“I hate to be playing in a Challenger and see a team ranked lower than us playing in the Grand Slam” – Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan on their path via alternate to stun French Open finalists!

Indian pairing of Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan and Sriram Balaji scored one of the biggest upsets of the Australian Open today as they defeated French Open finalist Ivan Dodig and Austin Krajicek in the opening round of the Mens Doubles draw.

[R1] N. Shriram Balaji (IND) / Jeevan Neduncheziyan (IND) d. (5) Ivan Dodig (CRO) / Austin Krajiceck (USA) 76(6) 26 64

ITD Member Balaram Dhulipala caught up with the team after their stupendous win. 

How did the pairing between both of you come about?

Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan: 

Balaji and I are childhood friends. We met first at the Nike Juniors Masters – Balaji had won the 12&U and I won the 14&U. We had travelled to South Africa together for this tourney and that was the first time that we met. 

Balaji came across as a quiet and in his shell kind of person. During the players party, they started playing some music and suddenly this 12 year old kid took off his jacket and started spinning it like anything. That left a lasting impression on me – this kid has definitely got some personality!!!

Our careers then took off in different directions. I went to US NCAA College Tennis and Sriram Balaji went to the Alexander Waske Tennis University in Germany. We stayed in touch while we focused on our individual careers. We focused on singles for some time – I was into singles till 2016 while Sriram Balaji till about 2018. We were both good in doubles and so it was always the plan for us to shift focus at some point in our career. 

Sriram Balaji: 

We were playing with different partners. Last April when I was injured, we connected and decided to play together after I returned to the circuit. 

We stayed professional about it even though we lost a lot of the initial tourneys in R1. We were very happy back then when we made a Challenger semis. We never lost belief and we knew that it was a matter of sticking together and keeping at it.  

Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan:

It has been a lifelong friendship for us and we are so grateful for this relationship. 

You were far out from the main draw. What was the thought process to travel to Australia and wait it out which ultimately created this opportunity? 

Sriram Balaji: 

I had actually flown down to Europe. Then Jeevan messaged and recommended that we try our luck and so I flew down. 

Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan: 

I came in last Thursday and have been here for 8 days now. Balaji came in on Sunday and we had our first hit on Monday. So the reasons from my perspective. 

  1. You have to try to take advantage of being in a Grand Slam. 

One thing I told Sriram Balaji was that I hate to be playing in a Challenger and see a team ranked lower than us playing in the Grand Slam. You have to be cognizant of the opportunities that might come up. 

  1. Sriram Balaji has never been to the Australian Open

I have been fortunate to be here a couple of years ago. Whatever we do – we will understand how this Tourney is set up (the locker rooms, practice schedules and so on). I remember doing the same thing at the Australian Open in 2017 where Rohan and I had won the ATP Chennai Open but I could not make it to the main draw as alternates that time. 

Of course it is a tough trip financially but we made some money in Pune and we keep investing our money back into Tennis which is what separates us as Tennis players.  This is reaping the benefit for doing this in a very professional manner. 

Sriram Balaji: 

I actually went to Frankfurt as I had to renew my German Residence Permit. So I went to Frankfurt and came back to Australia. Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan is the planner amongst us – I just followed his instructions and it worked!

When did you realise that you got in?

Sriram Balaji:

I was actually checking for return flights yesterday night and was about to make the reservation when I noticed on TV that Mackenzie McDonald was taking a medical timeout. So with this – we decided to wait and see how it pans out. 

Then we got the call from the Tourney Manager about us getting in and so we knew the night before. 

Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan:

We are hoping that M McDonald recovers soon. He has had a fantastic run so far, beating Nadal in a Grand Slam is a big thing and I hope he recovers soon. 

What was the game plan coming into the match?

Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan:

Sania and Rohan really helped out. They were sitting around cheering us throughout the match. Austin Krajicek was my partner in ATP Chengdu where we lost the final to Ivan Dodig, so we knew each other’s game styles. 

At this level – it is all about the guts. You need to believe that you belong at this level and the atmosphere. I think this is what is helping us now as we both truly believe that we belong at this level now. 

How do you review the match and what were some of the key points which made the difference?

Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan:

We were 1-2 0-40 and serving in the 3rd set but managed to hold on which proved to be the big difference. In the first set, there was nothing much separating us, we just played better in the crucial tie breaker while they were the better team in the 2nd set.  

That was the last game before the new balls and it is always the toughest to hold – so once we held that service game, it almost was like a fresh start with the new balls. 

On Mithun Murali, their coach for this tourney

Mithun is our childhood friend from Coimbatore who is based in Sydney now and is coaching there. So having someone like him being there with us makes a huge difference. 

On Torgun Smith

Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan: I also have to thank Torgun Smith – He has been helping me in my career for a long time. I actually had a phone call with him after Pune and he mentioned that you guys got in as alternates and reached the finals. I had told him that we are 4 out of a 64 team draw for the Australian Open and he did the math and pushed us to travel. We ended up being 5 out and this was the last slot with the 32nd match being played. So much gratitude to him for pushing us – he runs a lot of Tennis centres and heads the Player Development in the Island of Guam. A player needs smart and strong voices like him and I am thankful for his guidance. 

Coach Mithun Murali on Jeevan/Bala

I have been with Balaji / Jeevan for the past two years at their ATP Maharashtra Open matches and doing pre-season with them. One could see that the level was almost there to match the top guys. It was a matter of playing for sometime together on the tour and gaining that exposure. Their game is at the highest level now and it looks pretty consistent to me. 

Photos from the match

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