For Australia’s young hopefuls, strutting their stuff at the Australian Open, these two weeks are the most exciting of the whole year. And they are also the most stressful and the most terrifying.
For 14 days and 14 nights, their every move is watched, analysed and commented upon. For a fortnight, they are in the papers, on the radio and the TV and they are sporting celebrities. But with all due respect to the representatives of this great country, Australia is home to just 21.7 million citizens. Admittedly, every one of them is a sports nut and for the duration of the Open, a self-appointed tennis expert but, even so, it is not that many people.
Imagine, then, what it must be like for Somdev Devvarman. He may only be India’s No.10 at the moment but just 18 months ago, he was India’s top man with a world ranking of 62, a career high, and a couple of tour final appearances to his name. And back home, he had 1.2 billion people watching his progress. That, my friends, is proper pressure.
India has a long and distinguished history in tennis but, to date, it has never produced a grand slam singles champion. Every generation seems to produce a player of note but it tends to be a player. One. Singular. That player, then, carries the weight of a nation upon his shoulders – and that is one heck of a weight. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi shared some of that burden by Hoovering up doubles titles to a band playing but still there was that public hunger for singles success.
Then along came Sania Mirza to have her moment in the spotlight. She dealt with the pressure as best she could but it was still impossible to comprehend just how much attention she got, try as she might to explain it. When someone tried to compare it to the pressure-cooker environment that the likes of Tim Henman and Andy Murray have faced over the years at Wimbledon, Mirza hooted with laughter.
“I think the only difference is that I have a billion people and they don’t!” she guffawed. “I would like to believe that I’m tough enough to cope with all this pressure. Of course everyone has days. We’re not machines, we’re human beings and you have a few breakdowns here and there, days when you feel lonely out there, but you have to use it to your advantage. You have to take it as support instead of pressure. I was playing doubles in Bangalore and the crowd was so noisy, my doubles partner just kept saying, ‘they’re so noisy, oh my God,’ and I said, ‘you know what, you’d rather have them with you than against you.’ So you just have to take everything optimistically.”
And now Devvarman is working himself narrow to try and get back into that spotlight, to climb back up the rankings and be the bearer of a nation’s expectations. Clearly, he is not only talented by remarkably brave.
Born in Assam, a place better known for its tea than its tennis players, he packed his bags as a 20-year-old and headed for college in the United States to turn himself into a professional player. He liked the place so much, he decided to stay.
Today he is out on Court 8 facing Jerzy Janowicz, the No.24 seed from Poland. Should he win, he would be in the third round – and he has never got that far in grand slam tournament in his life. Winning would be a big ask, mind you, given that Devvarman has a world ranking of just 551 and is trying to put his career back together again after a shoulder injury.
Just when he thought he was on the right track, reaching that career high ranking in 2011, his shoulder gave out and he was forced to miss the first half of last year. Making his return at the London Olympics, he was glad to be back but he did not manage to win a match until the end of October when he reached the quarter-finals at the Challenger event in his adopted home town of Charlottesville, Virginia.
On the main tour, his only taste of success in more than a year came at the Chennai Open this month – he won one match – and here where he beat Bjorn Phau in the first round. But if two wins in 14 months sounds like a career in free fall, it represents the first serious signs of a comeback for Devvarman. And back home, there are 1.2 billion people watching and waiting. Now that really is pressure.
Somdev Devvarman (IND) plays (24) Jerzy Janowicz (POL) on Court 8 at 11am AEST.