Sasikumar Mukund described how he received a flood of congratulatory text messages as he landed in Chennai for a short break. A day later, on Monday, the news was confirmed – the 25-year-old had become India’s new No 1 men’s singles tennis player as per the live ATP rankings.
Mukund was appreciative of his achievement, but the world No 341 refused to get carried away by it.
“It was a pleasant surprise. A small reward for all the hardships faced this year,” Mukund told Scroll.in. “It’s still not the way I wanted it to be. I’d have preferred being in the top 100 or so. It’s bittersweet because I know my country’s status has fallen below 300.”
This is the first time since 2005 that India does not have a men’s singles player inside the top 300 world rankings. And he is not oblivious to the fact that he becoming the new No 1 is more so from Ramkumar Ramanathan and Prajnesh Gunneswaran falling down the charts rather than Mukund himself making rapid strides with ranking points.
“There is a natural happiness that comes with it, but I’m not staying far from reality that the others went down the rankings not because I did better. Many of them were injured, there were a lot of things. But that small happiness is going to be there,” he said.
“I don’t want to lie to myself. Others being injured has played a part in me being No 1. But you can’t take credit away from all the matches I won because I too was in a tough position.”
In September, after a five year wait, Mukund won his first title, at a M25 Futures event in Sintra, Portugal. The 25 ranking points he won from the event were enough for him to break back into the top 400 and provide him some much-needed confidence – especially after going through a nerve-wracking first half of the year.
His first event of the season went much better than expected. Mukund started in the qualifying round of a Challenger event in Forli, Italy, and went on to finish as runner-up. But this was just after he recovered from a Covid-19 infection.
“I tested negative later, but the after effects remained till July,” he explained. “Every month I’d have a cold, throat infection, and it hampered training. I was always on anti-biotics. The body was just not the same. I was getting tired and after every two-three weeks I’d get sick.”
It didn’t help that he made errors in picking the tournaments he’d have liked to play. At the time, there were not too many hard court Challenger events in favourable conditions for him to play in. Instead, he decided to take a risk on clay courts, or at events at higher altitudes.
“I should have gone back to Futures, because there were events in good conditions,” he said.
“I should have taken that step and try and build some momentum, get some ranking points and try to make the cut for a Grand Slam. But I played in those tougher conditions and that effected the momentum.
“It was not easy to accept where I was at my age. It just leads to more frustration, mental issues, anxiety... It was tough. I’d go to tournaments, get fever, not play well enough because of it.”
All that changed though when he finally decided to take a step back down to the Futures level. It took him to the two back-to-back events in Indonesia in August.
“It was tough to go to Jakarta for the Futures because the last time I was there I was 18-19, and I didn’t think that at 25 I’d be coming back there,” he said. “But I accepted the fact that I’ll have to start life all over again and I did it. I made a semifinal there, then a final, and things started to look up.”
‘It wasn’t love at first sight with tennis’
Now he’s fulfilled one of the targets he and his family had when his tennis journey began over two decades ago. Mukund recalled being just four when his father pushed him to play the individual game while the family lived in Kolkata. But he asserted that it took him a while to like the sport.
“I wasn’t the best of workers and most passionate of kids. It was not love at first sight – I sometimes still wonder if I ever did fall in love. But once I started competing and got the rush of tournaments I started enjoying,” he said.
“I was about 13-14, an obese kid in Spain, when I told myself it doesn’t make sense to be like this. If I’m to be professional I need to be physically fit. I knew that eventually I’d have to do something with my life, so I thought maybe I could do it through tennis.”
He comes from a family where tennis wasn’t really a beloved sport. It was just an avenue in which he could do something different.
“My parents just wanted me to do something different, pursue a career which was unique and had something to do with glory and all that,” he said.
“Acting and music would require a lot of influence and luck. An individual sport though just required talent and merit.”
On Monday, as the updated ATP rankings indicate, he’s become the new India No 1. Regardless of how it’s happened, he’s there on merit. Rather ironically though, this achievement comes in what he described has been his hardest year as a professional player.
“(So hard) I was even contemplating quitting professional tennis many times,” he said. “Maybe it wasn’t a real thought, but it did surface in my head. Sometimes the biggest passion I had for the sport turned into a regret. It was not easy to get through that, but I’m happy I did get through and I got some reward for it now. It’s humbling. I know it’s not 100% deserved, but I hope I’ll one day celebrate it in a true sense, maybe in the top 100.”
But now that he is there, he’s setting higher goals for himself.
“I know I want to show some good standing the next match I play when I’m No 1. It is a boost,” he added.
“But now I’d like to experience the good side of this sport. I’ve seen the hardships, but now want to be at the Grand Slams, play on a centre court, play a Davis Cup match. Those are my goals now, to see what the real sport is about. If I experience the good side of this sport, I’ll retire a happy person.”
For now though, his journey to the top tier of tennis has only just begun.