Calcutta to crush, life lessons to charity start-up

Somdev Devvarman serves it up

  • Published 10.01.18
Somdev Devvarman with his platter of scrambled eggs at Flurys. Picture: Pabitra Das

He punctuates his sentences very often with “chill”. Former tennis player Somdev Devvarman — world no. 96 in men’s singles in 2010 — is super chilled out. t2 caught up with the 32-year-old at Flurys on a sunny Sunday when he was digging into scrambled eggs before inaugurating Shivika Burman’s tennis academy, The Tennis Tree, on Middleton Row.

You are coming back to Calcutta after how long?

My parents live in Agartala, which means if I have to go there, I would have to fly through Calcutta. I guess I come here a couple of times a year, but yeah, it’s been a while now. I have family who lives in Calcutta... some of them live around the Ballygunge area and some around Salt Lake. I lived here for eight years actually, the first eight years of my life… in Dover Lane.

Tell us about your Calcutta memories…

This is the first place I actually started playing sports. My parents put me in a badminton academy when I was six. Calcutta has a nice little sporting culture in its own way. I think I also won one of my first few ITF (International Tennis Federation) junior tournaments over here, also senior tournaments. My brother actually played tennis in Calcutta and I wanted to play with him but I was too young to play. The fact that I wasn’t allowed to play made me want to play a little more! (Laughs) Calcutta has a charm of its own. It’s super chill. It’s laid-back. Great food.

How much tennis do you watch after your retirement last year (January 2017)?

Obviously not as much as I used to. But I feel we are lucky in the sense that India has a culture of tennis. So you have all the majors being covered on TV in India, which is not the same in a lot of other countries. It’s easy to follow in that sense. A lot of my friends are still on tours. I catch up with them and see what they are doing.

Do you miss playing?

Honestly, not a whole lot. I am very happy with the time I stopped playing. I really didn’t want to play any more at that point. The only time I miss it is when I am at a tournament. Obviously, you miss playing the Wimbledon, the US Open, Davis Cup… I just miss the competition part of it. I still go out and play, but that rush you get is something you cannot really replicate.

What have you rediscovered in this one year that had taken a back seat while you were playing?

Well, now I have three dogs, all rescued strays. Little things in life… I have learnt how to cook, not very well, but I still enjoy it. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, I’ll figure it out. Also, giving myself enough time to read and work on projects. I still try and stay fit and active; I cycle all around Chennai. I catch up with friends and play a sport all week, whether it is surfing or rock climbing, squash, tennis, badminton, basketball or football.

Did you play anything else as a kid?

I was a very outdoorsy kid. I played a lot of sports… some cricket, badminton, a lot of football for my school, athletics here and there. Recently I like surfing a lot. 

The cool thing with sports is that in a subtle way you learn a lot of things. When I was a kid, I had a tough time dealing with losses, I used to throw tantrums and be unpleasant. I learnt what hard work was, I learnt a lot about ethics and fair play… I didn’t like when other people cheated. Those things have a lasting impression on you whether you like it or not. Also, dealing with nerves. Learning not to gloat when you win or sulk when you lose. Then leadership… there’s a lot of things that sports teaches you. I was so engrossed in sports as a kid that it became a big part of my personality. It has helped shape me a lot.

Who would you put on an alarm to wake up and watch?

I think in 2016 everybody was excited about Steve Darcis. Low seed, beating (Rafael) Nadal… that’s the kind of stuff I felt I would definitely stay up and watch or create an event around it… call my friends over. Nobody expected (Roger) Federer or Nadal to do as well as they did last year and the fact that they did was a lot of fun.

So it’s both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for you?

It’s slightly different from the perspective of a peer vs a fan. I am a fan, but I have also played both of them multiple times. If you are having a conversation about who’s the greatest of all time, both of them would be up there. Federer has this annoying way of making things really simple when they are really not that simple. And he does that with a lot of elegance and grace. The second time I played him I felt I was actually playing pretty well… qualified at the French Open, won a round, played Roger on centre court…
Roger didn’t think I was playing so well!  

Who did you grow up watching?

(Andre) Agassi… he was in-your-face whether you liked it or not. The bandana, the denim shorts, the long purple hair… that caught my attention as a kid. I grew pretty close to Andy Roddick… we started training with each other and that’s how we became friends. I learnt a lot from him… very hard-working, very true to his ethics. I felt like he was a role model in many ways.

What about tennis crush?

As a kid, the people you saw on TV were (Steffi) Graf and (Gabriela) Sabatini and (Anna) Kournikova.

And, now?!

Well, I got engaged recently. So no more real crushes out there on the tour!  

Tell us about Life Is A Ball, the non-profit organisation that you run in Chennai…

We just try to promote sports. A lot of people ask me why not tennis. There are logistical issues in tennis. But with football and other sports, you can just allow the kids to play. The important thing here is to give them an opportunity that they otherwise wouldn’t have got. The kids have a chance to play and through that hopefully they grow and learn and become better people… not to mention healthier.

We started the initiative informally around 2011-2012, just a bunch of friends. There was an orphanage very close to where we live… we said can we take some sports to them. We organised something small and the kids loved it. But then we started realising that it wouldn’t have any real effect unless we did this consistently. Then we started brainstorming and came up with ideas. A bunch of people quit their jobs and started working on this full-time. Then I quit my job… playing tennis (smiles) and started working on this full-time.

From a home-grown programme of working with 30 or 50 kids we now work with about 17,000 kids, trying to give free sports programmes to kids from economically-disadvantaged areas. It’s pretty cool and very fulfilling.
I also run a couple of start-ups, all of them in the sports space.

Do you think every kid should play a sport?

It is a no-brainer. We provide free sports programmes and you would think every single school would want it, but the fact that they don’t tells us that we actually don’t value sports in our country. It is at a nascent stage. I am not shocked because I have grown up in it. If you are ever running behind on curriculum, the first subject that’s ever taken away is sports. All of this shows that we cannot actually call ourselves a sporting country. Despite that I think we are doing well and the trend has started to move up. Are there things that are not great? For sure. Are there ways to make it better? Probably….

Quick five

Reading: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.
On Netflix: Stranger Things… still haven’t finished it though, so don’t tell me what happens!
Recently watched: Justice League. I am a big fan of Superman and Batman… I was disappointed with the storyline.
Playlist: I like folk rock, folk acoustic… Dave Matthews Band, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Eric Clapton… last summer I watched a Clapton concert. I have been writing a lot of my own songs. Far from making an album though!
Most likely to play on my guitar: The Beatles, CCR (Creedence Clearwater Revival)… something old school.

Saionee Chakraborty