Divij Sharan sits on a towel laid on the floor working with a foam roller and relaxing his muscles after a two-hour practice session. The room is empty, void of any distractions. It’s similar to what he had planned for himself in the off-season — a three-week stint in the United States. “My focus was to work on my game and my fitness, with nothing else to worry about,” he tells The Indian Express on the sidelines of the Tata Open.
The 32-year-old has taken a liking now to working individually despite making doubles, essentially a team game, his full-time job now. Not necessarily though was this decision made out of choice. At this time last year, Sharan was staring ahead at a season peppered with the formidable task of finding a stable doubles partner. He’d have 13 different partners (14 if you consider Rohan Bopanna at the Asian Games) in 2018. Despite that, however, the Delhi lad has managed to make significant improvement to cross over into the top 40 world rankings and briefly even become India’s No. 1 doubles player. “The grind is really tough and I was struggling. Every week I had to find a different partner I could play with,” he explains.
“It’s a terrible phase to be in. So I started to focus on myself, and began to work on what I can do get better, start getting back to my routine — mentally, physically and even game-wise.”
The improvement on an individual front has done him good, even if he had to spend half the year playing in a scratch-pair. The results have seen Sharan move up the ladder, as he’s moved on from playing Challengers to now finding a spot in ATP Masters events — and then there was that unprecedented quarterfinal finish at Wimbledon. “I’ve played some good tennis and I’ve seen myself improving,” he says. For almost all his career, Sharan was lost in the wilderness of the professional tour. As a singles player, he achieved his highest ever ranking of 438 back in 2007, and until July 2016 had not broken into the doubles top 100 — a murky position to be in by all measures. Now he is 39th in the world, a southpaw with tireless work ethic, and building reputation in doubles stream.
“There have been times, when I’ve had thoughts about, ‘is this feasible.’ It’s not easy grinding it out playing Futures or Challengers or even looking for partners. But it feels great that I’ve been at it and that whatever work I’ve put in is paying off.” At the start of the new season, Sharan is in a different position than what he was last year.
He has a steady partner now in World No. 37 Bopanna (“Plan is to play together through the year,” Sharan says). It was a team that was tested in the gold-medal winning run at the Asian Games.
On the personal front, Sharan’s stint in the US has seen him come out with a few changes to his game. “My returns have improved quite a lot and in the off season I was working on my serves,” he says. “I feel good about my game, now it’s just about me delivering in every match.”
He’s learnt his lessons from the countless moments of turmoil in the past, where thoughts of prize money, ranking, no partners took up more importance than training itself. It led him to the path that he had to think of something drastic — think of himself first, then the team. It’s the lonely path to ensuring a strong team, and as he sits on the floor, working his back, hamstrings and shoulders on the foam roller, it’s a path he’s started to revel in.