Somdev gets back into the game, but this time with a social cause
Somdev talks about working with the Sports Ministry and his pet project Life is a Ball
Somdev Devvarman may have retired, but he’s never been busier. There’s his appointment as the ‘national observer’ of the Government’s Sports Ministry, growing his charitable foundation ‘Life is a Ball’ to give more underprivileged kids access to game time and Get Fit, the business wing of the company for schools and corporates. Opting out of pro tennis earlier this year, statedly because of his dwindling interest, the Arjuna awardee says his passion now simply translates into the same fire being redirected elsewhere. “That’s definitely how I see it,” says the hunky athlete who hails fromthe North East and has made Chennai his home. “I mean let’s be honest, who retires at 32?”
Nowadays, the goal is to better equip junior players, in tennis to start with, with ‘resources and policies’ that will benefit them 10 years down the line, rather than put ‘band aids for huge holes.’ And what better place to operate out of, to do it all, than the place where all of this began — hitting a ball against the wall during his school days — in Chennai. These days, Somdev tells us he sweats for fun, spends his days at the office and wants kids...
Was it hard to walk away?
To be honest, it sounds a lot harder than it is. I always wanted to play for the right reasons. When I was a kid, I was super excited to wake up in the morning to get out and train and play. I would look at things on YouTube or TV or at the Chennai Open, and I ‘couldn’t wait’ to get back to the court the next day and get that move. And I feel like that was pretty constant for me through my career, except for that last year when... it wasn’t even interesting for me anymore.
What interests you right now?
Working with the Government of India (Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports) is a really cool challenge. I believe from a junior level, we’re not really looked after enough. And I don’t think there’s enough thought that goes into how we can develop this. That’s an interesting place for me to come in, knowing what I know, because I’m an athlete and because I trained abroad and can look at the differences in India.
Som kinda love
Little known fact. Somdev has a girlfriend whom he met in Chennai on an elevator. But he wants to keep their relationship private. “She was with her mom, and didn’t follow tennis or know who I was,
which kind of made it even more fun for me,” he recounts.
You wrote a bold letter criticising the All India Tennis Association (AITA) in January.
Yes, I’ve always been kind of outspoken with how the federation is being run. So I wasn’t sure how it would be received, and definitely didn’t expect to be given the role of national observer. These days I’m on the phone, writing emails, writing articles — to make arguments that justify my thought process and direction. The job is really re-working a system, and trying to put in policies that people 10 years down the line will benefit from — rather than putting band aids on huge holes.
My whole life has been a workout from age 14 up to now. And it was always for a very specific reason, to raise the bar on my game. So these days, I tend to opt for whatever workout is more fun. Like I don’t swim, but I go surfing at Covelong. Or instead of running 10k, I try rock climbing
You started Life is a Ball in the midst of a high pressure ATP tour. How did that happen?
There was an orphanage down the road. And it just started with a bunch of friends who co-founded it with me going: what can we do? That was seven years ago. It was a month-on-month thing. We didn’t know what it was or where it was going, there was no fundraising plan. But last year, we officially got our paperwork approved and now we have 12 full-time employees, and conduct sessions for over 5,000 kids in seven city schools. Next year, we’re working towards seven schools in Hyderabad, and reaching about 15,000 kids. The idea is not to look for champions, but for a 100 per cent participation instead. There’s value in every single kid just going out there and playing.
At 15, I remember complaining that my friends were taking flights to tournaments, while I was taking trains. And my parents had to sort of ground me with: ‘Maybe you are taking a train, but there are some kids who don’t anything. So count yourself as lucky.’ Later, it took me over a month to convince them to get me my first branded shoes, a pair of Adidas Cretas. So I know how special it is for a kid who can’t afford it, to be given the opportunity to earn cool shoes by way of practice or playing
football on turf, not sand.
This is so weird to ask you, but how do you unwind after a day at office?
Well, I watched 60 episodes of Game of Thrones in two weeks straight after I retired. But most of the time, it’s usually playing my guitars. I have six. I’m very old school with my music tastes — The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Clapton and lately, Adam Levine. My girlfriend watches him on The Voice, so I have no choice!
When did you last play tennis?
Yesterday. I got together with my friend Jeevan (Nedunchezhiyan) who is on tour. Whenever these guys come back, we catch up, hit some balls. It’s good for them, it’s good for me, it’s light. So my connection with tennis is still very strong, I love it.