What do John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Somdev Devvarman have in common?
All three have won NCAA men’s singles tennis championships.
On May 28th, 2007, the 2nd-seeded Devvarman, of the University of Virginia tennis team, defeated the University of Georgia’s John Isner (the top seed) 7-6, 4-6, 7-6 to win the 2007 NCAA men’s tennis singles championship.
The 22-year-old champion is from Chennai, and is the first person of Indian descent to win the NCAA men’s singles tennis title (this history dates back to 1883.) A sociology major, Somdev will enter his senior year in the fall of 2007. We caught up with Somdev a few days after he’d won the title.
Some people are calling this match one of the greatest matches in NCAA tennis finals history. What’s your reaction to being involved in such an epic match?
It’s a great honor. John and I both played very well. He served extremely well. I never broke his serve and I don’t even think I ever got a break point. I think that the two of us were both honored to be out there and compete.
It’s pretty amazing that you won the match without ever breaking serve. Had you ever done that before?
Not than I can remember!
John Isner was trying to accomplish something historical: He had won the NCAA men’s doubles championship in 2005 with Antonio Ruiz. And John’s team, Georgia, had won the team title in 2006 (and won it again in 2007). So John was going for the career triple crown, which is a rare accomplishment. Speak for a moment about Isner and his achievements.
I think that John is one of the best tennis players that college tennis has seen in the last decade or maybe even more. His record speaks for itself. He is so good and so focused that it’s very difficult to beat him when he’s feeling good. He’s going to go a long way with that serve which is an absolute cannon. I think we’re going to see a lot of John on the pro circuit.
You’ve only beaten John twice, and the first time was just a week before this match, in the NCAA team tournament. How many times had you played him before that?
This match was in Athens, Ga., on John’s home court. Did that have any impact on you?
Maybe a little at the start, but once you get into the match you really just focus on your job and forget about all the external factors. The good thing about playing on John’s home court was that we had a great crowd to play for, which is not very common in college tennis.
John closed out the second set with three consecutive aces. But television replays indicated that two of those three aces were wide, one by nearly half a foot. Did you know at the time that those were out?
How did you react from an emotional standpoint?
Going into the third set, the last thing I needed was negativity. Those calls happened and I couldn’t do anything about them. I’ve got to stay focused on what I can control. And stay focused on the next point.
Is that an ability that you’ve had to work to develop? Or is that just your personality?
When I was younger I used to get really mad at bad calls, but as I got more experience and more coaching, I learned that getting mad didn’t help me win the next point. So I learned to let go of it and move on. Even in this case, it’s just two points.
But it’s two points that cost you a set! In the championship match!
Yeah, but I couldn’t think of it that way because that wouldn’t benefit me in the match. It would probably do the opposite.
So it’s a very rational approach.
Yes, you’re exactly right.
On match point, you served an ace down the middle. You were working with four match points, being up 6-2 in the tiebreaker, but still, this was an extremely close match, and this set would decide the whole thing. At that moment, being up 6-2 in the tiebreaker, were you tempted at all to go conservative and hope that Isner would make a mistake on one of the next four points?
No, no, not at all. I had a lot of adrenaline going, and also my second serve had been going well. I thought that I could make the serve, so I went for it.
The NCAA men’s tennis tournament starts with a 64-player field. That means that you have to win 6 consecutive matches to win. In 2005 you won one match and then lost in the 2nd round. In 2006 you made a huge leap and made it all the way to the championship match, but lost. And now you’ve won the whole thing in 2007. How did you make such huge leaps during those two years?
The first year taught me that I shouldn’t get too excited about just being there. I have to treat every match as just another match and prepare for it and be focused on the game. And then, especially last year, I learned that I really could compete with these guys.
And Coach Boland [U.Va. men’s tennis head coach Brian Boland] helped me a lot. He knows so much about the game, we are lucky to have him. He’s helped me improve every part of my game.
Also I’ve worked really hard on my fitness and strength, so now as it gets late in a match, I’m not as fatigued.
What’s your basic exercise regimen?
I lift weights three times a week. I run every single day.
Distance or sprints?
A mix. Sometimes distance, sometimes sprints. I also do court sprints every day after practice, and I do hills once or twice a week.
You are part of a nationally-ranked men’s doubles team (with Treat Huey). Does your singles game benefit from your playing doubles? And if so, how?
Definitely! Playing doubles has vastly improved my net game, my court awareness, and my serving.
I can see how playing doubles would improve your net game and court awareness, but I’m not sure how it would improve your serving.
In doubles, especially in men’s doubles, points are short. Long rallies are rare. So you’re always looking for ways to win points quickly. When you’re serving, you want to try to get your partner an easy put-away. Or better yet, get a service winner or an ace. So you’re forced to really do more with your serve.
Ah, that makes sense now…What are your interests outside of tennis and academics?
I love music. I play the guitar and I’m not very good at it. I love watching movies and playing other sports. I especially enjoy playing basketball and soccer.
Is tennis a family sport for you?
No. Nobody else in my family plays tennis. My brother played a tiny bit when he was younger, but that’s all. I just used to see it on TV and so I got interested.
When did you start playing?
When I was nine.
That’s older than I would have guessed.
Yeah, most players start when they’re five or six.
Many basketball and football players who achieve greatness at the college level leave school early to go pro. Does this happen much in tennis?
Yes, quite a bit. But that’s a personal choice. I’m definitely staying in school. My education is very important to me. I’m planning on going pro in 2008 after graduation.
Ranjit Souri lives in Chicago and is a columnist for India Currents magazine. He teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, creative non-fiction, and GMAT and LSAT prep. You can reach Ranjit at [email protected]