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Ramkumar Ramanathan

Ramkumar Ramanathan was trending on twitter the whole of last weekend. The 23-year-old from Tamil Nadu had become the first Indian in seven years to reach the final of an ATP event. Even as he was showered with glowing praises, the disappointment of fumbling at the final hurdle was not to be missed in his voice. Still, it was one of the best weeks he has had in his career, one that has catapulted him towards bigger goals.

His appearance in the final has elevated him 46 places to 115th in the ATP rankings, putting him on the cusp of breaking into the top-100. At present, Yuki Bhambri is the only Indian in the top-100, at 86th place. Ramkumar’s ascent has only brightened the hopes of the Indian tennis fraternity. Since last week, India’s No 2 has enjoyed the spotlight, which is usually reserved for select tennis professionals from India.

“It was a very positive week for me. I gave my best for every point and fought hard. I was really happy to be a finalist in such a prestigious event. Of, course, a win would have been better but still I gave it my best shot,” Ramkumar told DH from Atlanta, where he has been training.

“I stayed focused and I am happy to have some good matches under my belt at Newport. I did take a couple of days off and came early to Newport. All matches were really close but I found my groove and with every match, my confidence kept going up. 

“It was an amazing feeling, nothing can buy these moments. I just felt great and enjoyed the moment as I feel it was a result of all the hard work which has gone through and these memories will stay always.”

Ramkumar, or Ram as he is affectionately called, is counted among the best tennis talents coming from the Indian circuit. He was introduced to tennis by his father Ramanathan Kumarappan, who is a keen follower of the sport. Kumarappan recalls that when he took a five-year-old Ramkumar to a nearby tennis court, he was quick to hit the ball from the centre of the racquet. “So, by the time he was 8-9, I took him to YMCA Triangle Trust for more advanced coaching,” said Kumarappan, who runs a textile business in Chennai with wife Alagammai.

Ramkumar’s early steps on the tennis court were charted by T Chandrasekaran, former national coach. “Whatever I instructed he picked up pretty quickly. He was very receptive, very keen and sharp in learning. I remember telling his father that he is quite promising,” said Chandrasekaran, who has also worked in the National Tennis Academy in New Delhi and the Britannia Amritraj Trust (BAT) in Chennai. Ramkumar continues to be in touch with his childhood coach despite moving to Barcelona at age 14 to train at the Sanchez-Casal Academy.

Chandrasekaran worked on his technique during his formative years and encouraged him to build that big forehand. “We also worked on his serve, which has got quite better now. It is very important to develop a weapon. He gained height which worked for him. He has all the resources to be a top player. In fact, when he first went to the academy in Barcelona, Emilio Sanchez (former Spanish player) said his technique was perfectly fine and there was nothing that needed to be changed. So he now needs to work on that. He has everything to be in the top bracket,” he said.

The travails of Indian tennis players are well documented. Ramkumar, too, has had his share, but his father acknowledges the support they received. “Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA) came forward to help us with his training in Barcelona when he was just 14. After 17, he was helped by the academy in Barcelona and also by the prize money he earned. We pitched in when needed. It was not easy for a south Indian boy to be away from for such long durations. But Ram has been very diligent throughout,” Kumarappan said.

“He remains the same, but as a player, he has been maturing. He used to get quite impatient, angry earlier, but of late he has been more calm and composed. It showed in the way he played in Newport.”

The affable Chennai player was as much popular on the Indian circuit for his big game as for religiously touching the lines on the court with his racquet during a match. “He is very superstitious,” laughed his father and continued, “But he has cut down all of that.”

Ramkumar first caught the eye when he qualified for the main draw of the 2014 Chennai Open and beat then India No 1 Somdev Devvarman in the first round. After fighting through the Futures and Challengers, he made the quarterfinals of the Chennai Open in 2016. It was his first quarterfinal in an ATP World Tour event and in 2017, he posted his first top-10 victory when he defeated world No 8 and top seed Dominic Thiem in the second round Antalya Open in straight sets. Since then, it has been a see-saw run for him.

‘Evolved player’

Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali, who has seen Ramkumar from close quarters, believed his run to the final would give Ramkumar the much-needed confidence.

“He has been sitting on the fence for quite some time. Somehow, he was not able to break into the top-100, but a week like in Newport will help in terms of confidence because it is not just one big player he has beaten -- he has had four really good matches where he has beaten players ranked higher than him. I hope he is going to carry it forward,” Zeeshan said.

“He has evolved as player over the years. Earlier, he would hesitate to come to net, now he is serving and volleying even on hard courts. He is not a natural serve and volleyer, but he has developed the confidence needed. Also, I found he was always aggressive when playing in India, but that has now changed.”

Zeeshan believed he should have entered the top-100 much earlier. “I feel he should have broken into top 100 five years ago. But maybe it was not meant to be. But if at 23, he is able to put everything together, it is great. He has the potential. Anyways, Indians tend to mature later -- if you see Vijay Amritraj, or Mahesh Bhupathi, or Somdev Devvarman, or Rohan, they all peaked in the late 20s. So there is no reason why Ramkumar can’t make it.”

For now, Ramkumar is looking forward to playing in as many top events as possible. “I just think that I have to keep putting in the work and stay very professional and focused on my routines which is the key. I hope I can stay healthy throughout the season and try to play as many big events as possible and compete hard for every match, results will come.”

The youngster will be playing in the Asian Games in August and hopes to return with medals. “It will be great to be part of the Asian Games. I really hope we can win medals for our country.”

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