Is Somdev Devvarman too old to break into the top 50?

Federer and Somdev - after their French /open face off

On November 23, 2010, the Aoti Tennis Centre in Guangzhou witnessed a touch of history in the Asian Games Men’s Singles final, with Somdev Devvarman, the architect and Denis Istomin, the one on the receiving end. India’s gold medal hopes rested on the shoulders of the 25 year old who had already delivered the doubles’ gold, along with Sanam Singh, the day before. The match was a Somdev classic as he dominated proceedings with clever serves, some stiff resistance from the baseline and a miserly unforced error count, thereby annihilating his Uzbek opponent in straight sets; 6-1 6-2 the scoreline. It was the first time that an Indian tennis player had managed to win the gold medal in the Asian games Men’s Singles event.

Prior to the Asian games, Devvarman had achieved a similar feat in the Commonwealth Games earlier in the year, as he defeated Greg Jones from Australia to win the gold medal. Currently ranked at 135 in the world, the Indian has been a significant contributor to the country’s Davis Cup cause, with victories over the likes of Thomaz Bellucci, Yen Hsun-Lu and Janko Tipsarevic. He reached a career high of 62 in the world in July 2011, overcoming Potito Starace, Marcos Baghdatis, Xavier Malisse and Milos Raonic on the way. Despite such accolades, Somdev’s injuries and inconsistency have seen him rise and fall frequently in the ATP rankings. The top seeded Indian is certainly good, but is he good enough to break into the top 50? Even if he does, will he be able to maintain his ranking by competing against the top few on a consistent basis? That’s a question which remains to be answered.

Devvarman with the Commonwealth Games gold medal
Devvarman with the Commonwealth Games gold medal

Currently at 29 years of age, Somdev is not getting any younger. His style of play, usually referred to as the “pusher” mode, demands the highest degree of physical fitness as more often than not he is seen scampering across the baseline from corner to corner in order to retrieve the shots of his opponents. He usually stands a good distance behind the baseline, thereby allowing the player on the other side of the net to exploit the dimensions of the court in order to create sharper angles that force Devvarman to cover the extra metre. Even with his excellent retrieval and defensive skills, it has to be admitted that a pattern of play as taxing as this is not going to be easy to execute efficiently as he steps into his thirties.

Well in tennis they say that “a man is only as good as his second serve”. The second serve is a weaklink in Somdev’s game and usually sits right up in the opponent’s hitting zone. As a result, quite often he is forced to take a fair bit of pace off his first serve just to avoid having to hit a second. To add to the worries, he does not have a very telling first serve either and as such does not win too many free points of his first delivery. And being 5ft 11in does no good to his cause. Devvarman has a pretty decent game in the forecourt, however he doesn’t use that part of his game very often and is seen to indulge in baseline monologues way too much. All of the top players are known to have one strong weapon atleast. Federer, Nadal, Del Potro, Berdych are well known for their devastating forehands, whereas Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka have equally strong backhands. With Somdev, the story is very different. He doesn’t have a big forehand or a backhand and he primarily relies on his footspeed to put forth his passive style of play.

Somdev hitting a defensive forehand on the run
Somdev hitting a defensive forehand on the run

With these shortcomings, Somdev has had some unexpected defeats. He lost to David Goffin, the qualifier from Belgium in the Chennai Open in 2011. Goffin who has a similar game to Somdev, was a touch more aggressive and was able to push Somdev just enough to get the job done. In Australian Open 2013, Jercy janowicz outplayed the Indian, despite trailing two sets to love. It was a perfect example of Somdev’s defensive game breaking down over a best of five sets affair. This year in an ATP Challenger Event in Chennai, Somdev lost to his compatriot Yuki Bhambri in a match that had 9 breaks of serves over a span of 18 games. Yuki pulled it off in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4.

Devvarman struggled with injuries for the first half of the season in 2012 and ended the year as no. 664 in the world. He came back in 2013 and used his injury protected ranking (IPR) to compete in tournaments and found his way back into the top 100, before dropping out again later on.

Somdev takes a second serve return inside the baseline
Somdev takes a second serve return inside the baseline

Of late, following an unexpected triumph against Juan Martin Del Potro in the Dubai Open 2014, there has been a visible change in Devvarman’s game. He has been more aggressive with his groundies and there has been a marked increase in his ace and unreturned serves count. The match against Del Potro saw a revived Somdev Devvarman as he flattened out his forehands to hit clean winners. The inside out forehand was working well and there was a sense of urgency in his game. He took the ball early within the baseline and was able to break down the Del potro backhand consistently. The backhand down the line was a revealation too as quite a few winners came in from that wing. Although the match ended with the Argentine retiring after the first set, it was Somdev who had his nose in front till then. He lead 1 set to none, having won the first set 7-6(3).

There has been news from the Somdev camp that he has been working on his first serve, his forehand and backhand and is trying to be more aggressive in his game. A blend of aggressive groundies and solid defensive skills should present a formidable challenge to most opponents. However, in tennis, skills are not mastered overnight. It will probably take a considerable amount of time for Devvarman to bring in substantial changes to his patterns of play. And as he steps into the mid-thirties, his footspeed will surely decelerate, thereby denying him his biggest weapon. We have already seen greats like Andy Roddick, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, etc. struggling to maintain their level of play under the weight of the years. It is highly unlikely that with Somdev the story will be different. Undoubtedly, he is one of the most talented tennis players that India has had to offer, however breaking into the top 50 might just be a bit too much to ask.