Catching Up With Carmel’s Rajeev Ram
Carmel’s Rajeev Ram plays doubles tennis better than all but 21 people in the world, according to the sport’s rankings. Last year, he brought home a silver medal from the Rio Olympics, where he partnered with Venus Williams, and went on to qualify for the sport’s year-ending championship for the first time. His success kept rolling in 2017, winning the doubles title at Indian Wells, considered the sport’s fifth major. This weekend, he returns home to lead a free tennis clinic for IPS students with his Indiana-focused foundation, EntouRaj for Kids. We caught up with Ram to talk about why tennis is harder than it looks on TV, the Indy restaurant he hits up, and how he and Williams both became IU East students. (True story.)
You seem to have a cool life, competing in tennis tournaments around the world. What are some of the places you played in this past year?
Rajeev Ram: The four majors are a good start: London, New York, Paris, and Melbourne. Also Monte Carlo, Vienna, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo. It’s a neat thing, playing in the bigger cities and following the sun around the world. I’m fortunate to see a lot of the world because of my job.
Jon Wertheim, a Sports Illustrated editor from Bloomington wrote about you for Indianapolis Monthly last year. Are there any other Hoosiers in the tennis world?
RR: A guy who coaches is Troy Hahn. He went to North Central. He was coaching (world No. 8 player) Jack Sock for a few years. We go back to when I was maybe 14, and he was 15 and 16, playing each other in juniors. I’d see him pretty much every week on the pro tour. It’s cool to have someone you have such a long history with out there at tournaments. It grounds the whole thing.
RR: Christian LoCascio is a trainer. He works with Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey and used to work with Mardy Fish. He lives five minutes from my parents’ house in Carmel. As far as players, there’s a kid who’s just starting now, Ronnie Schneider [a Bloomington native who played for the University of North Carolina]. He has been winning some matches.
But quite a few players are IU East students, oddly. You’re one of them. [IU East, in Richmond, has online degree programs for professional tennis players. Venus Williams was the first player to earn her bachelor’s degree through these programs.]
RR: I come from Indian family, and, as with most families of our culture, education is high on the priority list. For my parents to have enough foresight, or courage—I don’t know what the right word is—to support me leaving the University of Illinois to go pro … It was always stressful to me [that I haven’t finished college]. Education is very important to me. Tennis players spend a lot of time in airplanes, things like that. So I decided it’s better to finish my degree now than later in life. I hope to be done next summer.
What do you do when you come home?
RR: I try to come back every couple of months. My coach still lives there. It has been home since I was 12 years old. It’s low-key. I like to go to Yats. Mostly, I try to make a point to see the people who were loyal to me and helped me throughout my life. Maybe a doctor, a trainer. People who aren’t necessarily involved in my career now but helped me a lot when I was younger.
You do a lot of tennis clinics for kids in Indianapolis.
RR: It’s important. One of my regrets is that I never got to meet Todd Witsken, who was a great player from here a generation or so older than me. [Witsken passed away from brain cancer in 1998.] There aren’t many people from Indiana, let alone Carmel, who do this. Our careers have been similar in terms of ranking and length. I really, really would have liked to get to know him and pick his brain.
So you’re making yourself available to kids who might be interested in the sport?
RR: If you can inspire someone with tennis or life decisions, that’s an important part of giving back and how this whole cycle works. That’s not to say I didn’t have great people around me, but it’s different when it’s someone who has played tennis professionally.
Your clinic takes place at West Indy Racquet Club on Guion Road, a pretty isolated spot. There are actually two tennis clubs in that area, along with Healthplex—in a part of town that doesn’t reflect tennis’s elite image. Have you found that tennis transcends class barriers?
RR: That’s one of the biggest things I’ve found from traveling. You see that it has no boundaries. People from countries that have had war, all kinds of people who’ve had to experience bad things, refugees … it’s beyond any type of religious or political borders. That’s what’s great about tennis. You can have something in common with someone just because you play the same sport.
Tennis is pretty diverse.
RR: It’s such a global sport, and a great way to learn about different cultures—even within the United States. Playing in the juniors was the first time I met people from Florida and Hawaii. And it just went on from there.
One of the things that’s unique to tennis is that a lot of fans also play and compete, albeit at a different level. Do people ask you for advice?
RR: Yes, they do very much talk about that. But it also has the opposite effect because it doesn’t look much different on TV. I don’t think some people realize the level it’s played at. With football, it’s 100 yards down the field, and the guys are maybe 6’8 and 240 pounds, so you know what they do isn’t possible for you. Or golf, they hit the ball 300 yards. The comparisons to the amateur level are tangible. Maybe the only thing tangible measurement in tennis is the serve, but even the average pro doesn’t hit it at the very top speeds. In tennis, the dimensions of the court are the same, the racquets are the same as an amateur would use. So tennis sometimes doesn’t get enough credit for how difficult it can be.
Can you describe the difference?
RR: It’s consistency. With guys in the top 10, when I got out there, I’m like, wow, this is different. The quality of hit, the ease at which they do it. It seems more repeatable. It seems like they can produce better-than-average shots over and over again. It’s not the great shot that makes you a top player, it’s how many times you can hit a better-than-average shot. That’s what moves you up a level. Most of the Top 10 players aren’t trying to hit highlight-reel shots. They’d rather play at a good, solid level throughout a match.
Where is your Olympic silver medal?
RR: It’s in a box at my parent’s house. We haven’t quite figured out what to do with it yet. I carried it back from Rio. I didn’t have the box yet. It was in my backpack in a sock.