Ramkumar Ramanathan’s almost five-year old career on the ATP circuit so far has blown hot-and-cold. But 2018 was an important year for him, despite being a mixed bag one.

He had a win-loss record of 22-25 through the year (including the ATP and ITF tour), but made an important breakthrough when he became the first Indian men’s singles player since Somdev Devvarman to reach the final of an ATP World Tour event. He eventually finished as the runner-up at ATP 250 Hall of Fame Open on the grasscourts of Newport in July.

He also reached a career-high ranking of 111 despite not winning a singles title on the tour, reaching the main draw of a Grand Slam and even failed to win a medal at the Asian Games. In his final tournament of the year, he was stunned by wildcard Arjun Kadhe at the Pune Challenger in the second round but went on to win his first Challenger doubles title.

The 24-year-old is well aware of this and while his season has not been great, but insists that it has been a learning one.

“It was a good year, there were many ups and down but I am still ranked around 130 [133 in the year-end rankings after starting at 148]. I played a lot of tournaments and it went well in one part but not so much in others. But it happens, and I am on the track so just looking forward to the next season,” he told Scroll.in.

Cutting down on Challengers

One of his biggest takeaways from the last season has been about planning his schedule well. He played 35 tournaments this season apart from the two Davis Cup ties and the Asian Games in Jakarta.

In 18 Challengers he played, he suffered eight first round exits, lost five times in the second round, reached the quarter-finals thrice and reached only one final, where he lost to compatriot Yuki Bhambri.

“I should try to play a lot of higher level tournaments whenever I can, that is the only way to get the ranking up,” he added.

This will mean cutting down on the Challengers and playing qualifiers. In the 11 ATP World Tour tournaments where he entered the qualifiers in 2018, he reached the main draw twice and had one wild card, one direct entry and one special exempt.

Serve-and-volley conundrum

Ramkumar understands that this will mean a lot more toil and through his stop-and-start season, he has been steadily working on his game. He has a unique style where serve-and-volley dominates baseline hitting, having grown up on the Indian grass and the clay in Spain.

While Ramkumar insists that his traditional grass court style works for him, he also knows that he has to tweak it to make it lethal across surfaces. “It’s what I believe, works well for me. That is why I do it. If I feel like going in I go in, if I don’t I stay back. It’s just a style it depends, I can also stay back and hit, it’s not like I cannot play from back. It’s a mix, the right mix is very important and I have been working on that. Whenever I get a chance I go in,” he said of his serve-and-volley approach.

When Scroll.in had spoken to Thyagarajan Chandrasekaran, his first coach in Chennai, during his Newport run, he said that Ram must to work on his second serve and backhand. The Indian candidly agrees with the assessment and adds that he is also trying to improve his return of serve.

“I am still working on it, it is a process and I am working a lot on all the aspects. Overall, it’s improved a lot but there is a lot of room for improvement. Fitness, for example, is very important, recovery when you do tough work out and so on,” he said.

It is evident he is taking this aspect seriously, starting individualised training with former India cricket team trainer Ramji Srinivasan, beyond what he already does at the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Spain.

Looking ahead

The youngster wishes he could travel with a trainer as many players do, but understands the financial aspects of it don’t work out well in India. He currently travels with coach Emilio Sanchez when he can and has the full backing of his state.

In 2018, the 24-year-old also got the chance to be part of the ATP University, which is mandatory for all the players in the top 150. “It was a good learning experience, we learnt about how the ATP works and about media skills and so on. We also went for the ATP Finals matches at the O2 one day, it was fun,” he said recounting the three-day event in London.

Both at the University and on the ATP Tour, there have been lessons aplenty for the Chennai youngster and he plans to use them all as he embarks on what will be vital season in 2019.

He will start it home, at the ATP 250 Maharashtra Open in Pune. But the bigger aim will be to reach the main draw of a Grand Slam. He had stumbled at the last hurdle at last year’s Australian Open qualifiers – losing to Vasek Pospisil whom he went on to beat at Newport – and hopes to finally cross that threshold. Play Grand Slams, win singles titles, focus on quality than quantity of tournaments and break into the top 100, these are the broad goals for 2019. Given his potential, 2019 should be the year he ticks them all.