and the importance of leagues like PTL

Vishnu Vardhan captured by Kamesh Srinivasan in New Delhi

Indian tennis veteran Vishnu Vardhan (VV) is in New Delhi to play in the fourth season of the Pro Tennis League (PTL), starting on Thursday, 1 December 2022 where he will lead team Paramount Proec Tigers in their debut season. We sat down for an interview at a restaurant in which he spoke about his recent deep runs in ITF Men’s World Tennis Tour, his entrepreneurial involvement with and the importance of leagues like PTL. Always a pleasure to interact with this gentleman.

Q: Hi Vishnu! Welcome to ITD. Three consecutive doubles finals for you at ITF M15 New Delhi, M25 Indore and M25 Mumbai. Please share your thoughts on it.

VV: The first week was really good. It gave me a chance to see how Niki (Poonacha) and Rithvik (Choudary Bollipalli) are playing together as a team. There in the final in the first set, I had a lot of chances - we had about six break points but we couldn’t convert them. But I was very happy to play alongside Nitin (Kumar Sinha). I’ve known him since he was 16 years old, and to partner with him and then make the doubles finals - we were very happy. I did make those notes against Niki and Rithvik but I couldn’t successfully implement them in the other two weeks. They are playing solid. They combine each other’s games very well. Both play big tennis - hitting the ball big. I’m happy for them. But at the same time, I’m bummed that, you know, I couldn’t kind of get a win over them in three weeks.

Q: Rithvik comes from the same coach as you and has had a dream debut on the pro tour. What are your thoughts on him?

VV: I’ve known Rithvik since the time he held a tennis racket for the first time. I know his parents also very well. I’m happy with the way he’s made decisions in his career so far - be it going to college (NCAA route) or coming back after college and then just focusing on doubles. I had told him that he needs to be playing singles - at least for one year he should try singles, but he was focused and determined just to play doubles, and it is showing the results. So that conviction was always there in him. And he’s always been very crafty. Even growing up, I remember, one of the assistant coaches from the academy who used to travel with me, when I was playing the under 16s, travelled with Rithvik. And he told me that Rithvik is very crafty. And he reminds me of you when you play  –  the drops, the lobs, and everything. And I can see that - that’s helping him out in doubles. He does have a very similar game style as mine, especially when it comes to doubles. He serves big, and he takes a really good position as a service partner. So these two things, he does a very, very good job. And he’s fearless in going big after a serve. And in the last three weeks, I played three matches against him. It’s a definite blow to my ego to lose against him. I still remember the first week I lost to him, I took a picture alongside and shared it with my coach. But I didn’t do that for the next two weeks (laughs). It was a blow to my ego to lose against him. But yeah, I mean, these losses keep me going, I know that I’m going to work even harder to make sure that, you know, I turn this next time around (smiles).

Q: That’s amazing! Thank you for being honest here. Another question about another youngster — You played with young Anirudh Chandrasekar in Bangkok. What are your thoughts on his rise over the past few months?

VV: It’s been a tough route for Anirudh. I’ve also known him from a very young age. His older brother is Vignesh (Peranamallur) with whom I travelled and trained for most of my growing career. Anirudh had a tough outing growing up as a junior; then he tried out hard in singles in the ITF circuit. And then he found his foothold in doubles and now gradually he is moving up. He has all the tools to be a really good doubles player. But he needs to develop a weapon that he can count upon it under pressure - let it be a big serve or a big return. But at the same time, I cannot say that, okay, this is something that is a loophole in his game, because he does everything well. But if you can convert one weapon, then that will, you know, get him moving into the top 150 of ATP Rankings or maybe close to 100 as well.

Q: You have experienced the very top echelon of tennis by winning matches at the Olympics and also Wimbledon but you continue to work hard and play on ITF Men’s World Tennis Tour – talk us through your passion here.

VV: Even I was not sure if I’ll still be motivated to compete at these levels, but for me, rather than passion towards the game, which is of course there, it’s more about the competition that I seek when I’m on the court. One thing is that I always make sure that I’m staying healthy and staying focused. Because I want to compete and I want to get better at my game. So I’m really focused on my day-to-day activities. Apart from that, I feel I get to learn a lot about myself when I’m on the court competing. I mean, to be very honest with you, I played the Fenesta Nationals - I could see that there was so much desperation in me to win matches. And someone might think after playing so much tennis, it wouldn’t be there. But it’s very much there. So that is something that I could see myself experiencing on the court. And again, for me, it’s not about what level I’m playing. In the end, it’s the same lines and tennis balls that you’re hitting at every level, right? So for me, honestly, it doesn’t really matter what level you’re playing. It’s just about the competition and trying to, have that awareness and discovering yourself every single time you’re on the court (smiles).

Q: We have more and more Indian players specialising very early in doubles like Rithvik, Anirudh and so on. What are your thoughts on this trend?

VV: It’s not only us Indians, but there are a lot of other players on the tour who are switching to doubles a lot more earlier than we used to do. Earlier the thought was - okay, now once a player is kinda done with singles - not able to perform good, he used to switch to doubles. But now the thought process has changed. And at the same time, ITF and ATP are making those efforts to make it a little bit easier and player-friendly for doubles tennis growth. So they are evolving at the right time. And I’m sure in the next few years, there will be a lot more changes, which will be beneficial for doubles players. And in the end, I feel it doesn’t matter which which event you’re playing - singles or doubles, as long as you’re able to compete at the highest level. And being number one in the sport of tennis in doubles is also a great achievement. There are a lot of players in India who have the real potential of actually winning a Grand Slam title in doubles. And if, if they can try and do that, then it’s it’s great.

And it’s only because of players like Leander (Paes), Mahesh (Bhupathi) and Rohan (Bopanna) who have inspired all of us to take this path. Even Divij (Sharan) and Purav (Raja) for that matter of fact inspire me because they all have been so successful in doubles. I’ve played with Divij - he’s played in Grand Slams and I had a feeling even I can do that. So that belief was there in me, and just within one and a half years later, me and Balaji, we could make it to Wimbledon’s second round. So that’s the belief that everyone is having at the moment. And I wish that we have a breakthrough in singles as well. And I think that will happen in the next five to six years.

Q: There are a lot of international tournaments coming to India over the next few months. Your views on the same, please.

VV: I remember the time when I broke through in the international circuit was in the year 2009–2010, where we had almost 12 ITF Futures and about three-four Challengers in the year, that was the year where I made my jump from being this 800th ranked player to 500 and then moved into the ATP Challenger Tour and then to ATP 250 level. So that was my journey.

So tournaments at home are really important. I’m happy that we are having this many tournaments right now — we just finished four ITF Futures and then we are having three ATP Challengers and four for women, and then three more coming up in the month of April. We definitely need to maximise these tournaments. These last four Futures, that we had two ITF M25s after a very long time and 25s are crucial for the Indian players because you have a huge number of points at stake. And normally when you have these ITF events in India, I feel it is mandatory that we Indian players need to clean them up. And I was actually looking forward that someone from India, trying to win those 25s because it’s really important for these players to get those points to make a difference in their careers. It was great to see Digvijay (Pratap Singh) win his first pro title at M15 New Delhi, and then we had Rithvik and Nikki win the doubles. But after that, we didn’t really see our players performing. I expected Manish to do really well, given the form that he had by winning the National Games and Fenstsa Nationals. Maybe physically, it was tough for him to do that. But yeah, that is something I think it’s really important for the Indian players to keep in mind that these events are really important and they really need to work really hard and take advantage of it. So I feel right now we are having around almost 400–450 points that grab in the next three months. So that’s a lot of points there for both singles and doubles. So that is something that we need to keep in mind and then focus on.

Q: Vishnu, you also have a successful venture in What is the vision that you have here that you are working towards?

VV: I’m happy with the success that Tennishub has achieved. It’s not an overnight success, we started this replicating Tennis Warehouse in the USA - we wanted to do something similar. This was in the year 2013. Since then we’ve made our mistakes and now we are very strong in the e-commerce business in tennis. And the differentiating factor of our success is that we can give expert advice to the tennis community, which wasn’t there before and the ease of getting tennis products. Now, we’ve also gotten into badminton. We have Pullela Gopichand sir working as a mentor and brand ambassador for us there. So that’s been good. And that’s what we want to do across sports - being a specialist in one particular sport and then making it easy for that sporting community to get great pieces of equipment. This is something that I started with a friend of mine and whenever I have time, I help out in terms of business strategy and direction. But yeah, I mean, playing tennis has always been my priority. I know I cannot keep competing when I’m 60 but I know I can still kind of do business. So that’s where it is.

Q: One last question — You are back in the capital to play PTL. 4th season this time. What are your thoughts on this league?

VV: It’s great to have tennis playing in a team format. Throughout the entire year we play tennis very individually and it is a kind of selfish sport if I may say because you just have to take care of yourself. But when you come together as a team, great things always happen is what I believe. PTL is that format where you have players across different age groups which I think is awesome. I played doubles last year with Karan Singh and I played against him this year in doubles – I can already see a lot of improvement in the way he’s playing doubles. I would like to believe it’s because he played doubles with me last year in the PTL where I shared some tips with him. I can see he’s implementing them. Also when you have players like Ramkumar (Ramanathan) and Matt Ebden who is a Grand Slam champion — It’s great for the youngsters to stay up and close with these players and then learn from them and then accelerate their career progress.

Rapid Fire

Favourite cuisine?Indian
Favourite travel destination?Maldives
A place you haven’t been to but would love to visit?Norway
Favourite tournament?Båstad in Sweden
A loss that hurt you the most?Second round at London 2012 Olympics
If not tennis, what would be your career?Business for sure
Who is the GOAT for you?Pete Sampras
Favourite non-tennis sport?Basketball
Favourite screen actor?Amitabh Bachchan
A song that is in repeat mode these days?Rendu Kaadhal by Anirudh Ravichander

This interview was conducted in person on Thursday, 24 November 2022. Fellow ITD Core Member Vishnu Reddy contributed to this interview. 

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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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