“He’s got a nice circle around him which is really helping him mature, grow, and get better.” – Somdev Devvarman on Sumit Nagal

Somdev Devvarman spoke to the media on Sumit Nagal’s performance at the Chennai Open, his goals going forward, the state of Indian tennis, and on Sania’s achievements in the post-match interview after Sumit Nagal’s semifinal loss to Nicolas Moreno De Alboran [4-6, 2-6] at the Chennai Open ATP Challenger 2023. The following are a few excerpts from the same.

Q) Thoughts on Sumit’s week?

It’s been a good week overall. When you’re coming back from an injury, you need to put together a week, and need to put together matches. And overall, I would say much more positives than negatives. That’s the most important thing. The rebuilding process has begun and hopefully we will be around for long. 

Q) Are you planning on traveling further with him?

Not as much. We have got a team put together in Europe. So, when he is in Europe the other guys will take the responsibility, maybe Asia or America I can step in. That’s the general plan. But again, it just kind of depends on his ranking and how fast he gets to where we want to be.

Q) After a match like that, with some calls, just finishing on the wrong side of a few points. What do you tell Sumit? 

It’s not about the close calls. Very few times it is about the close calls. It’s about a lot of other things. Could he have done things better at first game breakpoint ? Could we have done things better once he broke in the first set 3-2. So, it never comes down to one or two things, it always comes down to a bigger picture, especially with him. We have to stay focused on his identity, how he wants to be a tennis court, and pushing, as hard as he can, to figure out what his limits are. Right now, we’re not there yet but it’s a work in progress.

Q) What other aspects of his game you thought were most impressive during this week?

The obvious stuff is the obvious stuff. Anybody who’s watching, can tell you that his forehand is the weapon in his game. It’s not a secret. The forehand is great obviously, the athleticism. This week in general, I feel like mentally he was really good, which is obviously an aspect of his game that we’ve spent a lot of time on. A lot of discussions on pushing him in those aspects. While this week was positive, I would still say, at least in my eyes, there’s so much room for improvement. Those are the things that he as a player needs to focus on. 

Q) Did you feel he had a good chance today, especially in the first set? 

Of course. When you play a high quality match and you lose serve two- three times in one set. That is not going to be good enough, but he did break twice. And usually breaking twice is good enough in men’s professional tennis to win a set. So, I mean, there’s many different ways you can analyze the match, but did he have a chance? Of course,  he had a chance. He just needs to improve. 

Q) Your personalities are quite different, do you think that aids Sumit especially at times when he is slightly frustrated on court if things are not going his way?  

Maybe. I’ve got to go to ask him, I guess. It’s not one of those things that he needs to rely on. I think the goal for me, at least as a coach, is to get him to realize the things that are going to help him in his work process of becoming a better tennis player. Because I won’t be around everyday and then what happens? So, as a tennis player, it’s important to be a good problem solver, especially for a guy like him. And in order to solve a problem, you need to have a cool head. You are more likely to solve a problem when you are calm than when you are frustrated. So he understands that. We’ve had discussions about it and it’s a part of his game that we’re working very hard on. But yeah, we are opposite in many ways. We are similar in many ways too, but that’s with any two people. Any good coach out there that is working with a good player, they’re not going to be saying the same things or seeing the game the same way. They’re not going to be seeing the same patterns on the court or how you want to structure points or how you want to play in certain situations. So obviously, I’m learning a lot from him on many things. He’s obviously learning a lot from me. But, in the long run, the point is for him to be able to figure and use whatever advice, guidance that we give him. And when he’s on the court to be able figure it out himself and I think he’ll get there. 

Q) So you mentioned that a player needs to be a problem solver. So, with the advent of on-court coaching, what kind of role can coaches play on court in helping solve that problem? 

I mean, to be honest, I hate it. I absolutely hate it. I hate on-court coaching. At the same time, now that it is allowed and the other guys are having that advice, you know that you can make a 2% or 5% or 10% difference in things that you’re seeing that maybe the player is not. You have to take advantage of it. You have to. A lot of times, I don’t want to, but then I realized that that’s gonna help you get over the line. Then we try and solve tomorrow’s problems tomorrow, you know? But I don’t like it. 

The reason I don’t like it is that a lot of times it’s not an even playing field. For example, this time when Jason Jung was out there. I was out there helping Sumit solve a problem and Jung had a physio. It’s not fair and what’s worse, especially at this level is that guys can’t afford traveling with the coaches all the time. Obviously it’s a luxury for him because he won’t have this luxury maybe when he’s in South America or somewhere else. Obviously, we’re home now. So that’s the advantage. But also I really fear what is going to do for junior tennis? 

I already think that junior tennis, there’s a lot of drama happening to say the least. And now with coaches being allowed to coach, and God knows what the parents are going to be doing. The stress levels will be high for all involved and the kid won’t know who to look to, where to talk and then imagine getting bad advice. It can be counterproductive too. I understand why they’ve done it. I just hate it. I really do. I don’t like a single part of on court coaching, but now it is a part of my job. I’ve just got to suck it up and do what’s best for the player in the moment to win the match. 

Q) What are your targets for the rest of the home challengers?

I mean, it’s just one match at a time, honestly. I’ve never looked at tennis anything past that. Especially now when he’s not had too many deep runs into tournaments. I think one nice thing would be if he can raise his ranking enough so he doesn’t have to play that many Futures. We started out outside 500, he is probably going to be close to 400 now. If we can get to a little bit more, I think, in the next couple weeks that would be ideal. So that he’s out of the proper grind. I mean it’s tough over there. I think that would be the first goal, but I think we’re closer to that. 

The reason we’re out here is because we believe we can be world-class tennis players playing at world-class tournaments against the best players in the world. That’s the only reason I’m coaching him because he believes that. So, our goal is obviously to get back and play Slam qualies as soon as possible. And then see where you stand. You know, you want to be playing the biggest courts in the world against the best players in the world. That’s how I see it. It’s not so much about collecting 10 points, and 20 points. I don’t see it that way, especially when you have the quality to be able to win or contest for challengers against good players. I do think it’s one step at a time. Obviously, the larger picture is to stay injury free. And then week by week, just do the right things, become a better player, learn how to play in different circumstances, in different situations and learn how to play better when you’re tired. He has had five matches over here, but if he is going to want to be inside of the top 100, he is going to have to learn how to deal with matches like this. Without sounding pessimistic, I do want to say that this week has been really nice. It’s been refreshing from start to finish, you know, with the drama surrounding who got into the tournament and who didn’t. I think he’s done a really good job focusing on what he needs to focus on. It is important for him to realize that. Because it is important for him to realize which fight is worth fighting. 

Q) We all saw the reactions for the wild cards, do you try to dial that down a bit for him?

No, It is what it is. There’s a saying in tennis – you control what you can control. Who decides what is not in your control. So, your control is to go out the next day, practice hard and give your best.  Try and improve to put yourself in a position to win. And if you put yourself in a position to win enough times, then hopefully good things happen. If you have put in the work, you’ve done the hard yards, which I think he has. So it’s nothing. Honestly, if he didn’t get a wild-card for three weeks, it wouldn’t bother me. It wouldn’t bother me because our job is still to go out there and win matches. Whether it’s a guy ranked 300, 500, 200 or 100. Our approach is still going to be meticulous. It’s still going to be focus-driven and figuring out how to win the next match. It’s always one match at a time, it’s always one point at a time. It’s definitely not about figuring out who’s supporting who, or what and who makes these decisions or why they make these decisions. It is none of our concern.

Q) How has the coaching experience been for you? How different is tennis and the joy of it for you now as a coach as opposed to a player. 

I have always believed in working with a team of people. There’s a lot of people that put a lot of work into it, put a lot of time into it. When you are in top position, certain things need to click and it doesn’t happen automatically. You have to put work into it. And so, that’s how I look at my career. With him, I think it’s similar. He’s got a nice circle around him which is really helping him mature, grow, and get better. And when he wins, he knows all of us are involved and all of us are happy. And when he loses, he knows that I’m upset. Because I believe that he’s got more in him. Now it’s time for him to see. Even though it is an individual sport, in many ways it’s not. 

Q) You have been an observer in the past, generally speaking, about men’s singles tennis in India. Not the greatest of times in the last two- three months, no one qualified for this Slam qualies, relegated to Davis Cup World Group 2. What are your thoughts on that?

Proof lies in the pudding. We don’t work on developing players then how are they going to develop? We’re waiting for the next guy to go to college for four years and get better. I mean not a joke. So we have put in bare minimum efforts into development. It’s a fact, it’s not an opinion. The fact that there’s a National Training Center and none of the best players in the country want to go there would tell you why. Why would I want to go there if I was one of the best players in the country? For what? For free tennis balls? I’m okay, I can afford my own tennis balls. If I was the best player in the country, I would want to go to a place where I believe that people have the experience, the intention and the motivation to make me better. So, we put in minimal, zero work into player development. Even Manas Dhamne who is now doing well is somewhere in Italy. Thank God. Because every time somebody’s around here, you’re like ‘there’s three months gone’. That’s a problem, because how long are we going to send players to Italy and Spain and Germany and America? And we have no development program whatsoever.

While these tournaments are great. If I was a player I would love to play these tournaments. If you want to be one of the best players in the world, you’ve still got to make your points and beat the best players in the world everywhere else. I mean, we play a truly global sport. We play 35 weeks a year. You can’t afford to play 35 times in India, you know. So we have to work on development and we don’t. 

What else is there to say? You know, players that have come in the last 15, 20, 25 years, no one’s come because of a state federation. Maybe Ram. But, he has also spent a lot of time in Spain. Sure, he got funded by people who were close to the federation. But very few others. Sumit has been through private ways when Mahesh picked him up as a kid.  It’s not about facilities any more. Facilities are not what makes the player, it’s about work and you don’t have anyone to tell you the right way to work here. Why are we not training our 16 year olds with the right intensity? It’s not rocket science, it’s just mismanaged.

Q) Why do you think there is no action according to you?

Because what accountability do they have? People like me are not in the system. And I don’t want to be sitting on a table either. We are motivated by very different things. They are the ones in power. So, the only way for this to really work is privately. I would expect TNTA to do something at least. They can, and they will, their hearts are in the right place at least. But AITA… I don’t think much can change.

Let’s be honest, we are a cricket nation. We have done fantastic things there. But, you don’t need the association to play tennis. I figured that out pretty quickly. You don’t want to pick me for the Davis Cup when I’m 80 in the world? You look stupid, not me. That’s what I’m trying to get through to these guys as well. It’s ridiculous, but there is zero accountability like you have to understand.

Q) Considering all the problems that, you know, if just listed are you surprised by what Sania’s done?

We all did it together, man. We joked about it together. It’s reached a point where we now laugh.

But, again Sania also realized very quickly that if you rely on somebody else for your success, that’s a bad formula. Anybody who succeeds in tennis in India, realizes very quickly that hey, get the help that you can but don’t rely on them. You know, it’s a big difference. So, I mean with Sania, she figured this out when she was 12. That’s the difference. She was a phenom. Crazy good at what she does, determination and self-belief. She was always going to succeed. There was no way Sania was not going to be successful with that kind of mindset. 

Photos by Srividya Balayogi

Somdev Devvarman at the Chennai Open ATP Challenger 2023

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