When Saketh Myneni went to University of Alabama in the year 2007, he was largely unheralded. He had a junior high ranking in the 1200s. But the four years of playing US Collegiate Tennis changed him completely as a player.
He turned professional in 2011 at the age of 24. He won the first ITF Futures he entered, without dropping a set. For the first time, the tennis world took notice of him. He came into the tournament unranked and finished off the year ranked in the 700s.
He lived up to the promise he showed in 2011. He won a gold and a silver at the 2014 Asian Games. He won a Challenger in Indore in 2014. He qualified into the US Open. He was ranked in the 130s and was on an ascendancy into the top 100.
But just when things were looking good, his body failed and he injured his shoulder. He missed most of 2017 because of this injury. He came back from the wretched injury to reach the SF of the KPIT MSLTA Challenger in Pune, only to be plagued by a foot injury this time, which forced him to miss a significant chunk of 2018 as well.
He finished 2017 ranked 613. But Saketh did what he does best. He came back again. His most recent comeback saw him reach the final of the Bengaluru Open 2018 held in the second week of November, losing to Prajnesh Gunneswaran, 2-6 2-6.
He ends 2018 ranked 265, a near 350 rank jump from 2017.
Indian Tennis Daily, caught up with Saketh after his SF win against Aleksandr Nedovyesov in Bengaluru during the Challenger event. We talked to him about his injuries, his motivation to make comebacks and his views on the upcoming Davis Cup tie against Italy in Kolkata on grass, among other things.
Q. In terms of injuries, how is your body at the moment? You were talking to us yesterday about your shoulder not being a 100%. Could you shed some more light on it?
It has always been like that with the shoulder for the last few years. There are always going to be some issues with regard to recovery. It’ll never be a 100%. So I’ll always have to deal with how things are and how I can manage to make sure that I’m strong. It’s because of a surgery I had in 2011, it’ll never be the same again naturally. There are always going to be some ifs and buts, but that’s why I want to make sure that physically I get better in terms of making sure that it doesn’t become the same way (as it was in 2011). There’s an issue of over-compensation, you know, when I’m tired or something, I thought it would be better to ensure I don’t over strain it.
Q. What about your foot now? Has it completely healed? (Saketh had missed a significant chunk of the season because of a foot injury.)
No, it hasn’t. And it probably never will. I didn’t go for surgery and decided to do it the natural way. They told me you can steroids, you do a surgery and all that, but there were chances that it might get ruptured, because my injury was in the arc. Plantar usually happens on the heel, but since I got it in the arc, because my body finds ways to take more time, it took more time to heal. The arc bears the whole weight of the body, the heel doesn’t, which is why it took some time to heal.
Q. Is that what caused your foot blisters, which forced you to withdraw? (Saketh had withdrawn from Shenzhen Challenger in late October, due to foot blisters)
No that was different. The foot blisters had formed due to the blood inside bumps in the foot. It was like a small thing, but I almost ripped my shoe off, because of the pressure I was putting on the affected areas. I couldn’t stand that day. In China, finding physios was difficult, because it’s tough to communicate in terms of what they need to do and all that. I wanted to get the liquid drained out, but they wouldn’t do it, because it was tough. Once the liquid’s out then you are fine, but when it’s not, it hurts very bad and you cannot even stand. I wanted to try, but the phsyio was like “It’ll be OK, It’ll be OK”, but it wasn’t. Literally, I couldn’t even stand.Then he was like let my try. But I wanted to play that way, because I had already committed to the tournament. I had played three rounds of qualies and had to withdraw in the first round. I had played the week before in doubles and all that, so I left on Friday (from Liuzhou), so I was playing back to back days.
The other problem was that in China it was raining on alternate days, so it was one match indoor and another match outdoor so it was a lot of transition. It was fine, I’m not blaming the conditions or anything, can’t blame mother nature yaar. But the infrastructure they have is amazing, they have everything. They have indoor courts, 2 stadium courts, anywhere you do. It was pretty nice to have all that. But it was tough. China was the first set of challengers I was coming back to after my injury, and I twisted my ankle during practise. These are things you can’t control. It’s a part of life.
Q. How difficult does it become to motivate yourself to comeback and restart the whole process again?
My goals have been different. For me rankings, in terms of I need to get there haven’t been very important. Especially, I’ve changed over the past 2-3 years, where I have had to change my goals to being healthy. I needed to change my goals where I wanted to enjoy the sport, enjoy the tennis as much I can possibly, Also to get better. What can I do differently? What am I doing different from last year to this year?
Q. At any point in time during your injuries, did you consider shifting focus from singles to doubles?
No. Not even once. I didn’t even think about it. For me it was just about, when will I be out again and playing.
Q. So for you getting back and playing meant playing singles, preferably.
Yeah, definitely. I’ve always focussed on singles. I always wanted to play singles. I also play doubles, because I enjoy the sport that way.
Q. With now playing both singles and doubles, how difficult does it become to tackle both? You’ve played 6-7 matches this week (At the time of the interview, Saketh had played 7 matches, including 4 singles matches and 3 doubles matches)
It’s always tough, especially with the scheduling, when you have late doubles matches and early singles matches the next day, it’s never easy to finish recovery and get ready for the next day. But here in Bangalore it’s been great, with the hotel nearby and all that, it’s been incredible. For players you always book everything in one place. But in some places, it’s always trouble, like physio in one place, food in another place, and by the time you get to a hotel it’s really late. Plus having a physio who has been helping out, it has been great.
Q. Leander Paes had come up with an open offer that you can play doubles with him. It’s not something you are considering at this point?
It’s incredible, for a gifted athlete such as him, to make me such an offer, I feel privileged. But for me, singles has always been my priority, because that’s what has helped me to whatever I’ve done so far. I mean it doesn’t matter that I’ve achieved more in doubles, in terms of the Asian games medal. The reason I got picked there because I was singles player, who also plays doubles also. I want to improve on both the things. The transition tour also makes a difference, especially with the new rankings I haven’t really checked yet, but they said if you doubles high and you aren’t in the qualies, you can’t play both the events. So you have to be ranked high in the singles to get into the tournament.
Q. On that point, I have a question for you regarding the transition tour. How much more difficult is it going to be formed someone transitioning from the junior circuit to the professional circuit?
I mean it’s a tough thing to say. Some people may like it, some people may not like it. It all depends on how things pan out in the first three months in the beginning of next year. I’ve heard it’s going to be a chaos. It could be a chaos or people will learn to adapt. If you ask the same question after a year, people will say they adapted to the system, that’s how the system works. In the past the ATP has made changes to the system to get here in terms of points system or anything, but people have adjusted. It’s only in the beginning where people are going like “What’s going on?”, but my guess is in 6-8 months no one’s going to talk about it.
Q. But do you feel like, why fix a system that ain’t broken?
I mean, they want to make it better. But there’s a lot of ifs and buts about it. There are people who earn 1 or 2 points playing intermittently. Now they (ATP) don’t want it to happen. Youngsters, who want to play a few tournaments, but not be completely professional, may not be able to do it, because they only get transition points and not ATP points.
Q. Somdev in an interview had said the number of Indians ranked in the ATP computer would fall from 50 to about 15. What do you think about that?
I’m not sure about it. It’s tough to see. The number of Indians ranked will drastically fall, which is what I think Somdev was referring to. It’ll be tough for them to get into challengers. Hopefully people like the system, people adapt and there’s no chaos.
Q. What are your thoughts on the upcoming Davis Cup draw against Italy on grass?
It’s great to have it on grass. But no matter what the surface is, I think Italy will start off as the favourites, they’re still tough no matter what surface you’re going to play. Maybe it’s a better advantage for us on grass. We have a couple of guys who can really play well on grass; Ram and Praj. Ram has reached the finals of an ATP 250 (at Newport), Praj has qualified and defeated Shapovalov. But it’s not going to be easy, it’s Davis Cup, it’s 5 sets.
Q. Was it a story for you as well, playing for the first time on grass after turning professional?
No, I think played nationals in 2012 (The Grass Court Nationals, held at Kolkata). Prior to that i played once in Delhi when when I was 17, before I went to college. I still remember I was slipping and sliding. It’s different, you have to be trained a little bit. In my first Wimbledon, I struggled in the beginning, because the grass they have in the UK is different from the grass we have here. It’s much slower and the balls we use are different. So you can’t just think grass is for serve and volley and use serve and volley there. You have to have a proper game plan on how you approach a match. The grass being faster here could be a huge advantage for us, especially having two big guys. You never know, hopefully we challenge Italy and make it to the World Group.
Q. You’re playing the Davis Cup tie at South club, Kolkata, the same location that where you won the grass court nationals. Does it bring back any memories?
No, that’s the last I’ve been to the South Club since 2012. It’s unfortunate that they’ve stopped the tournament. It used to be a prestigious tournament. In 2011, I hadn’t played on grass, so I was trying to use hard court shoes on grass. You don’t have grass court shoes available easily. It’s great to have a different city, Kolkata hosting the Davis Cup.
Q. You’ve signed up for the Australian Open wildcard Playoffs. This is the first time you’re signing up for it. What are your thoughts on the tournament?
Yeah, I’ve never signed up before. It was because of the amount of tennis I’ve played throughout the the year, I’ve burnt out, in terms of playing back to back tournaments and all that. Even now, with Bangalore, Pune and Wildcard playoffs, I’m still not sure about the Wildcard Playoffs. I’ve just sent my entry because I haven’t played enough tournaments. It depends on how many matches I can take here, how my body is after Pune.
Q. So there is a possibility that you may withdraw from doubles and play singles?
Yeah, that’s a possibility. Right now I’m not even in the draw, I’m in the alternates, so I’m not even sure if I’ll get to play singles. But hopefully. Let’s hope for the best and see in Pune how it goes, and then I’ll make an evaluation. Altitude is also an issue. Zhuhai is not in an altitude like Bangalore and Pune are, so you have to adjust yourself
(At the time of the interview, Saketh was an alternate, however at the time of publication, Saketh has made it to the Qualifying acceptance list)
Q. How much of a difference does altitude make?
It makes a big difference. Especially if you don’t prepare well. The person who adjusts well in the beginning can usually handle the altitude issues.
Q. For a tennis player who’s playing the Challenger tour, how difficult does it become to motivate yourself and play week after week, when weeks, more often than not, end up with losses?
For a player who’s playing 20-30 tournaments a year, I have to give him full credit for that. I’ve never done it, though I wanted to do it. Ram and Praj have done it, Yuki hasn’t done it yet. It’s incredible how these guys do it. They just travel and they play. I’ve never done that at the junior level also. I did in college, but it was just a Friday and a Sunday and it was a team travelling and playing together. Travelling alone for 25-30 weeks a year is not easy. For me even playing 15-20 tournaments is a big thing for me. It’s one of the goals I’ve had. I’ve played 15 tournaments in a couple of years. I think playing grand slams is the motivation for everyone, and playing the ATP 500s and the Masters, that I think is the motivation for everyone. It’s playing at the bigger level and competing against the bigger people that’s the motivation.
Q. Could you tell us a little about the support staff and the people behind the scenes?
Parents first, always. They moved to a different city for me, from Vizag to Hyderabad. They have always been the biggest support. Then my physio, Yash (Pandey) is out here a good amount. Whenever I’m in India or nearby, I take him around. In Hyderabad, my fitness trainer and strength coach Mr Mohammed Latif. He’s incredible. He’s very old school. You don’t see music players, ACs, fans. It’s very old school, you have posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger and all that. It’s very disciplined. You come in there, do your stuff and leave. He’s been incredible since 2011, when I’ve come back from college, I’ve gone to him. Then there’s of course Mr CV Nagaraj in Hyderabad. A couple of juniors there come and help me and Vishnu out whenever we are there. I also have a coach called Jaymon Crabb from Australia who helps me out whenever he sees me. He’s a coach for Tennis Australia now, but he helps me out whenever he can at Slams and all that. His wife, Bryanne Stewart, who had reached the doubles semis at Wimbledon helped me out during Wimbledon. These guys know how difficult it is to travel alone without a coach.
Q. You don’t usually travel with a coach?
No, I like to take a physio as much as it is possible. But it’s very expensive. If I’m playing 2-3 tournaments at a place, then I can take a physio, but if it’s one tournament here and one tournament there, it’s difficult with the visa and all that. But that’s a part of life. I have a lot of help from the club I used to work at, the Burning Tree Club. They always want to know what I’m doing, how I’m doing and all that.
Q. You had a squad cheering you in Paris as well from Burning Tree.
Yeah, I didn’t expect that. I didn’t know they’d be coming. That’s fun for an athlete. You go there get entertained. Making friends, seeing different cultures, these are things I’ve always enjoyed.
Q. What about your off season training plans?
I couldn’t do it last year. It was tough, especially with my foot. In Pune last year I was struggling. I couldn’t even serve, couldn’t even stand up because of the foot. This year I have to put in a little more time, I have to see how things are next year. I haven’t checked the schedule yet. Getting into Pune Open is going to be tough, last year also the cutoffs were high. I may have to change my rackets also. I have been using old rackets. The rackets I’m using now are Yuki’s old rackets, they’re not mine. I was using 6 year old rackets till about 3 months back. I like it now, I like rackets with a little more flexibility, rather than stiff rackets. So maybe I’ll try a different racket during the offseason, like it and stick with it.