Rajeev Ram, Anyone?
Carmel’s Rajeev Ram put together a career year in 2016, but Sports Illustrated’s executive editor wonders why his fellow Hoosiers don’t seem to care. Where, he asks, is the love?
On a mild afternoon this past summer, Rajeev Ram walked the grounds at Wimbledon, a racket bag slung over his shoulder. For much of the last decade, Ram had spent the Fourth of July weekend at the All-England Club, tennis’s parallel to Hinkle Fieldhouse, an august venue that oozes charm. Clad in all whites in keeping with the tournament’s dress code, Ram strolled with an easy grace as he made his way to his first-round match.
When he finally reached the assigned court, Ram’s comfort playing on grass was immediately apparent. In warmups, he showed off a Samprasian service motion, arching his back and uncoiling his 6-foot-4, 185-pound frame, meeting the ball at its apex and delivering it at speeds that near those of cars orbiting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He moved with a natural athlete’s elegance, sliding on the lawn. He bunted back volleys, sending shots skidding across the grass.
The tennis purists ringing the court recognized Ram’s play for the art form it is, all the efficiency of movement, all those disparate parts—the torquing arm, the thrusting legs—working in unison, a symphonic whole. Ram endeared himself further when he displayed his sweeping one-handed backhand, as well as his willingness to head immediately to the net after serving, skills vanishing in the contemporary game. Other than Roger Federer, you would be hard-pressed to find a player more aesthetically pleasing, a guy who marries a classic game and old-time sensibilities with a contemporary physique.
As Ram finished his warmups and took a swig of water before his match started in earnest, Federer began playing on the famed Centre Court, the sport’s cathedral, where virtually all of the 15,000 seats were occupied. Federer’s match would be beamed live to a global audience of tens of millions.
On Ram’s Court Four, a few hundred feet away, the scene was a little different. The crowd registered in hundreds, not thousands. There was no TV crew. No fans brandishing banners. Still, this was Wimbledon, and Ram was, once again, part of the show.
A fan wearing a white cap and badly in need of sunblock tried to match the names of the four players on the scoreboard with the men on the court. He located Ram in his program, looked up at the court, then looked back down at his phone. Finally he nodded knowingly and said to the woman next to him, “It says he’s from Indiana. I bet it’s a typo and they mean he’s from India.”
But it was no typo. Rajeev Ram is from Indiana—a pity that isn’t better known in the States, particularly in his hometown.
Indianapolis quite rightfully fancies itself a sports capital. The city has hosted the Final Four and a Super Bowl, and holds that annual auto race at the Speedway. As a Hoosier and guy who covers sports for a living, I always thought it symbolic that downtown is framed by a football palace for the NFL team, a basketball venue for the NBA team, and a gem of a minor league ballpark, which sits adjacent to the headquarters for all of college athletics. The unmistakable takeaway: Sports are a core industry in Indy, not unlike music in Nashville or technology in the Bay Area.
As a child, Ram had an uncanny ability to watch a player—Boris Becker, Pete Sampras—and then mimic his strokes.
How, then, is it possible that Ram can go unnoticed as he walks through the airport or shops at Circle Centre mall? How is it that this Carmel High School grad and former IHSAA state champ, who still calls Indianapolis home, claims to have been on local sports talk radio only once or that his titles scarcely merit mention in the Star?
The rankings in tennis change weekly, but as you read this, Ram is among the top 75 singles players in the world, a 32-year-old with a pair of singles titles to his name as well as more than $3 million in prize money. And Ram is even more skilled playing alongside a partner—as he displayed at the Olympics in Rio, where, paired with the great Venus Williams, he won a silver medal in mixed doubles. As a doubles player, Ram has deployed his athleticism and touch to brilliant effect, winning 10 ATP World Tour tournament titles and reaching the quarter-finals of each of the four majors. At Wimbledon last July, he and his partner, Raven Klaasen of South Africa, reached the semifinals. This summer, Ram cracked the top 20 in doubles, no small feat given that the computer rankings list more than 1,700 names.
If Ram is not a star, he is the next best thing: a stalwart in the tennis cast, a veteran who competes honorably and has the ungrudging respect of his colleagues. Not for nothing did other players vote Ram onto the ATP’s Players Council this summer, a student-body government of sorts, that takes on everything from issues of prize money to rules and regulations. Ask his colleagues to talk about Ram and “great guy” is, reflexively, the first response. You might think of him as tennis’s David West or Dallas Clark, a top-flight professional athlete with throwback skills, who goes about his business with honor.
What’s not to love about Rajeev Ram, Indy? Is it that he plays tennis, a sport slouching toward niche status? Is it that Ram may hail from here but seldom plays here? Is it his ethnicity? Some combination of the above? If Ram had a signature T-shirt, it might read, “I won a silver at the Rio Olympics, I’m ranked in the top 20 … and all Indianapolis ever gave me was this lousy magazine story.”
In the U.S., we think of tennis as the province of Florida and California, places where the congenial weather enables players to compete outdoors, 12 months a year. Indiana, though, more than holds its own. Pick your explanation: A) The state is home to a great many well-run and well-regarded tennis clubs, and, mirroring the tennis tour generally, the competition elevates everyone. B) Indianapolis’s relatively plentiful and inexpensive real estate allows for court construction in ways that couldn’t be achieved in, say, New York or San Francisco. C) My pet theory—if you’ll indulge some stretching—is that the same virtues that tennis rewards—its emphasis on patience, its blend of power with control—line up with the same virtues we cherish as a state.
Whatever, Indiana’s fingerprints are all over the sport. Until 2009, downtown Indy was home to a gem of a professional tournament. For a magical week each summer, the event brought the biggest names in tennis—from John McEnroe to Pete Sampras to Andre Agassi—to town. In return, the players got a generous helping of Hoosier hospitality. Even pitted against other events in cities like Rome, Monte Carlo, and Shanghai, the Indianapolis tournament was consistently voted a player favorite.
Mark Miles traded on his job running the Indy tournament to become the head honcho of the ATP Tour. (Now back in Indy, Miles is CEO of Hulman and Co., which owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar.) Troy Hahn, a North Central grad, currently coaches Jack Sock, a top American player. Carmel’s Todd Witsken was a prince of a guy—he (full disclosure) once gave me lessons—who cracked the top 50 and beat Jimmy Connors at the 1986 U.S. Open.
Miles says Witsken, who died of brain cancer in 1998 at 34, remains the closest analog to Ram: a gifted doubles specialist who, while respected and successful ($1.4 million in winnings on the ATP Tour), never really moved basketball-loving Hoosiers into the tennis column. “He wasn’t exactly a household name,” says Miles, while adding that’s not unusual given the challenges tennis faces in the “natural law” of media coverage.
Witsken—a three-time All-American at USC—reached a career-high ranking of No. 4 in doubles and No. 43 in singles, yet Ram might wind up being the most accomplished Hoosier to play the game. If there’s an irony to this, it’s not that the state’s greatest contribution to the sport is a guy named Rajeev. (No, this simply reflects the state’s growing multiculturalism.) Instead, it’s that Ram is an accidental pro, a player who—even a decade into a fine career—still can’t believe this is his profession.
Sushma and Raghav Ram emigrated to the U.S. from India in the early ’80s. They both found jobs, he as a biotech botanist, she as a contractor. They had their only child, Rajeev, in 1984. While the couple never had designs of raising a professional athlete—“Oh, no, no, no,” bemused by the very idea—they did realize that in their new country, sports were a lingua franca, especially among boys. “It’s the old story about assimilating,” says Raghav, a recreational athlete in India. “Like most Indians, it was education first, that was the priority. But at the same time, you want him to fit in, to be comfortable in his country.”
Rajeev was 4, and the family was living in the Bay Area, when he was introduced to tennis. Raghav often took his son to a park to bat the ball around. The kid took to the sport immediately. Soon, from any point on the court, he could guide the ball as if he’d sent it to obedience school. When Rajeev was 5, the Rams moved to Madison, Wisconsin, after Raghav’s company was acquired. By then, the kid was a tennis gym-rat. He also had an uncanny ability to watch a player—Boris Becker, Pete Sampras—and then mimic his strokes. “I learn visually, by seeing things,” Ram says. “I would watch a pro player do something, and it would make more sense to me than a coach telling me something.”
Most of all, he liked that tennis was an individual pursuit. He wasn’t dependent on a point guard getting him the ball in the right place on the court. He was the only batter, not one of nine. There were no teammates to complicate matters. “I always enjoyed being the reason I won or the reason I lost. I wanted it to be on my shoulders. I really like that about tennis.”
What started as a father and son bonding exercise grew more competitive. By age 12, Rajeev could beat most everyone in the area and would have to go to Chicago or Milwaukee just to find suitable competition. In 1996, Raghav was transferred again, from Madison to Indiana, when Dow purchased the firm. Rajeev was in seventh grade. The family settled in Carmel after determining that it was the best school district in the area. As an added benefit, it was ground zero for tennis. “I remember being really excited about the move because I was going from Wisconsin to Indianapolis, which I considered this tennis hotbed,” he says. “You had all the tournaments I could want in the area, good players.”
His game became a personality test of sorts. He modeled his style after Sampras and Stefan Edberg, former No. 1 players who could hang from the baseline but whose instincts were to attack and force the action. His torquing serve is derivative of both champions; so is his one-handed backhand. Ram would follow the sport on television, but every summer he got to see the action up close and in person. At Indianapolis’s dearly departed RCA Championships, Rajeev would take in as many sessions as he could, and was even a ball boy one year.
Ram’s tennis flourished, mostly via clinics at the Carmel Racket Club. He was winning tournaments throughout the Midwest, often “playing up” in age groups. The club was struggling to find suitable competition. As a sophomore at Carmel High School, he won the state title, beating Troy Hahn.
Tennis is awash in stories of teen burnout and family psychodrama. The list of players who had the talent to make it but flamed out on account of the sport’s mental demands is sufficiently long that it can be serialized. Ram has none of these stories. “Maybe because it was never about being a pro, tennis was never not enjoyable for me,” he says. “Maybe it’s an Indiana thing, but I only heard the horror stories. Didn’t see them and definitely didn’t live them.”
Meanwhile, he started working with Bryan Smith, another former state champ, who had just finished a successful college career playing for Ball State. Smith, too, didn’t necessarily envision a pro career for Ram. But he did think Ram could make that good-to-great jump. “He had the talent, the ball-striking, and the body,” says Smith. “But he also had such a good tennis brain.”
Ram graduated from Carmel in 2002, and when it came time to choose where to attend college, tennis loomed large. With unlimited options—from Stanford to Ivy League schools to the traditional dynasties in Florida and Southern California—Ram ended up choosing Illinois, an ascending, if unlikely, powerhouse run by coach Craig Tiley. “It was this first-rate tennis experience and it was just a few hours from Indianapolis,” says Ram. “Not a hard choice.”
The hard choice came a year later. After winning an NCAA doubles title and helping the Illini to a team title as a freshman, Ram pondered turning pro. “It was a little bit of a shame, because selfishly, I would have loved to have him all four years,” says Tiley, who now runs the Australian Open and is among the most powerful figures in the sport. “But Rajeev was almost too good to keep playing college tennis.”
As a newcomer on the Challenger tour, tennis’s answer to the minor leagues, it was tough going at first. Ram flew more than 100,000 miles a year. Expenses outstripped winnings. But he didn’t fire the coach. He didn’t ponder quitting. As always, his solution was more practical than emotional. “The margins are so slim, you want to give yourself every advantage,” says Ram. “Every decision I made became: Will this help my tennis?”
By his mid 20s, Ram had established himself as a credible pro, able to live comfortably and make an annual income well into six figures. (His extravagance? Sometimes he buys business-class seats on international flights.) In keeping with a broader trend in tennis of aging players—Serena Williams and Roger Federer are both 35 and still winning—Ram’s career has flourished in his 30s. As he sees it, his skills and reflexes haven’t declined, and the accumulated wisdom is paying off. Plus, his wife, Zainab, sometimes travels the circuit with him. Ram reckons that her supporting presence—and the absence of guilt he would feel from being away from her—has prolonged his career.
While Ram spends the majority of his year on the road, he still considers Indy home base. His parents live in the same house they bought in the mid ’90s. Ram lives with them when he is in town, without embarrassment. “It’s nice for us to spend that time,” he says, “since I’m gone most of the year.” (Raghav retired from Dow last year; Sushma still works there.) Bryan Smith, who began working with Ram when he was at Carmel High, is still his coach. They work out in courts that fill what used to be an Office Depot—the same spot where Ram once bought his school supplies—on Meridian and 126th Street. Sure, Ram could set up a training base anywhere in the world, as other pros do. Florida, Monte Carlo, Bermuda. But none would be home.
Ram’s charitable foundation is based in Indy, too. EntouRaj for Kids “promotes the development of young tennis players by funding tennis grants, college scholarships and programs that teach young players what it takes to have a winning attitude in tennis and in life.” The charity holds a fundraising event each year, a tennis exhibition that brings to town some of the ATP Tour’s best and brightest, from Andy Roddick (the last truly great American men’s player) to Bob and Mike Bryan, the best doubles team of all time. “Rajeev is just one of these guys everyone likes and respects,” says Bob. “You have these intense matches [with Ram] but you know that, afterwards, you will be friends.”
If, by now, you’re wondering why Ram isn’t more popular, well, it mirrors some of tennis’s larger marketing challenges. In tennis, there is no home team, no built-in fanbase. From Dubai to Chennai to Shanghai, Ram is in a new locker room each week. This is great for the global penetration of the sport, but it makes it difficult for fans to forge real allegiances. What’s more, television coverage—the lifeblood of the NBA and NFL—is notoriously spotty in tennis, complicated by multiple time zones and erratic starting times. The cynics will argue that the sport’s absence of bad boys hurts its appeal. You would rather have Ram—and, for that matter, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic—for your neighbor than Johnny Manziel or Ronda Rousey. But which personality type is better for revving up social-media interest in your entertainment product?
Ram’s lack of popularity mirrors some of tennis’s larger marketing challenges: No home team, no built-in fanbase.
Then there’s the thornier issue of ethnicity. If Ram’s first name weren’t Rajeev, but rather, say, Kyle … if his physical appearance were more traditional Hoosier … might the state take a bit more ownership in his achievements? “That’s a good question,” he says. “Possibly.” The thought hangs there, the equivalent of a floater in tennis, waiting to be smashed. But then, as if to douse any potential controversy, he quickly adds: “Whatever accolades might come with it is great. But, like I said, tennis has always been a source of enjoyment for me.”
Pivoting to the positive, Ram notes that he is popular in Indianapolis’s considerable Indian community. “On my bag, I have my name with both an American and Indian flag on the back because I feel like it’s not who I represent but it’s certainly part of me, you know, it’s part of who I am, my heritage. I’m certainly proud of it,” he says.
A day after I asked the indelicate question, Ram sent me an email. He’s given thought to his modest level of popularity at home and wants to make another point. “I wish it was a bigger deal, not for personal gain but because I would think that it would draw more local kids to have bigger aspirations about their tennis if they thought being a Top 100 pro was cool. That would cause the game to grow, and I think that would be great.”
Hear that? Note to local sports writers and radio hosts: If you ever want to give some love to the best pro tennis player from Indiana, contact me. Real Hoosier that he is, Rajeev Ram would never self-promote. But I’ll happily slip you his number. You’d like this guy.