Somdev Devvarman walked around the promenade of the Balewadi Tennis Stadium in Pune carrying a black kitbag hoisted on his shoulders and a basket filled with tennis balls. For the past few weeks, the former India No 1 singles player has been mentoring and coaching Sumit Nagal during the Indian swing of ATP Challengers – which started in Chennai, moved to Bengaluru and finally ended in Pune.

It’s been over six years since Devvarman announced his retirement from professional tennis. Yet over time, the size of the 38-year-old’s travelling kit has increased. Along with his tennis gear, he lugs around a guitar and a notebook in which he writes his songs. Music, that has surpassed the realm of private consumption and has now led him to release his first studio album.

“When I stopped playing, there were so many things that I wanted to do while I was playing that I didn’t do, Devvarman told Scroll. “I always knew I could never write, certainly not record and produce music (during my playing days). I felt that if I don’t make the time for it now, I’m never going to do it. I went in with both feet and took a chance.”

“I started writing a lot of stuff after I retired from pro tennis. I just kept writing and having fun with it. Coming up with songs, coming up with tunes. Penning down my thoughts whenever they would occur, finding a tune that would match it… one thing led to another and before I could realise, I had 30 songs.”

While a professional player, the former world No 62 – the highest ATP singles rank achieved by an Indian in this century – had been known to carry around his guitar. He also recalled playing at a few gigs along with former doubles world No 1s the Bryan Brothers – Mike and Bob. On those occasions though, it was essentially playing covers.

Courtesy: Neeraj Dev Varma

Devvarman’s latest venture, his first big dive away from the sporting world however, needed him to jump into a world previously unknown to him.

“The process was super intimidating early on – sitting with guys who are proper musicians, who are trained, who are performing at gigs week in and week out for the biggest bands. They’re established professionals,” he said.

“Then there’s me, who can’t read music, but I can write songs and I can kind of figure out a few things I like. I was intimidated to see if the stuff I have was worth it for some musician to spend their time on. I always felt that talking about tennis, talking about coaching, anything related with the sport, I felt really comfortable. And suddenly I moved into something where I was not. That was a welcome change to my life. I felt like, after a long time, I was a true beginner and I was really willing to work on the process.”

Unchartered territory

The process itself was unchartered territory. For most of his life, the tennis court has been his domain. A safe place. Devvarman knew the lines, the people on court – referees, ball kids, coaches, et al. But when it came to working in this new phase of post-playing career, in a studio in Shillong, there were several unknowns.

“That bit was eye-opening. What’s the distance from the microphone, do I need the pop-filter, do I not, do we add a cloud lifter, what are the different kind of effects… all of this was something we had to experiment to find out what didn’t sound right in order to find what did sound right,” he explained.

“It was one brick over the other, putting things together. In order to build a house you have to be patient and stick the brick the right way. That’s how we approached the album. We took it one step at a time.”

In this century, Devvarman has been the only Indian to have reached two ATP Tour singles finals (Courtesy: AFP)

Following the plan and not rushing into it, Devvarman eventually came up with his first ever album – titled ‘One Three Two.’ It’s an amalgamation of his thoughts. But what was important for him, rather than just putting out a single, was to create an entire album.

“I always grew up listening to albums and I always felt that it gave a much nicer big picture of what the band was going through at that time in their journey as musicians. Albums sound different from each other. So I wanted to put one out like that to show that, here I am, at 38,” he added.

No ranking rules

Going forward though, plans are already underway for a second album. Yet he still remains eager and hopeful when it comes to receiving feedback from his debut in this new industry. In the tennis world, the ‘best’ or even the most popular can be determined through the ranking system. The No 1 player in the world is, quite simply, the best at that point in time. Music, though, is subjective.

And though Devvarman comes from a background where the rules and ranking guidelines are clear and set in stone, he has understood that the reception to his music could go any way depending on the listener’s taste. Yet he remains content and satisfied, given the effort he has put into stepping into a world of unknown and putting forward a body of work he is proud of.

“The one thing that is quantitative is a ranking, a win, a loss. But what is qualitative is the effort you put in, the heart and soul that you’re playing with, the commitment that you have to yourself,” he said.

“From a qualitative perspective, I feel the approach is pretty similar. All of my songs are from an honest place, sometimes too honest, too deep. If you’re conflicted, you’re conflicted and that’s that. You don’t have to be definitively right or left, you can be in your own space figuring it out. That was okay, as long as the songs were coming from a place of honesty, and what I was really feeling.”

On the tennis court, Devvarman was India’s top singles player for years. He was a Davis Cup mainstay and the only Indian, in this century, to reach two ATP Tour singles finals (losing the 2009 Chennai Open to Marin Cilic and 2011 Johannesburg Open to Kevin Anderson – both former top 10 players). He was a highly disciplined tennis player, a tireless runner who was ready to delve into a slugfest – in 2015, he battled for three hours and 31 minutes to win the Winnetka Challenger in what then became the record for longest Challenger final. That record was broken on March 5, 2023, in Pau France.

Now, he’s already taken his first big step in another field. One that can be just as unforgiving as a tennis court, but just as rewarding. Yet he’s staying humble in his expectations.

“Right now, building a house from scratch, while laying the foundations, my only hope is that people coming into the house have a pleasant experience. And that’s good enough,” he added.

“If I was a good use of other people’s time, that would be fair enough for me.”

It’s been a while since he was last seen gliding around court in a professional match. Now he hopes his voice can reverberate through his music.

With reporting inputs from Samreen Razzaqui.