Pune: The last time Ramkumar Ramanathan played a singles match at the Balewadi Stadium here, he was the second seed and was stunned 3-6, 2-6 by Arjun Kadhe in the opening round of the Pune Challenger. He was unable to convert a single break point and never really had a chance during the straight sets defeat.
That was his last singles match of the last season, and although he went on to win the doubles title in Pune, his season ended on a poor note… falling short as he had throughout 2018.
Less than two months later, Ramkumar was at the same stadium – this time as a wild card in the Tata Open Maharashtra, India’s only ATP 250 tournament, and almost lost his way again after going a set down against world No 96 Marcel Granollers.
The world No 132’s usually big serve was broken in the very first game he could not recover from a second straight break. This was the juncture where the 24-year-old Indian has often lost focus in the past.
But on Tuesday, Ramkumar found his way back against a player who he had never beaten before. He took a break, changed his t-shirt, regrouped after the first set and fought back to beat Granollers, who was once a top-20 player and held a 2-0 head-to-head record against the Indian, in an hour and 57 minutes.
After losing the first set, he did not give away a single break point in the last two sets against a player ranked 36 places higher than him, even when the game went to deuce, even when he committed as many as six double faults.
“I wanted to win today and I wanted to give my best. Because in the Challenger here I wasn’t able to give my best against Arjun. I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted to come out and give my best and try to stay aggressive which was so important for me. The big serves helped me in the second set. I hung in there even on some 0-30s. He is a very very tricky to play and it was a really really close match,” he told reporters after his win.
And it was all down to one important thing — a clear game plan, backed by the hunger to win. New year, new Ramkumar?
The most impressive aspect of Ramkumar’s win was how he adjusted, mentally and physically when the situation demanded it.
The Chennai-born player is a believer in the serve and volley style, which has often cost him, including at the Asian Games.
But on Tuesday he changed strategies and started hitting from the baseline.
For anyone who has watched him play, Ramkumar exchanging a long rally from the baseline is a rarity. But it was tactical move as the Spaniard seemed to be more comfortable coming to the net in the first set.
The Indian made errors in the first set and the strategy looked detrimental at that stage. But he eventually started getting the balance right and mixed things up to pass Granollers whenever he charged to the net.
“I should have that mix. Whenever I feel like going to net I should. But even from the back, I felt comfortable. I was going for my forehands. I hit some good inside out forehands. I played some good passing shots and I stayed with him. I wanted to stay in the match and whenever I got a chance, I stuck to it,” he explained.
While he has always maintained he can carry out a game from the back of the court as well, it had to be seen to be believed. “I was playing from the back when I was playing in the Futures in Spain. It’s a good thing to be able to mix things up on some points which will help me win some good matches,” he added.
Turning chinks into weapons
As has often been pointed out by his coaches, from Thyagarajan Chandrasekaran to Zeeshan Ali, backhand and second serve are the chinks in the tall Indian’s armour.
But against Granollers, he refused to let either get in the way of his win.
In the first set, he won only 25% of points on his second serve. But the number changed to 60% and 50% in the next two sets, and the difference showed. Once he got his booming serve working, he was able to dictate the terms, and eventually wrestle the decisive breaks.
The Spaniard understandably attacked his backhand early on, but the Indian read the situation and started using that to his advantage.
“When he was serving and volleying on my backhand, I was a little defensive during the start of the match. I blocked it and then he got an easy volley to put it away. As the match went on, I knew where the balls were coming to on my backhand so I had a little bit extra time. So I backed up and I swung a few. Even on the break point on the third set and he made a good volley. I had a chance to pass but if I had blocked that return 30-40, it would have been an easy winner for him. I told myself to go for the returns,” he recounted.
“Even though it has been tough for me, it’s the way to get to the next level and be with these top players,” he admitted.
Mentally as well, Ramkumar needed to regroup thrice during the course of the match. First after the opening set loss, and then when he had an altercation with the chair umpire and his opponent over a challenge in the last two sets.
Once again, it would have been easy to lose focus. But feeding on the crowd support, he clung on, playing each point on merit, celebrating each one with a huge roar.
“I told myself to serve a lot of first serves and stay aggressive and you’ll get your chance. Eventually I got it.
“It (the match) could have easily ran away from that game [in the sixth game of the second]. The very next game it was 30-30 [on my serve] and it was a long service game. I somehow held that game.” he said.
How he held on is the testament to his off-season work, where he said he was working on ironing the flaws while improving his physical fitness. And the results are there to be seen so far.
Up next for him in fourth seed Malek Jaziri. Last year, he had run into top seed Marin Cilic in the second round in Pune, and gone down without a fight. Can he do one better this year, now that he has an ATP 250 final under his best?
“Jaziri is a great player, I have seen some of his matches in Barcelona. No match is going to be easy but if I serve well, focus on my things rather than his... He is a very consistent player so it is going to be a tough battle and I am looking forward to it,” he said.