September 25, 2009

Tussle with history

Open magazine carries an article I wrote about the prospects for Somdev Devvarman, the new Indian tennis star: Somdev's Tussle with History, they called it.

I'm appending below the version I sent to them -- it's pretty much the same except that Open added a few lines to bring in a little more "optimism" about Somdev.

Comments welcome.


Writing on the Wall

One had played a Wimbledon final. He lost, but his massive serve and solid volleys made him a feared opponent among the pros. The other was short and compact, speeding around the court, smooth strokes pinging off his racket. He would soon win the biggest prize in US collegiate tennis -- the NCAA singles title -- and turn pro.

Kevin Curren, the Wimbledon finalist. Steve Bryan, the NCAA winner. Practicing together on a University of Texas court in Austin, sometime in 1990. Nobody else around but me, watching from immediately above one end of the court. An enthralling enough spectacle that I went often to watch them rally, once or twice even prompting quick smiles of recognition.

Tennis is a sport in which watching it on TV has zero to do with watching it close-up. Even just practicing, these two slammed the ball with power and precision that took my breath away. Executed just below my nose, Curren's monster serve seemed like it would need to be returned from somewhere near Siberia. Yet little Bryan blasted it back with interest, often enough wrong-footing the taller man as he closed in on the net.

Now I play tennis, and in those days I played a lot on that very court. It is one of my lifelong regrets that I never asked either Bryan or Curren to hit with me. Perhaps I was intimidated by their skill. Yet I had played many times with friends who had been on American college teams. I didn't embarrass myself. OK, they were not in Bryan's league. Still, I should have asked. If watching them did things for my game, what would practicing with them have done?

If you follow tennis, you probably remember Curren. He had a barnstorming run to the Wimbledon '85 final, blowing away John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors before turning into one of the game's many footnotes: whom did Boris Becker beat for his first Wimbledon title?

In 1979, Curren had himself won the NCAA title that Bryan would win in 1990. Yet even a tennis fan would probably ask, "Bryan who?" He did turn pro after that NCAA triumph, but did very little at the senior level.

Maybe there's a lesson there for Indian fans, looking at Somdev Devvarman as the next great hope for Indian tennis. For Devvarman is a NCAA titlist too, and twice in a row (2007/8). In fact, Devvarman might even have made it three in a row -- he was the beaten finalist in 2006. American collegiate tennis is intensely competitive, so this record speaks of a seriously talented player. And if that's not enough, there's his recent stirring Davis Cup wins over the best South Africa has to offer; the second match, a victory over Rik de Voest from two sets and a service break down.

Yet the million dollar question: How far will he go in the pros?

If history is any indication, not very far. That's the lesson, a sobering one. The great majority of NCAA champions don't do much in the pros. The last to even reach a Grand Slam final was Mikael Pernfors, who was also the last before Devvarman to win back-to-back NCAA titles (1984/5). In 1986, Pernfors rode his heavy topspin strokes and bounding court coverage all the way to the French Open final, where a certain Ivan Lendl hammered him. John McEnroe, top of the NCAA heap in 1978, remains the last collegiate champion to win a Slam.

Since then, NCAA winners have been less tennis forces than footnotes like Curren. Yet before McEnroe, the NCAA winners' list has illustrious names like Connors, Ashe, Smith and Trabert, all Slam champs. What happened after the late 1970s, and what does that mean for Devvarman?

My feeling is, the game of professional tennis has moved on and up, to another level completely. The premium on fitness and power means that the really talented players turn pro as soon as their bodies mature. If they want a successful pro career, they're better off skipping college altogether, instead of wasting their most athletic years chasing a degree. So if American collegiate tennis remains fiercely competitive, it really isn't a springboard for success in the pros.

Thus none of the recent generation of Slam-winning American superstars -- Chang, Courier, Agassi, Sampras and Roddick -- even enrolled in college. McEnroe? After winning the NCAA tournament as a Stanford freshman, he dropped out to turn pro. Becker was 17 when he defeated Curren for that Wimbledon title: not only did he not attend college, he did not even complete high school.

All these champions made marks in the pro ranks by their late teens.

In contrast, Devvarman's four years at the University of Virginia means he is already 24, a year into his pro career. These days, that is positively middle-aged in tennis terms. McEnroe won the last of his 7 Slams at 25. Roger Federer had won 6 Slams by the time he was 24. Rafael Nadal, winner of 6 Slams, is a year-and-a-half younger -- younger! -- than Devvarman.

The writing is clear: the pro ranks are filled with powerful teenagers and early twenty-somethings who will steamroll even NCAA champions.

So what can an Indian tennis fan expect from Devvarman? From what I know of him, he has a solid all-court game and a refreshingly positive attitude: "I belong with the big boys", he said from this year's US Open. That will make him one of the dangerous floaters who lurks in the early rounds of the Slams -- the men who will pull off a stunning upset or two, whom the stars remain wary of, but who don't have the game to go several rounds. His ATP ranking will probably peak at about 75. He may find more success playing doubles, where teamwork rather than individual brilliance wins you matches. He will also do well in the Davis Cup, where the charge of playing for team and country often lifts players to spectacular feats.

In short, we can expect what previous Indian tennis stars have given us -- Paes, Bhupathi, Amritraj, Krishnan junior. When Devvarman enters a Slam, we'll rejoice in his first-round victory, like the straight-sets pasting he administered to Federico Gil in New York. Then we'll mourn the second-round loss with its moments of flair, like his four-set battle with Philip Kohlschreiber in which Devvarman raced through one set 6-0, but lost the other three. After that, he'll play Davis Cup and dazzle us with hard-fought, inspiring triumphs.

That is, the roller-coaster of the last few weeks might just be a microcosm of Devvarman's professional career. Believe me, I hope I am wrong, that someone will find me and rub my face in this article when Devvarman pulls off a Wimbledon championship.

But I don't think so.

After Bryan won his NCAA title in 1990, he was interviewed by Sports Illustrated. SI described him as a "mentally tough and terribly earnest" young man who had won the final "with a blazing demonstration of cunning and consistency." Now of course I had only seen him practicing. Yet those words fit the man I knew from that Austin court. Even just trading blows with Curren, he was muscular, clever and precise in his shot-making. And on the verge of turning pro, Bryan told the magazine: "I can see myself in the Top 30."

Realistic, you might think. The guy knows he won't make it to #1, but a top-30 player can still have a solid and lucrative career. Nothing to sneer at.

Reality bites. In 1994, Steve Bryan reached his highest ranking as a pro: 80. Three years later, still only 27, he read the writing and retired.

Me, I still nurse the hope that I'll run into him one day, remind him of those sessions with Curren, and get out on the court to hit with him. Hey, I want to measure myself against a cunning and consistent NCAA champion.


Captain Nemo said...

loved your article

Kavi said...

I thought so too, while i wished (continue to ) for something better !

The stats...well, they say something. Dont they !

Anonymous said...

As I have mentioned earlier DDD pieces make for very good reading if he doesn't pontificate with his prejudices.

B said...

a more interesting wimbledon finals trivia is this: in the '85 championship the junior champion was older than the senior champion. Who?

I liked your article, it reminds me of David foster Wallace's piece on Michael T. Joyce. ( Its thematically similar but with one difference. He thinks being a #80 player is a huge achievement. A #80 in the world in anything is a huge achievement and so he thinks highly of him despite him being a "failure". The difference is that since he thinks highly of a #80 he does not want to ask for hitting practice. In fact, he turned it down when offered.

Suresh said...

You're right, of course. We can see the same trend in cricket. At one time, the inter-university cricket tournament for the Rohinton Baria trophy was played for by the likes of Sunil Gavaskar. Indeed, the (combined) Indian Universities team used to get a game against many touring teams.

Flash forward: I doubt any member of the current Indian team has played for a university team though at least some have university degrees obtained through correspondence courses. And I don't think many cricket followers nowadays even know about the Rohinton Baria trophy. [Who is or was Rohinton Baria, incidentally? Anyone know?]

Regarding Somdev, I have two points:

1. Would Somdev have done better had he focused more on tennis and less on acquiring a college degree? May be, may be not. We should remember that for every Becker, McEnroe, Federer and the Williams sisters,there are many obscure ones who also skipped college or school but didn't find similar success. As usual, we remember those who succeed, not those who didn't. So, perhaps, Somdev was wise after all to wait till he finished university before turning pro. He (and more than him, us armchair experts) may have unrealistic expectations about his pro career but that's a different matter.

2. The trend of players turning pro at younger and younger ages worries many even in the west. In the case of women tennis players, it was worrying enough for the tennis federation to step in and put a minimum age limit for turning pro - I think it's sixteen. As professional sports becomes increasingly seen as a suitable career for the sons and daughters of the Indian middle class, these concerns will become increasingly felt in India also.

Anonymous said...

> DDD pieces make for very good reading if he doesn't pontificate with his prejudices.

IOW -- "if I read sumthing I dont agree with, the writer is prejudiced pontificating. Thats how open minded I am."

DDD, pls keep writing. Im not always in agreement with u, but ur work always gives sumthing to think abt.

Dilip D'Souza said...

B, that was Lavalle, wasn't it? Whatever happened to him?

Thanks for the comparison to Wallace's piece on Joyce, a fabulous piece of writing that I gasped in admiration at when I first read it. The comparison flatters me, but who am I kidding, it felt nice. I completely agree: #80 in the world is a fantastic achievement.

I've played tennis for years, and I was probably playing my best (and most frequently) around when I used to watch Curren and Bryan practice -- the years and a few injuries have taken their toll! But even today, when I'm practicing by myself sometimes the coaches on the next court will send over a couple of their best kids to hit with me, telling them it'll be good for them. It flatters me too, of course.

But I think, at my best I felt like I could hit with anyone -- so if the rankings went on beyond 1000 or 2000 or whatever, where would I rank in the world? 1 millionth in the world? 10 millionth? Much more?

That puts #80 in perspective for me.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Suresh, you're right -- whatever did happen to the Baria tournament? In fact, you touch on another sore point regarding touring teams -- these days tours almost never have a game apart from the Tests/ODIs the India team. (And one against the Ranji champions).

In the past, there'd be matches against each of the Zones, the Univ side -- meaning that fringe players could get games against top-flight international players. Those side games were often fascinating. Gone the way of the dinosaur now, such a pity.

Actually I think Somdev's real obstacle to making it big in the pros is not so much that he got himself a degree, but that he doesn't have the physique. It's the rare Michael Chang who rises to #2 in the world.

Like I said in the article, I'd dearly love for Somdev to prove me wrong.

Anonymous said...

I'm at zero on tennis; the post and the Open hardcopy article made for intersting exercise in comparative reading.

Your "this last week maybe the microcosm of Somdev's career" was the appropriate subhead that drives the drift of your article but they have some other uplifting subhead.

did a similar exercise recently on a Jai Arjun Singh (jabberwock) review.

the closest to this I remember is a piece based on your post that was called (I think) "Left turn". Your post described the peace and normalcy of some post-violence scene. They used, IIRC the headline and a photo of a burning vehicle embedded in your text to offset it.


sbrk said...

nice article dilip. loved reading it. along similar lines, i think it is interesting to see how many junior aus/french/wimbledon/us champions (male and female) go on to reach similar heights in the mainstream competition.

i think 90% of them (or more) don't reach any kind of position that matches their junior exploits.