A cloud of calm always seems to surround Divij Sharan. Training, practicing, playing, the tennis pro is amazingly meticulous and diligently non-controversial. He is currently the No 1 doubles player from the country and the fittest too. To borrow an often used, but more often abused, cliché in Indian tennis, his racquet does all the talking.
Flying under the radar yet again, Sharan will lead a five-man strong Indian doubles contingent at Wimbledon, which begins on Monday. While it is the most revered tournament in the sport, it is also one that seemingly set the Indian on track last year. In the company of Kiwi Artem Sitak, Sharan made it to the quarter-finals of the 2018 Wimbledon — the first time he had gone that deep at a Grand Slam.
“It was very special,” Sharan recalls of his 2018 Wimbledon campaign in his own understated way. “We had a couple of long matches, but we enjoyed playing on the grass and fought it out.”
Sharan-Sitak clawed back from two sets down in the second and third rounds to make it to the last eight. In the quarters, they lost to eventual champions Mike Bryan and Jack Sock in four sets.
But the run at Wimbledon, which saw him reach a career-high of 36 in the rankings, seemed to have fired Sharan up for more success, especially in the India jersey. A few months later in Jakarta, Sharan and Rohan Bopanna survived a few tricky moments to maintain India’s domination in men’s doubles at the Asian Games by coming back with a gold medal. During April’s Davis Cup tie against Italy in Kolkata, the Sharan-Bopanna combine turned the tide against Matteo Berrettini and Simone Bolelli to beat them 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. As it turned out, that was the only point India won in that Davis Cup qualifier tie.
A pump of fist, smile and a hug to his partner Bopanna were the only outwardly signs of celebrations from Sharan, as they usually are.
As Mahesh Bhupathi, Leander Paes and Bopanna have faded away, the 33-year-old Sharan has emerged as the unlikely, and equally unassuming, heir to the Indian doubles dynasty. Currently ranked 44 in the world, he doesn’t quite have the success to back that claim, but it isn’t for the lack of effort.
This summer, Sharan has checked-into more cities than a whirlwind European tour promises. From Paris in France to Antalya in Turkey, India’s No 1 doubles player has been hard at work, notching up wins and ranking points. He had a few personal firsts as well: first ATP clay final in Munich and first ATP 500 on grass in Halle, both with Brazil’s Marcelo Demoliner.
That Munich final was a thorough test and an indicator of how far he had come.
“I don’t think I’d had a decent run in a while before Munich,” says Sharan. “It was a pretty good tournament, but tough conditions. We were playing outdoor tennis when it was 5-6 degree Celsius. During the final (which they lost to Frederik Nielsen and Tim Puetz), for the most part, it was raining. Even though we are used to adapting to different surfaces or weather conditions every week, this was pretty rough. Maybe, earlier in my career I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. It was almost like the feeling you get when you play on European clay for the very first time, it’s unsettling. But I was okay because of all the experience I have gained in the past few seasons.”
Sharan has been doing well in doubles for the past five years, climbing up the rankings gradually and steadily. A southpaw with a steady serve and instinctive net game, the Indian is more effective than flashy. And as the days go by, he is developing a steadier nerve and a hardened heart.
“In doubles, one point can change the match,” he says. “It’s so close, so unpredictable. On the tour, there’s no ad (advantage) and a match tie-break, so there’s very little margin for error. One good shot, either by you or your opponent can change the match. Some people get over defeats easier than others. I usually take things in my stride quickly. Of course, after the match, you think what you did well, or what you could have done differently. But you take your lessons and move on.
“Playing these close matches week in and week out also helps your ability to make decisions. You just look for that one breakthrough to get you back into the groove. It is very interesting on court to feel that momentum switch. Personally, I like fighting out for each point. That’s what happened at Wimbledon also (in 2018) during those close matches. You win a few points, sense that energy surging.”
At Wimbledon last year, the Indian had teamed up with Sitak, an experienced doubles player the same age as Sharan. This year, he will enter the Championships at SW19 with Demoliner, a 6’4 Brazilian with an all-court game. In between, he also tried out teaming up with fellow Indian Bopanna. And though the duo started the year by winning the Tata Open Maharashtra in the first week, they called off the partnership in March.
While steady partnerships were the order of the day earlier, doubles game has long ceased being a team sport. Nowadays, it’s every man to himself. Partners come, partners go. Sharan has realised that he needs to hold up his end, and make it work with whoever he has teamed up with for the week, to survive and to surge.
“You have to bring your strengths to the table,” says Sharan, who has had four different partners already this year. “Nowadays no one wants to play too long with each other if they are not getting the results. I don’t know why players don’t want to invest more time in building partnerships. Maybe they have high expectations and think they can do better with someone else. But that’s how it is.”
Sharan, though, knows that one thing he can control is his performance. While he spent time working on his serve and return — which has become key elements with so many singles players populating the doubles circuit — during the off-season in the USA, Sharan is also a stickler for fitness. The physical aspect is even more important during Wimbledon, as it is the only tournament that still has five sets and the ad rule in men’s doubles.
“You’d think the fitter players have an advantage at Wimbledon,” says the Indian. “On tour, the doubles matches last maybe 45 minutes to an hour. But at Wimbledon, it’s much longer so it is quite different. We have to prepare accordingly, have longer practice and gym sessions so you are ready if the match goes to five sets. But at the same time, you can’t go crazy because you are still playing tournaments.”
It seems unlikely that Sharan would go ‘crazy’ in any situation, especially one that concerns his career. Measured could easily be his middle name.
Doubles tennis, for its volatile nature and ever-changing partners, is a minefield. Indian doubles tennis, given its recent history off the court, can be pretty messy. Sharan’s equanimity has helped him dispel the fog and march ahead.
Your guide to the latest cricket World Cup stories, analysis, reports, opinions, live updates and scores on https://www.firstpost.com/firstcricket/series/icc-cricket-world-cup-2019.html. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates throughout the ongoing event in England and Wales.