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Adopt This Player! 08/31/2009 - 10:09 PM

89607652 by Pete Bodo

Opening day of any major is way too hectic for my temperament. Five minutes on site on Day 1 and I'm overwhelmed by analysis paralysis - sheesh, how am I going to choose a topic in this Arabian bazaar of a tennis tournament?  Well, try to do something different, I tell myself, and don't cave to the pressure and cling for dear life to your seat in Arthur Ashe stadium. And for heaven's sake, don't shoot your wad on Day 1 writing about Roger Federer, Serena Williams, or Andy Roddick.

So I decided that today is. . . India Day at the US Open! How's that for a little out-of-the-box thinking?

Anyway, it's only appropriate to start India Day with a nice samosa appetizer followed by chicken tikka masala, so that's just what I did - the New Delhi Spice concession does a very nice curry, and the line usually isn't too long. My fellow New Yorkers seem more interested in fighting it out to see who can get a pastrami sandwich as thick as the Manhattan telephone directory at the Carnegie Deli -  before they get stabbed to death with a plastic knife or die of starvation while waiting in line to order.

So then it was on to the Chennai double-header: Somdev Devvarman and Sania Mirza, who, with a little luck, would be waging their first-round battles on nearly adjacent courts decently removed from the thrum and chaos of Arthur Ashe or Lous Armstrong.

Devvarman, you may recall, is the two-time NCAA singles champion (representing the University of Virginia, or UVA) who declined to turn pro until he graduated in 2008. He's been on the tournament trail ever since, enduring the aspiring journeyman's travails. He's currently ranked no. 162, and he made it into the tournament the old-fashioned way - via qualifying.

In Fact, the USTA declined to offer Devvarman a wild card into the tournament in either of the years that he won the NCAAs, a decision that irritated some. It was especially true last year, by which time it was apparent that John Isner, Devvarman's victim in the first of his NCAA finals, can play some. Devvarman has been a bit like the puppy nobody has wanted to adopt, but which makes its eventual owner a mighty happy bi-ped.

Be that as it may - Devvarman launched his Grand Slam main draw career today, in his fourth attempt to make the main draw. He was facing Portugal's Frederico Gil on Court 15, were the only seating is aboard a small bank of skeletal aluminum bleachers along either baseline.

I arrived near the end of the first set and immediately lucked out when a woman abandoned her seat in the bleachers. A man standing to my left told his companion, "Devvarman went to UVA where he won everything you can possible win. But he's kind of short."

Well, it was true enough.The contrast between this brace of 24-year olds was interesting if not exactly dramatic. Officially listed as 5-11 and 160 lbs., Devvarman is anything but an imposing physical presence. Gil is formally 5-10, 154 lbs. I'd say each man grew an inch or so on his way to the ATP website and media guide, and that Devvarman added a few pounds while Gil shed a few; this was a match-up of the lean and fleet with the stocky and powerful, both men preferring to operate from the baseline and neither capable of doing much damage with his serve.

In some ways, it was a nicely tailored match-up; not exactly a contrast, but with enough minor, dovetailing differences to promise a match that would be decided by something other than a glaring weakness or an overarching strength.

As I settled in to watch, a young man named Jason Cohn introduced himself to me. He's the head coach for men and women at Stevenson University, a Division III college known until 2008 as Villa Julie College. Jason explained that Villa Julie was originally a nunnery, and in any event I'm glad the regents changed the name. No young guy ought to have to coach a boy's team from Villa Julie; the "Stevenson Mustangs" strikes a heftier note, don't you think?

In any event, the field courts are a great place to watch a match featuring at least one kid who's been a collegiate star, because he invariably draws a large group of classmates, former teammates, coiaches and alumni. There were numerous UVA t-shirts in evidence at Court 15, and Devvarman later told me that almost every time he looked up from the task at hand, he saw someone he knew from his college days in the stands.

I wondered if he chose to make eye contact, and said that when he did it was just incidental. Tennis players are odd creatures that way, a little bit like peeping toms. They're almost always intensely aware of the spectators, especially on smaller courts, but they cling to an unwritten rule forbidding anything but the kind of eye contact that's made out of sheer desperation or compulsively.

Devvarman reminds me of a slightly smaller, slightly less rangy model of Guillermo Coria. He's very light on his feet - sometimes they work like flippers as he scampers to a ball and hits a shot that lifts him right off the court. In fact, Gil also knows how to roll his entire body into the ball. Both of these young men hit forehands with a long, low-to-high stroke, so it looks like the racquet is actually licking the ball. And they both use the two-handed backhand.

Gil's forehand was the most dangerous stroke on the court; it produced plenty of winners but more unforced errors as well. He especially likes to tee-up the inside-out forehand from his backhand sideline, which isn't a bad idea given that the shot flies to his (right-handed) opponent's backhand, and over the lowest part of the net.

Devvarman played with a less aggressive sensibility and preferred to lurk further behind the baseline - let Gil take the chances, and goad him into going for too much, too soon. This Gil did not do; he demonstrated excellent self-control, but over time even the most disciplined of aggressive players can be lured into throwing caution to the wind. As the match progressed, Devvarman kept tightening the mental screws. If Gil's forehand was the most dangerous stroke, Devvarman's stamina was the more lethal tool. 

Devvarman won the first set, and the match was decided in the last four games of the second set. With Gil serving at 3-4, Devvarman forced him into a long game featuring half-a-dozen deuces and two break points that Gil successfully defended. Gil held, but his relief at having done so helped Devvarman to hold the next game easily. Gill struggled again in the next game again, and failed to convert a succession of hold points. When Devvarman finally won a deuce point, he converted the critical break following a long, artful rally with a smart backhand winner down the line. He went on to win in straight sets.

Afterwards, I felt obliged to ask Devvarman if he was aware of the naysayers - those who said he was too slight and short on power to succeed on the pro tour. "I mean, you hear a lot of stuff, positive and negative. You try not to let any of it get to you. That's why you have a close circle - close friends, a coach, a trainer. . . I try not to pay attention to any of it, the good or the bad. That stuff just isn't going to help you."

Devvarman is a focused, rational young man. Yet he characterized his experience as a pro as an "emotional roller-coaster," which once again confirms the theory that the difference between a cool customer and a hothead may be more a matter of self-control than the size of the emotional reservoir. "It's been a heck of an experience," Devvarman said. "A completely different experience from college. You're out there traveling every week, dealing with a lot more adversity, with different conditions, surfaces, traveling every week. It teaches you to be tougher, to go out there and not make excuses - just leave it all out on the court."

I wondered if Devvarman felt any vindication after winning his first official Grand Slam-event match - if he felt he sent a message to the USTA about those wild cards he never was offered. Not at all, he insisted, explaining: "Obviously it was a bummer about those wild cards, but it's completely understandable - it's the US Open, they want to help out their own juniors.When all is said and done, it's just one (sic) tournament I didn't get into. But it's a long race, so it's no problem whatsoever." 

Devvarman is a native of Chennai, India, but he lives on Charlottesville, Va. (near UVA). He plays Davis Cup for India, and he's now coached by the former U.S. touring pro, Scott McCain. His mental strength is a great asset - how else could he have beaten Isner for the NCAA title without breaking Isner's serve a single time?  And Devvarman knows he has a tough row to hoe; when I asked him which group of players he falls into, he replied "There are a lot of guys out there who aren't  6-7 and serving bombs all the time. I happen to be one of them. The most important thing for me is to go out there and compete well. I did that today - I felt I competed well, I didn't get tight. How you compete is what gets you through tough matches." 

90198422 When I left Devvarman's match after the second set, I stopped by to watch Mirza. She was on Court 13, belting the ball with Belarus's Olga Govortsova. Mirza is one of the cleanest ball strikers in the WTA; she has plenty of snap in her wrist (most evident on her forehand side) and she hits her backhand with such easy confidence that her support (left) hand breaks free from the racquet shortly after she makes contact, adding an appealing measure of explosive flair to the stroke. It's a joy watching her hit groundstrokes.

But that serve - my, oh, my. . . Mirza starts out with the best of intentions, with a knee bend that, absurdly, may make you think of Boris Becker in his heyday. Unfortunately, it seems a tease - a show of false bravado. Instead of launching herself upward with the spring-loaded power of a Becker, she abandons the project, straightens up, and by the time the ball reaches the peak of her toss (and a low peak it is), she's cowering under it. Her body language says: Come on, gimme a break, do I really have to do this?

Partly for that reason, Mirza struggled with Govortsova, taking three sets to win. Give Mirza a decent serve and you're looking at a 2-and-3 yawner. But then, give Devvarman a slightly larger frame and you've got Top 10 material.

But all in all it was a good day for India, and for me as well.

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Posted by Jenn 08/31/2009 at 10:15 PM

Great start, Pete! I saw Mirza practicing in IW and was struck by how beautiful she is, and how cleanly she hits. Its too bad she has been struggling so much. Good win for her today.

Posted by federerfan 08/31/2009 at 10:24 PM

wow...India Day...i never thot something like that would happen :)

Thanks Pete

Posted by Pspace (Lestat Time!) 08/31/2009 at 10:27 PM

Thanks for this one, Pete. What do you make of Devvarman's potential? Can he get into the top 50 or so? Perhaps equivalent to Tipsarevic? My inclination is that he might do slightly better if can have some success on clay. But, training in the states might not be very conducive to that. Anyways, I'm curious to see how he does against Kohlschreiber....he did beat a slumping Cilic in Cincy before going out the next round.

Posted by crazyone 08/31/2009 at 10:30 PM

Great article, Pete. Thank you for writing this--I'm of Indian descent and always hope that players of Indian descent do well, as Indians are generally underrepresented in sports. However, there's a pretty strong tradition of Indian players in men's tennis.

It's interesting that you find Devvarman to be a pillar of mental strength--often it seems like a lot of lower ranked players have it all in terms of size and strokes but not enough in the way of consistency or mental strength.

Posted by Pete 08/31/2009 at 10:35 PM

Pspace - I'm with you. I think Devvarman is a more focused and determined guy than Tipsarevic. Top 50 is a realistic goal, and if catches a puff now and then he could go higher for periods. . .

Posted by Paul Ryan 08/31/2009 at 10:37 PM

Thanks for highlighting these two players. Sadly I didn't get to see them today. And yet I was one of the few who were climbing trees just to get a glimpse of Tommy Haas.

Posted by federerfan 08/31/2009 at 10:40 PM

thanks Pete very much for telling it as it are spot on about the shortcomings on the physical side being compensated by the mental side (out of necessity too). enjoyed it very much.
Especially since Devvarman is from my wifes native place : Chennai and Mirza is from my town : Hyderabad !

Posted by avid sports fan aka "Sigh-Rena" 08/31/2009 at 10:55 PM

Hi Pete,

I always enjoy when you write about the other lesser known players. I still have not forgotten the one about Bethanie after USO last year (I think). I peeked at Sania's match while at work and I really love those ground strokes. I remember she matched Vee well in groundstrokes if not better in their match at Charleston earlier this year. I hope she pursues her singles career cos I remember it being mentioned that she wanted to focus on doubles.

Posted by pm 08/31/2009 at 10:56 PM

Nice report. I was at the Open today (and I am of Indian descent) so I made it to Mirza's match (but could not make it to Devvarman's). So it's nice to get a report on Devvarman. Hope he can make it to top 50.

I had heard much about Mirza's forehand - it was even more impressive seen live. She generates great pace even when she's falling backwards. Interestingly though, her opponent handled a majority of her forehands - she had figured out how to wait for the ball in those cases and looped the ball back with spin. Mirza has also lost weight and improved her mobility but the biggest improvement has been her backhand (as Pete noted) - she hits it flat without much spin and with pace and can get nice angles. She actually almost gets down on her knee and to hit through the ball on that side. I am not sure I agree with Pete's assessment of her serve - there were a few games in the second and third sets where she put in three or four great serves per game. I wouldn't characterize it as a weapon but not as a weakness either.

What really annoyed me about the match was the absolute lack on strategy by either girl - it was hit the ball hard, hard, hard all the time. No adjustment was made by either player. The match could have gone either way.

Posted by rooruffneck 08/31/2009 at 10:57 PM

pete, you are such a skilled and entertaining writer that I could care less if you write about Fed or Nad or whoever for the next five days. However, it would be fun if you let us "overhear" what's being said within your earshot regarding the giants....Maybe you could seal of a little section of your blog for interesting comments and quotes you've overheard....

You are, seriously, the best.

Posted by Sad Smiles 08/31/2009 at 10:59 PM

Somdev is slightly built but he is definately quick on the court. He is very fast and bring back lots of balls. That is his style. His draw looks good. Let c how he fair up against Kohlschribber (i believe) in 2nd round. I think it will be straight sets for Kohlschribber if he gets to 2nd round. He is been injured lately.

Sania baaji does have to improve her serve to get back in top 30 on a consistent basis. I totally agree with Pete on her groundstrokes. She times it beautifully.

thanks for the post.

Posted by Arun 08/31/2009 at 11:09 PM

Thanks for this piece, Pete. Enjoyed it very much, especially it's heart-warming to read everything you had to say re SDV.

Posted by Mike 08/31/2009 at 11:17 PM

"don't shoot your wad"

Nice use of language for descriptive journalism there, you jerk.

Posted by SRao 08/31/2009 at 11:47 PM


More than anything,it is wonderful to see a dedicated,whole post to Indians!THANK-YOU,THANK-YOU,Sir!
I'm from Bangalore,not from either of their respective home towns...but an Indian,nevertheless!
USO or any GS for that matter,Indians have yet to make a mark,but glad they could find space on your posts.

Posted by Angel of the Surf (Winner of Wimbledon Suicide Pool) 09/01/2009 at 12:01 AM

Pete glad you had a nice chicken tikka to begin your day.

And thank goodness for Mirza she kept me alive in SP unlike the Portugese donkey Frederico Gil.

Enjoy the rest of the USO Pete and don't forget to pace yourself.

Posted by suresh 09/01/2009 at 12:04 AM

Pete, you have anyway made it an INDIA DAY by your comments. I do not think that there would be such a detailed write-up on these 2 matches even here in India !!! It is nice to see a senior journalist like you, watching matches of players who probably would be forgotten, by the time the later rounds start. Lets hope Somdev, Sania and other upcoming players derive encouragement from your words and progress further in the USO.

Posted by Master Ace 09/01/2009 at 12:05 AM

Nice article on Sania and Somdev. Indeed, it is good to hear about players that do not get the mainstream media attention.

Posted by jb (Go Smiley Fed!!!) 09/01/2009 at 12:08 AM

oh very very nice write up pete! i do love when you venture out into the wilds and give us some insite on these players that we may not necessarily see on our streams. (let alone tvs...!)

Posted by SV 09/01/2009 at 12:48 AM

Thanks so much for this piece Pete!
There is a huge community of tennis fans in urban India and its wonderful to see a senior journalist like you turn the spotlight on our upcoming talent! Am especially thrilled with your assessment of SDV's mental strength, because thats an area where I think Indians traditionally come up short!
Thanks again

Posted by Dewarman 09/01/2009 at 12:55 AM

Congrats, Pete! You got my name spelt right this time :-)

Posted by toonie 09/01/2009 at 01:05 AM

Pete: I really enjoyed reading about two lesser known players, we rarely get to see these players on TV. Enjoy the tennis. And might I suggest Canada Day.

Posted by reckoner 09/01/2009 at 01:48 AM

lets call a spade a spade and just say that sania is really cute too

Posted by kdshah 09/01/2009 at 02:13 AM

Thanks Pete ... for that wonderful India Day ... a country of 1 Billion and we still can't boast a decent singles player (though we have managed to kick some butt in Doubles)...but hope makes the world go round.

Long-time reader and first-time commenting.

Posted by Carrie 09/01/2009 at 02:21 AM

Enjoyed this post. I have been rooting for Somdev for a while after hearing about his WC denials. (And I have been a fan of some of the shorties like Ferrer, Chang and Coria through the years). Glad that he notched a win today. Sounds like he has a good head on his shoulders too.

Sania has had disappointing results after a good deal of buzz a few years ago so it is nice to see her get some attention. Frankly- since she hasn't been able to get far in tournaments lately I haven't been able to see her play in ages so it was nice to get a description.

Posted by Rebound Ace 09/01/2009 at 02:41 AM

Hope your stomach holds up after the spicy Chicken Tikka Masala :-)...

Posted by Ray T. 09/01/2009 at 03:52 AM

Once again people are fantasizing about Devvarman reaching the Top 50 when he has yet to crack the Top 100 at age 24. Somdev is a very nice guy, but a typical NCAA player who only knows to play on hardcourt, but not on clay or grass whatsoever (0-4 career). The US Open is the only Slam he qualified to this year and over 90 % of his activity is in Challengers and qualifiers, thus he's got only a 9-11 career record...Top 50 ? Yeah right !

Please, check the stats and history once in while before comparing him to other players who have already reached all the Slams and the Top 50 before like Tipsarevic (whom I can't stand by the way)

Talk about puppy love indeed...

Posted by Shiv 09/01/2009 at 04:37 AM

Strange article, Pete,, as an Indian I enjoyed it all the more.Som has many qualities which are unindian in the sense that he is a quick mover,physically extremely fit and plays big points very well.Though he is referred as a chennaiite but his birth place is way at the top of the country in the state of Assam, one of the most beautiful states of India. I saw him play the Chennai Open in the beginning of the year where he eventually lost to Cilic in the final.I hope your assessment of potential top 10 placing for him comes true.We haven't had anyone so high this far!!

As for Sania, how sad her service has put a brake on her career.I wish she does a Tiger, reconstruct from scratch the service and that effort alone will easily push her into top 20 and remain there for some time. Does she has the courage to go through the process?

Posted by tintin 09/01/2009 at 05:00 AM

Nice post, great insight. It is nice that a boy from ASSAM is making the news for all the right reason, The place has been in the world news for a lot of wrong reasons, Way to go..

Posted by Subhadeep 09/01/2009 at 06:16 AM

Go Devvarman!

Great post Pete. Thanks for bringing Devvarman to the notice of the Twibe. I have been one of the vocal people here on his case and posted several times how he never got a wc to USO while this year even Britton did after failing to qualify for any of the USO follow up tourneys in the USO series.

Next he plays a seed I think .. Kohlschreiber. If he can pull off an upset there then that will be fantastic for this youngster.

Posted by Gopi 09/01/2009 at 06:48 AM

Pleasant Surprise Pete! Good to see an article on Indian players. Have been following your blog since this French open. Always a pleasure to read your blogs.

Posted by embug 09/01/2009 at 07:17 AM

Devvarman has played the Legg Mason Tennis Classic for the last couple years. He and Isner debuted in DC in 2007. Somdev through qualies, Isner got the wildcard - any many many more after that. Isner took off at the tournament. We all remember his run to the final, tiebreaks deciding each and every match until Roddick put an end to his fun in the final. Somdev lost in the first or second round.

Somdev sounds as if he's making his own way, on his terms, which is great to hear. He plays relaxed and reflects that attitude off court as well. I wish him the best of luck. For some reason I'm drawn to his style of play, which isn't aggressive unless tapped. Then he takes off, a sprinter's instincts.

A couple other qualifiers that pulled through to the second round are Marco Chiudinelli who sent Potito Starace home in straight sets. And, Marsel Ilhan had a five set tussle with Christophe Rochus. Ilhan won the last two sets 7/5 7/5 to prove himself a worthy opponent for his next match in round two.

It's such a BIG tournament. It makes my head spin, too.

Posted by Emma (insertwittymantrahere) 09/01/2009 at 07:19 AM

Pedro, great article, I really enjoyed it. Thanks.

Posted by Subhadeep 09/01/2009 at 08:28 AM

Ray T. @ 3:52 am: Whats your ATP ranking? How many GS have you won?

This is a profession and everyone does not win GS. We are saying goodbye to magician Santoro this year. Not everyone has to win GS or even Masters to be a good player and have a great career.

If only people who won GS or that much talent played this sports then Roger and Rafa won't be where they are are who they are! You will have only 20 people playing USO. This kind of negativity and putting down a player just because he does not have the GS winning talent is really uncalled for.

Posted by Corrie (will the "undead Scottish lord" do the job? 09/01/2009 at 08:33 AM

I've had such great experiences in India that I always support Indians - except in cricket.
I hope Sania's slump isn't to do with what's been happening off court, or maybe it was all that fervent public pressure earlier on.
Indians, generally, do seem very keen on tennis, middle class ones, anyway.

Posted by Subhadeep 09/01/2009 at 08:51 AM

Corrie: Sania's biggest problem as Pete pointed out is that serve. 1st couple of years when you are new, her game was fresh and she won matches. But once people caught on she is not going anywhere with that serve.

I saw her play Sharapova in USO a few years back. Sania matched Sharapova stroke for stroke with groundies but that serve does not cut it.

Sania also with the bigger players stays for a few strokes and then just goes for broke and most of the times misses them and then loses. Top players will get the ball back and even sometimes with interest. Unless she is ready to win the point 5 times before she actually wins it she is not going to break the top 25 or so.

Posted by MJA 09/01/2009 at 10:35 AM

Pete - You write great, man! Your idea to write something like is out of the box - you are a journo-freak :-)

I remember him beating Isner in NCAA championship, while pretty much everyone in the crowd rooting for Isner big time, it was great how he faught and won.

Oh look, how many lurkers have started posting, all of a sudden.

Posted by Tennis 42 09/01/2009 at 11:13 AM

Two time ncaa national champion and an even better individual and no wildcards? Go figure!!!!

Posted by Subhadeep 09/01/2009 at 12:02 PM

shiv and tintin: To even bring up things like he is from Assam or he is not really a chennaite is so narrow minded.

I saw same trends of comments a couple of days back in another popular indian website called I kinda expect it with readers of rediff but anything beyond he is an Indian is unacceptable in a place like Twibe. I am glad to support an up and coming tennis player in the 1st place and proud coincidentally that he hails from India, same as my country of citizenship.

Posted by J 09/01/2009 at 02:07 PM

Peter, stevenson's coach spells his last name Cohen.

Posted by piyush 09/01/2009 at 04:33 PM

Awesome! Thanks for giving Somdev his due! :)

Posted by tennisfan 09/01/2009 at 11:27 PM

I wish Sania would get a proper coach and reconstruct her serve. She has so much talent but she always falls short becoz of her serve and unforced errors!!
And great write-up for Somdev. Hope he cracks the top 100 by year end..

Posted by Shiv 09/02/2009 at 12:47 AM

Well,, Subhadeep .. Poor thing,Nice flag waving and keep at it.As for my comments to Som's birth place, relates to tennis.Chennai has had its share of tennis talents( am from chennai) but Som is the first player from that region making a mark and am sure this will lead to greater interest in tennis in Assam.

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