Minutes after Sidharth Rawat notched a gritty, three-set win over local Arjun Kadhe at the ongoing KPIT MSLTA Challenger in Pune, he was talking about another match from 2018 against the same opponent.
The match in question was the semi-finals of last year’s national tennis championship, which the 26-year-old Delhi player lost 2-6, 7-6(2), 6-2. The scoreline was not very different this time, with Rawat winning 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in an hour and 40 minutes. Not part of the ATP or ITF tour, not many will remember it or the result.
But for Rawat, it is an important milestone. It tells him the gamble he and his coach Gaurav Sharma took a few years ago is worth it, that it is working slowly but steadily. A gamble that saw him change his whole game style, for the second time. A gamble similar to what made Prajnesh Gunneswaran break into the top 100 and remain the top-ranked Indian for a sustained period of time.
Now it may seem like the India No 1 and a player ranked outside the top 500 may not have a lot in common, but the two friends share a great rapport and the risky call they both took.
“My coach changed my game completely [a few years ago]. Previously, I used to like for us to just grind, just keep the ball up...but he changed my full game, making me an aggressive player,” Rawat told Scroll.in after his match at the Pune Challenger. “Even other players like Prajnesh were advising me to be aggressive, you can’t just grind it out, they said.”
It’s a big risk, but he had an excellent example to follow, that of his friend Prajnesh who pushed him to adopt the change as much as his coach, with whom he has been working for the last 15 years in Delhi.
The process started back in 2015, when the India No 1 was going through something similar. Their friendship blossomed around the same time as well.
“He is a good friend, he helps a lot, giving tips on what we can do to improve.
“In 2015 at a Challenger in Korea he let me share a room because he was getting hospitality and I was out of the tournament. Back then, he was also transforming his game. He used to grind and from 2015, he started attacking. So, I could see his change and then I could see my change...it’s good to have somebody’s example like this,” Rawat added.
The change in style transformed the 29-year-old Chennai player’s career, but Rawat is candid when he admits the process is not as quick for him.
“First I used to grind, I used to just take time and dictate [points]. With this aggressive thing I just go blank, I just go for full power. It is a process, I am working on point construction in the range, but I can see that I can cause more damage like this.
“Previously my one shot would be good and four shots would be flying, but that is slowly changing. I used to feel I could hit the ball, I could just damage the opponent not just waiting for him to miss. So I could see that I have to do this, but the mental part was crucial because I didn’t play like this, it was not coming easy.
“But slowly it is developing, still not perfect. When the crucial point comes I still think, I want to get out of that till it becomes automatic, it’s what I am working on,” he articulated.
This is why a win against Kadhe, who was not at his 100%, is so crucial to Rawat. He managed to be calm in the third set, despite missing chances in the second. He plays 15th seed Brydan Klein next.
Winning your first Futures singles title at 26 – he won a $25K ITF men’s title in June – is considered late by most standards. But for someone who has tinkered with his game style not once but twice, this was the result of a long game.
“My natural style was actually attacking. When I was younger, I was overweight...about 90 kg. Then once I turned 16 years I did a lot of fitness work and started grinding. I was becoming fit and I had this mindset that I have to use my fitness and started playing in that way,” he admitted.
Fitness is very important to him and he touches wood as soon as injury is mentioned. But physicality is not the problem for the 26-year-old, it is the mental aspect.
“I was struggling, I would always lose in finals. I lost four Futures finals before I won my first – four months ago in Thailand. After that, I have been doing good only but there was still a gap, I could not maintain it. I am waiting for it to change...to improve my mindset which was a challenge for me,” he said.
He has a lot of support as he traverses this bridge to mental confidence, especially from his Indian peers who are practically a family on tour. The Delhi boy says he almost understands Tamil now, that is how much time he has spent with Prajnesh, N Sriram Balaji and Co. Former national champion Dalwinder Singh once said Rawat is the Indian player he enjoys watching play.
“You need good people around you, like my coach and Prajnesh. They have experience at that level, they were telling me to change,” he said.
He took their advice and changed his game physically. But the real challenge is mental, and Rawat is well aware of it. With a little help from his friends, he is confident of getting there soon.