Former India tennis player Somdev Devvarman retired in 2016 in a career that saw remarkable wins against the likes of Marcos Baghdatis, Carlos Moya, Ivo Karlovic, Marin Cilic and Milos Raonic. While representing the country, he won gold medal at the 2010 Asian Games in both men's singles and doubles events and bronze in the men's team event. At the Commonwealth Games the same year, he won gold in the men's singles event.
Ever since retiring, Somdev has continued his love affair with the sport. He has been part of the commentary panel for Grand Slam coverage in India and has kept busy with his 'Life is a Ball' charity that provides an avenue for underprivileged kids to play sport. With the coronavirus pandemic bringing life to a halt, it also affected those in the tennis ecosystem: markers, ball kids and support staff to name a few. The initiative has raised Rs 8 lakhs but more needs to be done, admits Devvarman in a conversation. Excerpts:
Q. How do you identify who will benefit from 'Life is a Ball'?
'Life is a Ball' is a pretty simple program. We work with government schools mostly. In the past we have worked with orphanages and one-off institutions where kids can benefit from sport. By and large, we work with government schools. We have MoU's with education departments and we go into government schools and we put up sports programs there. In essence we're just kind of working with a bunch of kids in one school or in Chennai, Hyderabad, Bombay in three schools. Whichever kids come out from that system, we're just happy that they have an opportunity.
The goal with 'Life is a Ball' is not to get world class athletes out of it. The real goal with 'Life is a Ball' is that kids actually don't have many opportunities to play any kind of sport, let alone organised sport. Our goal is to kind of go into these places where they have sporting facilities and provide our expertise which is (to) give them a nice sporting program where they can compete as well as go out and train, practice. Through these training and practice sessions, through being a part of a team, through basically what sports brings you, we hope that certain values that we believe in, get passed on to the kids who go through our program as well.
Q. How has the initiative expanded this year due to the pandemic?
'Love All' came out of pure necessity. I was having a few discussions with other players around India and globally when we kind of realised that in India, certain people would be hit harder than others. People who work at academies, markers, ball kids, academy staff, support staff; there's so many people who work in the tennis ecosystem that would have been very badly affected. There was no real way out for them because this is where they make all their money from.
For example, in golf, caddies were very badly hit because they make their money through tips. I kind of started seeing that the golf community is actually doing a lot to help their caddies, and I said, well, no one's out there actually helping the tennis community. Got a few phone calls together, and just created a small thing where we started raising funds specifically to give back to the tennis community. The way we identified these people was very organically to be honest. I just use my friends and my close contacts in all the cities in India. So we had someone in Delhi, someone in Calcutta, someone in Pune, someone in Visakhapatnam, someone in Chennai, a bunch of people in Bombay. As people started reaching out to me, we started growing our database of people who actually needed help.
That work is continuing. So I hope it doesn't have to continue in the sense that everybody can get back on their feet. I hope that the tennis academies can start function again. So that these people will have their jobs back and things kind of come back to some sort of normal. But as long as this pandemic remains, as long as people keep losing jobs and really can't find ways to make money the way that they used to, we might have to continue fundraising and try to help out. We've kind of done it ourselves so far. And right now a lot of people are helping us out too, reaching out to us and helping us kind of reach a bigger audience as well. So, there's a lot of work that's going on.
Q. How are the 'Life is a Ball' and 'Play for India' initiatives different?
'Play for India' and 'Life is a Ball' are completely separate initiatives. When Nandan Kamath and I spoke, who pretty much heads the GoSport Foundation that is behind 'Play for India', we discussed how a lot of people in the sporting ecosystem are losing out. How a lot of those people actually don't have the platform to raise money. To go out and say, 'Hey, we have a cause. We need to raise money' and also the means to do it. So I know Viren Rasquinha successfully raised a lot of money and the cool thing is that the beneficiaries of this are directly people who need the money in the sport, right? So all the grounds people and staff. I think what the 'Play for India' initiative is, I think it's absolutely incredible. I'm very happy to be a part of it. So 'Play for India' is just kind of supporting and helping 'Life as a ball' reach our goal. Right now we're trying to raise 15 lakhs so we can give all of that 15 lakhs back to the tennis ecosystem and 'Play for India' initiative is really helping us do that.
Q. How long do you think this initiative is going to last?
Well, it depends. It depends on how things kind of shape up with the pandemic. Will academies be able to function in the summer? How will they be able to function? Will markers actually have jobs? Will coaches have jobs? Will players be able to play tournaments? So it really depends on you know, which direction this pandemic takes us. As far as 'Love All' is concerned, we don't really have a set time limit. As long as people need our help, and as long as we are in a position to help, we're happy to do that. Our database of coaches also obviously continues to extend as the time goes on. We had about 100 odd people, now we have probably 70 or 80 more and it keeps growing. Plus you have to support the people who you supported earlier as well. The pandemic has stretched longer than we thought it would. It's a tricky situation and we're trying our best.
One of the things that I absolutely do not want to do is go out there and give funds to people and then ask them for videos back in return.
Q. Does the initiative cover players? The players have lost out a lot as well in terms of the tournaments that are played. As it is, India has very few tournaments, even lesser for junior players.
Honestly, I don't think that they are in immediate plans. The truth of the matter is we're giving out 6,500 rupees to every family to get basic food supply for the month, so that they don't go hungry. So if any player actually comes out and reaches out to us and says that they actually require that kind of financial help, I'm sure we will be able to do something about it. But right now, what we are looking at is actually people who can't make ends meet, we're trying to support those people. We did notice that somebody from the wheelchair fraternity was really struggling. And we were happy to do whatever we could in our power. If a player does come out and say that he or she is really struggling, happy to help out as much as we can.
Q. Is the national association (AITA) or any state association part of the initiative?
No, we're not. I am in contact with the TNTA (Tamil Nadu Tennis Association), I had a really nice conversation with Vijay Amritraj. 'Vij' and I spoke about when we have the time to do it, that potentially we could think of having a nice little get together and a fundraiser to help tennis. And he was very encouraging to me to kind of continue to do the work and reach out to as many people. But apart from that, no I haven't spoken to anyone in AITA and no one has reached out to me. It is what it is, I guess.
Q. With a lot of initiatives, there is the sense of skepticism, even though there is the goodwill involved of players like yourself. So how do you make people understand that the benefits will reach the lower level - the way it is intended?
I mean to go out there and convince people that I'm trying to do something good has not really been my style, to be honest. This is a pandemic guys, it's something that's unprecedented and one of the things that I absolutely do not want to do is go out there and give funds to people and then ask them for videos back in return. I don't want to do any of that stuff. It's something that I don't really believe in and we're in this to help them to get out of this and and not create any sort of crazy PR about it, you know? It's something that me and all of my friends that have reached out: helped in terms of supporting us financially as well as connecting us to coaches and spreading the word.
The people who helped me are very well reputed people as well. Mustafa Ghouse in Bombay has been incredible. Obviously Mahesh (Bhupathi), Sania (Mirza), Lee (Leander Paes) reached out as well, it was really nice. Pretty much every other player has contributed in some way or the other. Old friends, old tennis friends, whether it's thousand rupees, 2000 rupees. I think it's nice to at least have that support from the tennis fraternity that you know what's going on over here is you're really trying to help others. Nitin Kirtane, Sandeep Kirtane, in Pune that helped us. Kaza Vinayak Sharma helped us in Vizag. Shivika Burman helped us in Calcutta. My old trainer Abhimanyu Singh helped out, Yuki Bhambri contributed. So, I mean, pretty much everyone out there who plays tennis kind of reached out to us which is really really nice. And I think it speaks a lot about the tennis community as well.
Q. How many people are you looking at reaching out to and helping? Any projections.
I mean, our research has shown us that basically Rs 6,500 gets you basic rations for one month for a family of four. So, we see with Rs 6.5 lakhs, you reach about 100 families, times four of that. The number of meals you actually put out there are quite significant. Sometimes it feels that Rs 1000 or Rs 2000 don't go a long way. I was very touched honestly, when a few people donated Rs 300 and Rs 500, I was really touched because it says a lot about the community right now. One of the hardest things that I understand also is to go out there and ask people for money because a lot of people are in a position where they can't help.
It's so nice to see that even even in times like these, people are reaching out with Rs 500 and Rs 1000. And I think all of these things do add up at the end of the day. And more importantly, it creates a nice energy that the sport that has kind of given us so much, we are happy to buckle down and raise what's required to kind of give back the exact same people that kind of raised all of us. That really is the sentiment behind 'Love All' at least. I'm very happy to be doing the work, although I will say there's a lot more work to do and I hope we will do our best to try and reach out to as many people as we can during this.