Tennis: Two-time National champion at 18, Chennai’s Ramkumar Ramanathan seems all set to make an impact in the international circuit

“Remember his name, this kid from India will make the news one day,” tweeted Emilio Sanchez, the former top-ten player and founder of the elite Sanchez-Casal Tennis Academy in Barcelona, where Andy Murray and Svetlana Kuznetsova trained when they were young. “Indian star learning [the] Spanish system will succeed on Tour.”

The “kid” Sanchez referred to, last July, is 18-year-old Ramkumar Ramanathan, curly-haired, reed-thin, and — when he manages the time — a student of Economics at Loyola. Ramkumar has a way to go before he begins living up to Sanchez’s words, but the early signs are very promising. A two-time junior National champion, he recently won his first major senior title — the National grass-court championship in Kolkata.

While the tournament is no longer India’s premier tennis event, it retains a certain nostalgic appeal and remains difficult to win for young, upcoming players. For, it draws canny veterans who are familiar with the South Club’s grass courts and use this knowledge to outmanoeuvre less-experienced players.

Indeed Ramkumar has had little game-time on grass, a fast, tricky surface that needs quick adaptation. He has played intermittently on the artificial grass courts at Sanchez-Casal, but they haven’t the inconsistent, skiddy bounce that makes natural grass so difficult to adjust to.

“It was tough getting used to because I don’t play often on it,” says Ramkumar. “I just wanted to focus on the basics and play free tennis. I wasn’t really worried about the results. I knew that if I played solid on any surface, I’d do well. And I gradually improved over the tournament, I started serving better, I constructed points better, mixed it up, and I was feeling good by the end of the tournament. My confidence is really good now. It was great to win where so many great players have won in the past. It felt historic.”

The professional game being what it is, Ramkumar has had little time to dwell on his achievement. He has three ITF Futures tournaments to play, in Chennai, Madurai, and Tiruchi, before he returns to Sanchez-Casal for another spell. It’s to his training in Barcelona that he attributes his rapid development.

“I’m grateful to all the coaches at Sanchez, and to the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA) who make this possible,” he says. “It’s very physical, the training, a lot of running, the fitness sessions are really tough, and you focus on the basics every day. The exposure and experience of playing against people from around the world has really helped. You see the top players train; you know what you have to do.”

What does a typical day at Sanchez-Casal involve? “I work with my coach Joan Balcells for about four hours every day, hitting a lot of balls and doing various drills. The coaches keep pushing us just that little bit more every session, you don’t really realise it, but you are always doing a little more. Each box has about 250 to 300 balls, and we finish about four or five of them. There’s an order in which the training progresses. It’s all about the basics, movement, constructing a point. It’s a lot of hard work.”

But for all his time in Barcelona — more than a year, spread across various stints, since 2010 — Ramkumar might have stagnated had he not maintained a similar regimen here in Chennai. This he did by training at the Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium and Triangular Tennis Trust, and fitting in fitness sessions at MCC, Maverick Gym, and TTT.

“Sanchez sends me a schedule of fitness, they monitor me from there,” says Ramkumar. “Chandra sir (coach Tyagarajan Chandrasekaran) has helped me a lot, he is very supportive. Rajiv (Naidu) sir is working with me as well at the Stadium where Tamil Nadu players train. The intensity of practice is very important. You must focus on improving in every session, if you miss even one, it’s very tough to keep up.”

Currently ranked in the world’s top 800, Ramkumar aims for a top-300, year-end finish. It’s a stretch — but entirely in keeping with his nature to extend himself beyond what is commonly thought possible.