“Our short-term goal is to play the French Open” – Sriram Balaji with Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan in the post-match Press Conference as runners-up in the Tata Open Maharashtra 2023

Indian pair Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan and N. Sriram Balaji came into the draw as alternates in the 2023 Tata Open Maharashtra ATP 250 tournament to have an inspiring run till the finals. They put up a brave fight, but unfortunately lost to the fourth-seeded Belgian duo Sander Gille and Joran Vliegen 4-6,4-6 in the men’s doubles finals at the Balewadi Stadium. The Indian pair have won 150 points each this week which has brought them close to breaking into the top 100 of the Doubles Rankings in ATP. The following are excerpts from their post-match press conference.

Featured photo by Chenthil Mohan

Q: Can you sum up the whole tournament how good it has been to you?

Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan: To sum it up, I think I’m obviously very happy that we got a chance to play a home ATP. Very grateful to the Maharashtra crowd for coming out and supporting us in all our matches and very excited to be playing with Bala. A great start to the year. I think it’s a lot of months of hard work, a lot of consistent results in the Challengers, but just not able to play on Saturday. But, you know, it’s a great start to the year for us. And I think just onwards and upwards.

Sriram Balaji: Well, yeah, I mean, more than anything we enjoyed every minute we spent on the court this week. We were not even in the tournament. So, that’s what I told him before every match. Let’s just enjoy and give our best. We played free, without pressure and it worked out. We are happy also with the way we are playing now and we just have to climb on from here.

Q: You said that you were consistent last season too but couldn’t play as well today. And so, what is it that you wanted to have done today but you couldn’t?

Jeevan: I mean, I know it just came down to a few points. I think all the matches this week with the conditions in Pune, it comes down to one or two shots. I thought from a tactical point of view, they were smart with the chip, block returns they used it effectively. I thought all four players served well. So it wasn’t like any glaring, big difference in the match apart from that they probably made us play an extra shot here. In the end, that’s really important in Pune because of the altitude. And that’s what I mean about the conditions. And I say consistent – I think we did six or seven Challengers semifinals in a row. It’s one of those things with the points system in the Challengers, it’s not a lot of reward, but it’s still a lot of work to keep making a semifinal Challenger. We kept knocking on the door even last year. So, I’m not very surprised, to be honest, that we’re getting these results now because I know we belong at that level.

Q: There wasn’t much time between the last match and this match, and there was a vast difference in the conditions. How tough was it to quickly adjust to it? Do you think that sort of made the difference between winning and losing to some extent?

Sriram Balaji:  No, I don’t think so. I mean, we had enough time. We were done by 11:00 p.m. and then we went back to the hotel room, in the bed by 12:30 p.m. It was a 3:00 p.m. start the next day, not like a morning 10:00 a.m. So, we had enough time. We were here even before the all the staff were here in the morning. So, we had enough time to do our preparations. And the conditions, we knew about it. In the evenings the balls are not going to fly so much and we were ready for it.

Q: The start of the season has been pretty good. So, what are your targets for the next season?

Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan: It was unexpected, maybe for the others, but for us it was quite expected. We weren’t in the draw, but as far as the level of tennis, if that’s what we’re talking about, I’m not surprised with how well we’re playing. But of course, it’s a great opportunity to have played this event. And how significant is this?

Sriram Balaji: This is a very great start for us in the first week of the year. So, our real short-term goal is to play the French Open. So, we’re looking forward to making the cut for it. And we had a target of making so many points in a certain number of weeks. And this gives us a like a very good start. So, we have covered 150 points in one week. So the goal is to keep getting the points and climbing up the ladder and make the cut for French Open.

Q: Any goals ranking-wise this year or in the coming weeks?

Sriram Balaji: Yeah. Normally the Grand Slam cut off is like 150 combined. So, before the French deadline, I want us both to be inside 75. So that’s goal for the next three or four months.

Q: Did you feel any pressure playing against higher ranked opponents?

Sriram Balaji: I didn’t feel any pressure at all. Before every match, I just took it like another positive sign. We just played and we gave our full energy on court. We had a tactic; we had a plan and we did our best. And the crowd also supported us in yesterday’s match and today’s match. Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way today.

Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan: I think it helps to play with somebody you’ve known from childhood. The whole week it didn’t feel like much pressure or anything like that because there’s a lot of goals set up for the year. So, this is just like just another match. Today was a very different feeling that way. I think it was just a lot more fun on the court because I’m playing with somebody I’ve known from childhood.

Q: Thoughts on Sania Mirza retiring and any influence she has had on you?

Sriram Balaji: I mean, she’s one of the legends of Indian tennis. You always take all the positive things from all the seniors. It’s sad that she’s retiring, but she’s had an unbelievable career.

Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan: Yeah, we spent some time together in Dubai. She was very hospitable. She was kind enough to invite all of us who were at the camp to her home. It was a very surreal but nice experience spending time with her.

Q: In the off season you spent time in Dubai and played even during December. Do you think that it helped you this week?

Sriram Balaji: I mean even during the leagues; it was happening in the evening. So, we had a trainer together and we started a season during the league. So, we did our fitness during the leagues and once we went to Dubai, it was more tennis, you know, more than fitness, it was more tennis. So yeah, we’re happy that everything worked out well. We’d like to keep training going forward and hopefully stay fit.

Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan: Yeah, I think there was a lot of a lot of preparation in that month in December, because there were leagues planned, there was our own training that had to be done. There were ideas of going to Dubai that started floating in August or September last year. So, a lot of planning and thinking ahead that had to happen for how to maximize December not just on a tennis court, but taking care of a financial situation, to continue playing on the tour and also staying fit with training. It took it took a little bit of planning for sure, but I think the fact that we’ve come out looking as sharp as we did now, tells us that we did a lot of right things in December.

Q: In the second set, you had started egging the crowd on to cheer you, how does something like that help you mentally on court?

Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan: It helps us and it also puts pressure on them. Today especially I think maybe when they were four-three up with the break… I haven’t heard a crowd as loud as that at the start of that challenge. I think we made a challenge, and we got the challenge right. That was the loudest I’ve heard the stadium over here in Balewadi. And so, yeah, it helps us a lot. I think we were trying to find a way to get into their service game, but I think they finished that game with an ace also, so they served well. When it comes to return games in Pune, you’re going to get very few chances. And I think we showed that the entire week. I don’t think we got broken till today. So, we’ve been on that end of it. And today we were on the receiving end of getting broken. So, it’s a few points here and there. I don’t want to microanalyze what happened. I think we know what we’re doing on the returns, and I have to give credit to the way they served under pressure.

Q: How excited are you for the Challengers that will take place in India? Are you excited or do you feel any pressure considering how you have performed this week and the goal in your mind to make the cut for French Open?

Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan: That goal was there before this week also. So I’m excited that India has tournaments. That’s the bottom line. You know, that all of us Indians are going to get opportunities to do well. This is a great opportunity for us as well to play at home.

Q: Bala, you said you didn’t have much pressure coming into this match. Will this change going forward if you are in another situation like this now that there is an expectation on you after this week?

Sriram Balaji: No, this whole week, I was very calm, and I was taking it one match at a time. And I really enjoyed being on court, like I told Jeevan as well. I would like to have the same mentality in the future too. I don’t want to change anything. I want to have fun on the court, give everything I’ve got and then leave the rest.  

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