Upbeat Ramkumar Ramanathan hungry for silverware

Having won international tournaments at home, the star looks back at his journey; hopes to partner Rohan Bopanna at the Paris Olympics in his quest for glory

April 02, 2024 12:36 am | Updated 12:36 am IST

There have been quite a few international tennis tournaments at home in the first quarter of this season, especially for the men. Few capitalised on them the way Ramkumar Ramanathan did, with his exploits in both singles and doubles.

After winning the doubles titles in the first two Challengers in Chennai and Bengaluru with Saketh Myneni, the 29-year-old Ramkumar shone bright in the Pune Challenger, briefly though, by knocking out the champion of the Bengaluru event Stefano Napolitano of Italy.

Saketh Myneni and Ramkumar Ramanathan who won the doubles finals at the Chennai Open

Saketh Myneni and Ramkumar Ramanathan who won the doubles finals at the Chennai Open | Photo Credit: Ravindran R

Later, after helping his employer Indian Oil to a bunch of medals in individual and team events in the Petroleum inter-unit event, Ramkumar won the singles title in Delhi in the $25,000 ITF tournament and finished runner-up the next week in Chandigarh.

An amiable person with a cheerful smile, Ramkumar may have often been misunderstood, or as some may perceive, wrongly projected, but he opted to discuss a variety of topics, very frankly.

The Hangzhou Asian Games doubles silver with Myneni was a big morale-booster for Ramkumar, especially after all the criticism that he was chosen ahead of 10 better-ranked players
With child coach Chandrasekaran travelling with him for most of the tournaments, he says he feels at home
The Paris Olympics is round the corner and there are a few who believe Ramkumar will make the best partner for Bopanna

Momentum back

“I have enjoyed the pain and everything which comes with it, the wins and losses. I feel my fitness has picked up and my momentum is back with some good matches in the last six months. God willing, the best is yet to come,” said Ramkumar when congratulated for his good work.

Starting with the Davis Cup tie against Pakistan in Islamabad, followed by four Challengers, and two ITF events, it has been continuous tennis for many weeks. Ramkumar, who was ranked a career-best 111 in singles in 2018 and 58 in doubles in 2022, paced himself well to shine bright from start to finish.

“I am happy and have learnt a lot over these weeks. I had good wins along the way, and pushed myself to get some matches the last two weeks of singles. I feel that I can be there at the top again. I have been putting a lot of work back in Chennai. I have also been doing a lot of small things, like keeping a book and noting down points, reminding myself the way I want to approach every match. It helps me to stay in the present and be better on court. I am proud the way I competed all these eight weeks, irrespective of the results. I will keep working on the points to improve,” said Ramkumar.

The finish was strong. It could have been two singles titles, but Khumoyun Sultanov of Uzbekistan was able to beat Ramkumar in the final in Chandigarh in the second ITF tournament.

Never easy

“It is never easy to play a level down, after playing the Challengers. I knew that I would have tough matches, and prepared myself to fight for every single point, physically and mentally.

These two weeks were a fight for me. Just a bit disappointed about the result in the final against Sultanov. I had many break points, and 0-30 situation on opponent’s serve. Just could not capitalise. I have noted as to what I could have done better. I am happy that tennis is coming along on the right track. Obviously a lot of things to work for the next events,” said Ramkumar, as he put things in perspective.

Exhilarating experience

The Challengers, four of them in a row in Chennai, Bengaluru, Pune and Delhi, did provide a lot of cheer for Ramkumar. But before that was the exhilarating experience of the Davis Cup in Islamabad.

“It was a great idea to have the preparatory camp in Delhi for the Davis Cup, and get some rhythm on grass”, said Ramkumar, as he thanked the captain Rohit Rajpal, the coaches and the physios for their role in preparing the team nicely.

India’s Ramkumar Ramanathan during the Davis Cup 2024 tennis match between India and Pakistan.

India’s Ramkumar Ramanathan during the Davis Cup 2024 tennis match between India and Pakistan. | Photo Credit: FILE PHOTO

It was a thriller for Ramkumar against the old war horse, Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi. Ramkumar prevailed 6-7(3), 7-6(4), 6-0 in the first rubber in three sets. That set the tone for India’s 4-0 triumph in the Davis Cup tie in Pakistan.

However, at 3-4 and 15-40 in the second set, it was a tricky situation for Ramkumar and the Indian camp. Ramkumar fired 20 aces in the match and wriggled out of the tight corner for a memorable victory, converting four of six breakpoints to seal the rubber.

“I don’t think that I played a bad first set. But Aisam played clutch on first to win it in the tie-break. Our box was full of energy. I felt it and it helped me stay with him and keep it close. I am glad that I was able to turn it around and get that vital point for India. It was a nail biting match with so much of emotions. My dear friend Aisam played out of the world. All the Pakistan team members were extremely friendly. I was happy that tennis united us. Extremely happy that we won the tie on their soil. Was happy that I gave a chance for Niki Poonacha, to play the final rubber, as he is a great guy and has been doing well lately. I was glad that he got his first win. Sriram Balaji also played his part and of course, Yuki Bhambri and Saketh Myneni got us home safely with the doubles. Overall, a brilliant team effort,” said Ramkumar.

After the emotional high, it was back to the pro circuit and Ramkumar tuned himself for the competitive grind.

“As soon as I finished Davis Cup in Pakistan, I had to fly directly to Chennai for the singles match the next day. So, I prepared as much as I could, but couldn’t get the job done against my Spanish opponent Roca Batalla.

“We train at the same club in Barcelona. I was sad after singles. But I was happy that me and Saketh fought hard and won the doubles title. Was happy getting a couple of good wins in singles in the Bengaluru Challenger. Fought hard and the reward came. My level was good, and I had a chance in the quarterfinals. But, due to a few bad line calls, I lost the quarterfinals in a close match. Me and Sake won the doubles again, which was great. Got to Pune on Monday, and played a fantastic match against Stefano Napolitano, from being a set point down, I won the match in two tie-breaks. I lost to the Russian Alexey Zakharov in the second match, even though I played well. In doubles, me and Saketh lost the semifinals by playing a very average match, which we could have won,” said Ramkumar as he jogged through his memory.

The fourth Challenger in Delhi was hard to digest. “When I came to Delhi, the conditions were completely different. I was also a bit tired, and was struggling to adapt. So, I had a tough outing in Delhi, which is acceptable and no comments on that”, said Ramkumar.

Quite thoughtfully, Ramkumar thanked all tournament Directors, Hiten Joshi, Sunil Yajaman, Sunder Iyer, Richa Bakshi and the AITA Secretary General, Anil Dhupar, for giving him the singles wild cards “with no questions asked”.

Ramkumar assured that he would continue to focus on his singles game and keep getting better.

“I have proved myself doing well in singles. The focus will remain on singles and doubles. I love competing. I know the road ahead is not easy, but it is possible and I believe in myself, which is the most important thing. I will put in the work and leave the rest to the Almighty,” he said.

The Asian Games doubles silver medal with Saketh Myneni in Hangzhou was a big morale-booster for Ramkumar, especially after all the criticism that he was chosen ahead of 10 better-ranked players.

“I want to thank God for making me achieve what I did in the Asian Games. I played a good singles match also, but lost to the eventual runner-up Yosuke Watanuki, in a close three-setter. I was very happy that I got the chance to play doubles and even more happy to win the medal. I believe that everything happens for a reason. I was there because I deserved to be there. I am ok with criticism. The selection was made by the committee and not me. In the past, I was higher ranked than others and was excluded. I was hurt then, but respected the decision of the committee. So, I was a bit sad, and didn’t like it, to see other players questioning my selection in the media. It is in the past now. Me and Sake played well. We got better with each match. I have the medal. It could have been gold and it could have been no medal also,” he said.

Best partner

The Olympics in Paris is around the corner. There are a few who believe that Ramkumar will make the best partner for Rohan Bopanna for a shot at the medal.

“Bops is a phenomenal player. He is a great example for all of us, especially the way he became World No. 1 at 43. I am happy that I won two of my biggest titles with Bops. I will cherish them all my life. I have so much respect for him. I will be happy to play Olympics with Bops, and we could be very dangerous together as a pair, as we have 100% record in ATP events. And I am feeling good with my tennis. I am sure Bops will agree on this! Jokes apart, it is Bops’ decision on who he has the best shot with at the Olympics. Always wish him well regardless of his choice,” said Ramkumar.

With his child coach T. Chandrasekaran travelling for most of his tournaments in the recent spell, Ramkumar was quite at home, competing at his best.

“I am grateful to have Chandra sir these weeks for the Indian stretch. I am grateful for his continuing contribution to my tennis career. He has been extremely supportive. He keeps making me believe that I can get into the top-100 in singles, and keeps motivating me from his heart. He is one of the main reason for me playing tennis and has made a huge contribution to my career,” said Ramkumar.

For the last two tournaments in Delhi and Chandigarh, Ramkumar had his mother Alagammal and father Ramanathan, taking turns to be with him.

“Mom surprised me by coming to Delhi. It worked out well. She was my lucky charm and the singles title in Delhi will be special as I won the tournament in front of her. She should come more often. I am grateful and thankful to God that I made her proud,” said Ramkumar.

He is quite used to having his father around in events. “My dad was enjoying his time in Chandigarh. I gave him a few heart attacks on way to the finals! But, had another positive week. It was tough mentally for me as I was physically a little drained. I pushed myself to the limit and competed well. I was happy to hear my dad say, ‘Ram you are playing well.’ Very rarely he says that but he meant it. Without my dad, I wouldn’t be travelling the world and playing tennis. From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank my Appa and Amma for putting me in the sport, through a lot of struggles and sacrifices, in the early days. I still remember, Appa taking me in a scooter for fitness at 6 a.m. and then to tennis every day. My sister Uma is also extremely supportive,” said Ramkumar.

It has been a fascinating journey and Ramkumar is keen and energetic to add many more lively chapters to his tennis career.

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