Tennis, even at the highest level, is a lonely sport (in singles, at least). There are no teammates to talk to. The coach can’t be by the court side to discuss strategy. Conversation with the self happens a lot.

“In tennis you’re on an island. Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement,” wrote Andre Agassi in his autobiography, Open.

But players of Agassi’s level have, for the most part, at least a crowd that’d cheer. They have agents to take care of travel. They could afford to have a companion on tour. They have coaches, physios, training partners… more people around them.

The strugglers and upcoming ones of the sport – like Sasi Kumar Mukund – toiling to gather a few ATP points, meanwhile, are more familiar with loneliness.

Mukund, 21, ranked 416th in the world, has been spending most of the last four years away from home to grow bigger in a sport that he’s been playing for 17 years. Mukund’s originally from Chennai. His dad, who works in the Ministry of Commerce, put him in tennis as a four-year-old when his family was in Kolkata. Two years later, the family moved to their current residence in Hyderabad.

Mukund travels thousands of miles every year but not on all trips he finds success. In 2018, he’s played 13 tournaments from May to October across five nations without winning a single ATP point. Despite this, he has to make these journeys – most often alone – in order to progress to the next level.

“Tennis is a lonely sport. After 3 pm, you don’t meet anyone. You have to get used to it,” he says after reaching the quarter-finals of the Bengaluru Open on Wednesday.

His opponent, Blaz Kavcic, pulled out from the match whilst trailing 6-7, 1-3. The Slovenian was top-seed last year. Six years ago, he was ranked 68th in the world. On Wednesday, however, due to a troublesome knee, his campaign was cut short in the second round. Mukund, hence, would get ATP points, which would better his rank.

Ups and downs

This year, he climbed to the 375th spot – his highest rank – in July before falling out of the top-400.

“These are all just numbers. There have been ups and downs this year, so this quarter-final appearance makes you feel good,” he says.

When told that he has the chance to better his best-ever rank in the Bengaluru Open, he soberly replies: “You can’t call yourself a professional if you are not ranked within the top 100. Beyond 100 it doesn’t matter where you are ranked. It doesn’t matter if you are world No 320 and 420.”

“My coach is a very optimistic person. He doesn’t care about ranking, he’s always looking to put his players on the big stages,” says Mukund, who made an instinctive decision – “like many things in life” – to train with his current coach Martin Spottel in Vienna.

He’s been training with him since February and says the decision has proved beneficial.

“Earlier it used to be random, one week I play somewhere and one week I play elsewhere. I had no clue what I was doing next week. Now I know what my programmes and routines. Life, in general, is more organised.”

From Futures to Challengers

Spottel told him – prompted by the rule changes – to play more Challenger events than Futures.

And, Mukund believes there’s a “big difference” between the two. In Challengers, he frequently runs into top-100 players and, now, knows what it takes to be one.

“They are physically strong. Top 100 comes from consistency, adding points week after week. You can’t have one amazing week and then four ordinary ones. You have to cope with various conditions. Mentally also you need to be fit; you can’t feel home sick. In a year, you’ll have to experience 30 different cuisines, hotels, pillow, bedsheets but still have to come out and give your best.”

But Mukund neither seeks sympathy for his struggles nor suggests that tennis players alone are cursed to suffer loneliness.

“Even IIT and IIM students have to study alone. They don’t study in a group. It’s like that in many things in life,” he says.

“Unless you become a top player when you can travel with your wife, girlfriend or team, you have learn to live alone. That’s how it is.”