When Roger Federer had shockingly announced last week that he will retire from tennis at the end of the Laver Cup in London, fans across the globe were left heartbroken at the news and felt nostalgic with social media flooded with messages for the 20-time Grand Slam winner while others shared old pictures and videos. Somdev Devvarman was no different yet there was a touch of uniqueness to the tweet he made. He put together an array of pictures from hs first match against Federer at the 2011 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and as the slide show moved from one to the other, the former India no.1 told the story of that match in a hilarious fashion. Somdev did lose that match 3-6, 3-6, yet for him, the tie was a memory of a lifetime, but what most wouldn’t know was that the former world no. 62 wasn’t scheduled to play at Dubai, let alone against Federer, but fate had other plans.
In 2011, in the month of February, Somdev was at fellow Indian tennis star, Mahesh Bhupathi’s wedding, along with couple other big names from the sport. However, his part of the celebration was cut short to make way for a bigger news. He received a text message for an opportunity to be at the Dubai Championships, but it was only after his arrival in the city did he realise that he would be up against his own “idol” and the “Greatest Player of All Time”, in his opening match.
“2011 was a dream in a sense because it was something that I absolutely did not expect. Back in 2011, around that time I was actually playing some of my best tennis but I wasn’t in the main draw of Dubai. I was actually at Mahesh Bhupathi’s wedding with Leander (Paes), Sania (Mirza), and Rohan (Bopanna) and all of us were together, that’s when I kind of got a message saying that would you accept a wild card and I said, ‘absolutely’,” Somdev said in response to a Hindustan Times query during a presser organised by Sony Network ahead of the Laver Cup.
“Even the year before, if I remember correctly, I had qualified and won a round so I had already known the Dubai crowd a little bit. And then by the time I landed in Dubai my phone started blowing up because the draw was released, I was playing Roger, it was official. So in many ways it was super unexpected but I felt like I was playing some really good tennis. I was really excited about the opportunity that I was going to have to play my idol who I consider the Greatest Player of All Time. Everything about that experience was surreal,” he added.
But Somdev’s story didn’t end there. He remained in touch with the Swiss tennis legend and in fact became one of his practice partners on tour, which also provided the Indian with a great learning experience.
“Even after that, in Dubai, I warmed him up for his few matches before I left so I got to interact with him a little bit more. Fast forward a few years later, I played him again in French Open and practised with him a little bit in the pre-season and my experiences around Roger were unbelievable. Because you just don’t expect him to, someone who you look up to so much being so interested all the time in your life or the situations that were going on in India which he wasn’t aware of. He was obviously very interesting but I think the thing that stood out was that Roger was very interested as well in a variety of subjects. I learned a lot during the practice sessions and being around him on tour so many times. Roger is one of those rare people you can happily meet as an idol and nobody is going to be disappointed,” he said.
– ‘Roger could attack you from anywhere’ –
Not just Federer. Somdev had the opportunity to go up against all the other members of the Big Four – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – and two of those six matches were in Grand Slams and three others were in Masters 1000 events.
Even though Somdev had failed to pull off an upset in those six matches, he felt that he had relatively better chances against Nadal, Murray and Djokovic than against Federer, who he admitted as the “toughest opponent” among the Big Four.
“All of them posed a very different kind of challenge. Personally for me Roger was the hardest of all to play against. If you take a look at the score lines, I felt that I was reasonably more competitive against the other three although they were never in danger of losing. Moreover, I wasn’t in the area where I could have pulled off those upsets – fairly close match with Rafa, fairly close set in that match against Murray at the Open. But they were never in danger: he said in response to another Hindustan Times query.
“I felt a little more comfortable given that they were baseliners, they were steady, they allowed you to feel your feet when you started the match a little bit more than Roger did. One of the hardest things playing Roger was that obviously my game style did not match up. But that didn’t really matter. Because with Roger it felt like he could attack you from anywhere in the court.”
The 37-year-old hailed his match against Federer at the 2013 French Open as the most memorable of those six encounters and despite his 6-2, 6-1, 6-1 defeat in the round of 64 tie, he admitted that he doesn’t look back at the match with regret.
“Honestly speaking in Roland Garros in 2013 I felt I was playing unbelievable tennis. Coming back from shoulder surgery and being close to breaking into the top-100 again then qualified for the French and won a round – I felt I was playing unbelievable. People were saying for Roger, that was in 2013, the retirement is around the corner. Little that we know. But he gave me an absolute beating there. He sliced and diced and hit winners the way I didn’t even see before and he did all that in such an easy way. So that is one loss that I look back and don’t have a lot of regrets,” Somdev said.
[Watch the LIVE coverage of The Laver Cup 2022 on SONY TEN 1 channels and livestream on SonyLIV at 5:00 PM (IST) onwards, from 23rd to 25th September.]