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  • Samhith Shankar and Sarthak Gandhi

Conquering the Courts: Sarthak Gandhi, My Game in My Words

By Samhith Shankar & Sarthak Gandhi


On Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights, you might have seen someone walk into RH3 while lugging a huge tennis kit over his back, a bead of sweat dripping down his face. There’s a good chance that was Sarthak Gandhi, making his way back from training with the Ashoka Men’s Tennis team.


If you know Sarthak, you’re well aware of his exploits on the court. He’s arguably the best tennis player at Ashoka, and carries that title with ease. He has a way with words, and it was a joy to hear him speak about the sport which he loves. Sarthak describes his actions, thoughts and feelings on the court in exquisite detail; you feel like you’re experiencing the hope, disappointment, fervour and triumph right alongside him. You can tell that he views his position as “Best Tennis player at Ashoka” as a responsibility to uphold a standard of sportsmanship and professionalism which reflects on the stature of the team and the university.


Sarthak’s freshman year at Ashoka was a historic one for the Tennis team: they were a force to reckon with, sweeping the inter-collegiate tournaments (“conquering the courts”, if you will). It was a remarkable accomplishment which set the standard for the Tennis team for years to come. It was even more extraordinary that Sarthak, a newcomer to varsity-level tennis, went undefeated throughout the year. To give you a peek into what went behind that momentous achievement, here’s Sarthak’s game, in his own words.


Ashoka is not necessarily a tennis player's dream college, and its tennis culture does not have a reputation. Sarthak says “I was accepted into some Division One colleges [with stellar tennis culture] but didn’t receive enough aid from them. Ashoka was a bit of a wildcard, as I didn’t know what to expect, and had no idea of Tennis’ importance in the campus culture.”


“When I got to campus, I was pleasantly surprised by the tight-knit community of tennis players. It was impressive that ten to twelve players showed up to practise diligently, and all of us followed a decent regime. We were all keen on playing our best tennis and improving our game, and helping each other in the process.”


“Tennis is usually an individual sport: if I lose, I’m just letting myself down. But it was different here, for the first time I was playing as part of a team, and their hopes rested on me as well. I distinctly remember the noisy crowd that showed up for my Batch Championships finals match, which was when I realised the level to which the student body was invested in my game. As much as I wanted to win for myself, I wanted to win for the team and also the university.”


The team’s first victory, at BML Munjal University, marked a moment of realisation that this team had the potential to leave an indelible mark on Ashoka’s Tennis culture. Sarthak light-heartedly calls it the “Gurgaon Grind”. It was the start of a long, sometimes frustrating, but eventually historical year. He speaks about the wins with confidence and a speck of arrogance—the gold was never in doubt, backed up by the clinical nature of their wins. 


The highlight of the tournament was the newfound bond between Sarthak and fellow freshman Siddhanth Rau.


“Siddhanth, a fellow freshman with perhaps the finest touch and finesse I have ever witnessed in person, was paired with me for the doubles for the very first time and little did we know that this was the start of a special partnership for the team. Initially, it took us a couple of games to get into the groove and understand each other’s match rhythm but it was smooth sailing from there as we pocketed the match 6-2 6-0 along with our maiden title.”


“With Siddhanth, our off-the-court relationship translates on the court. We’re best buddies, he was my neighbour last year and he’s my neighbour this year which is a cute coincidence. We’ve spent a lot of time together and bonded over many things other than tennis, including cricket! It makes communication easier and more intuitive. We have a good idea of the way the other thinks, and what they’re going to do in a certain situation. That’s something that has been really important to the success of our partnership”


Their doubles partnership has indeed been very successful—they’ve lost just two Doubles games in two years. A magnificent record for two freshmen who had never heard of each other before, let alone played together pre-Ashoka!


Munjal was just the beginning, as the Ashoka Tennis contingent jumped from strength to strength, from gold to gold, touring the north before eventually coming back to Ashoka, to compete on home turf in Agneepath 5.0.


—  


“To really understand the significance of Agneepath for the Tennis team, you need to look beyond the court,” says Sarthak. Competitive inter-collegiate sports were finally coming back to Ashoka, after a 4-year long hiatus. For most Ashokans, this was the first Agneepath they would ever witness. There was eager anticipation among players and those who followed sports, and as a result, lofty expectations emerged. This was especially true for the tennis team: most knew Sarthak as the freshman stalwart who was dominating tennis at Ashoka, and now they got a chance to see him live. 


“Agneepath was different from any tournament I’ve ever played. As I said before, it’s different when you’re playing for a team and their hopes are riding on you. For the first time at Ashoka, I had to prove myself in front of an audience who’d heard a lot about me and my exploits on the tennis court: I knew I had to, had to win, which of course added to the pressure.”


Expectations aside, winning on home turf is a matter of pride, and the embarrassment of losing would be equally tough to get over. On top of everything, Sarthak sprained his ankle the day before the tournament. Needless to say, the stakes were high and the conditions far from ideal. In Sarthak's own words, “The stage was set, the pressure was on and we were in it to win it.”


For the final group stage match—with a semifinal spot on the line—Ashoka faced our neighbours Jindal. Sarthak jokingly terms the match-up “The Sonipat Derby: where two giants of this little town in Haryana face off on the tennis court” likening it to the tense rivalry between Manchester United and Manchester City. The hosts started out strong, winning the men's and women's singles before the “noisy neighbours” prevailed in the mixed doubles to inch back into the tie. With the men’s doubles up next, Sarthak and Siddhanth had a chance to put the match to bed, win the derby and advance to the knockouts.


“Siddhanth and I, after an undefeated run together over the course of all tournaments, once again united to prevent a deadlock and get the decisive win. Our captain Pranav, tense yet as supportive as ever, spearheaded the cheering and made sure that we had considerable home support behind us. With chants of ‘Ashoka! Ashoka! Ashoka!’, the match was poised and both teams made a steady start with the momentum not going in the favour of either side. With a lead of 5-4, we were only a few points away from sealing the tie in our favour and cementing our seat in the semi finals. Siddhanth played a monstrous forehand on the extremely crucial match point which enabled me to close out the match with a down the line backhand winner.”


Ashoka may have emerged victorious quite comfortably this time, but Jindal was an opponent they’d have to face a few more times.


The triumphant Ashokan contingent marched on to the finals after a whitewash win against IIT Delhi, powered by a mixed doubles victory courtesy of captain Pranav Koka and Kimaaya Cherukoori.


Their final test was Sri Venkateswara College, shortened to Venky’s; most would remember the exciting football final that Ashoka played against them. While this was a huge game for the entire team, it was especially so for Sarthak: “I was going to be up against a rather familiar face in my opening singles match in the form of an ex India rank 7 player. Despite having played him during my junior days, I did not know what to expect from this encounter and this revival of our rivalry had the potential to be an intense affair.”


“We’d played each other, I think three times, in the past and I had emerged victorious in all those match-ups. But it was a bit different this time: we were playing just one set, I was not really familiar with this shorter format and had to adapt my game a little bit.” 


“I had high expectations from myself. I was playing good tennis, things had been going my way the whole tournament. I knew I had to capitalise and win when it mattered most. The pressure of the final got to me a little bit: I threw up right before the match. There was just a lot going on in my head before the match. Not everything was bad though. My dad had driven down from Chandigarh; he knew the match meant a lot to me so he wanted to be there. So that was a pleasant surprise!”


“The singles showdown itself wasn’t my best match. I struggled to break his serve, while just about managing to hold my own.” Sarthak came in clutch for Ashoka when it really mattered though. “At 4-4, it was his serve, and I knew it was the best chance, my last opportunity to break his serve, take the lead, and close out this game without a nervy ending. That was the decisive moment in the match, and I channelled all my energy to grind it out, and then held my serve to beat him 6-4 in the set. I was so relieved after that moment, it felt as if most of the pressure had been lifted off my chest. It was even more satisfying to have done that in front of my dad and Ashokans who had come to watch.”


Once again, it came down to the Men’s doubles to seal the tie: The famous duo had to work their magic one last time at Agneepath.


“Siddhanth and I were both struggling physically and the fatigue was getting to us in the form of aches and cramps. But all we needed was one last push, one last showcase of coordination and teamwork to ensure the efforts of the team paid off. As the match commenced, the rallies stretched the limits of endurance, with every point feeling like an eternity and some sparks of brilliance from both ends set the tone for the encounter. Under the Sonipat night sky and floodlights, Siddhanth and I were able to hold serve on a consistent basis and were putting our opponents under immense pressure. With a couple of decisive breaks of serve, we were now only a game away from attaining our goal and etching our names in the annals of Ashoka’s sporting history. With highly aggressive and strategic tennis on match point, I got a sitter of a volley and delicately placed it in the open court. It was an amazing feeling being able to close out the tournament alongside Siddhanth—that was the icing on the cake!”


— 


Next up was Jindal’s sports fest, MAGNUS: the final showdown, the culmination of a year’s worth of hardwork and determination. Sarthak cheekily says “I was in the mood to deny them victory at home!


The season had taken its toll on our players, and it had begun showing. “March was proving to be a bane to our existence as the humid conditions made proceedings immensely intense and physical on court. My injury woes did not seem to want to subside as I continued to struggle with my ankle while Siddhanth and Pranav too had slight niggles here and there. With tight schedules, late night matches and slight dehydration, we were under the pump and winning the championship was now going to require us to give it our absolute all.”


The team edged past Jindal B in the semis to set up a Sonipat Derby Final: the best tennis players of rival universities facing off against each other, the stage was set for a blockbuster finale! 


We’d beaten them convincingly before, but facing Jindal on their home turf was a whole different story. Sarthak spares no detail as he describes the biggest challenge he had faced at Ashoka thus far.


“We knew that the odds would be stacked against us this time around. With crowds pouring in gigantic numbers, it was going to be the five of us against hundreds of them. I was calm on the surface but a wreck from within and even gripping the racquet was a challenge in itself for my hands were trembling. I had a disastrous start to the match with a couple of double faults right in the beginning of the match but somehow managed to hold my serve. Getting intimidated is a rather unusual phenomenon for me on a tennis court but I could sense a strange feeling in my gut inhibiting me from playing to the best of abilities. It was going to be a slugfest but all I wanted was to pocket the singles match in our favour. A plethora of slices, which are quite uncharacteristic of me, dominated proceedings as I made several attempts to charge to the net and shorten the duration of points. I closed out the first set 6-2 but the crowd was steadily getting to my head and my ankle was running out of gas. With a hundred jeers and boos echoing throughout the place and ringing between my ears, a sense of discomfort overshadowed my determined mindset. With a series of unforced errors and squandered opportunities, I lost the second set 3-6. This was a nerve wracking experience and rattled me to the core as this was the very first time that I had lost a set for Ashoka. I knew I had to keep my composure and cancel out everything going on around me to get the win. I was leading 5-1 in the final set but my opponent managed to strike back to put the match at 5-4. I pushed and pushed and pushed and simply kept the ball in play and it paid off as he made a couple of unforced errors which enabled me to get the win. I was elated, relieved and exhausted but the job was only half done.”


A few matches later, Siddhanth and Sarthak would find themselves in a familiar position: win the men’s doubles to win the tie. But this match wasn’t going nearly as smoothly as in the past. Physically and mentally drained, the dynamic duo found themselves struggling against a determined Jindal partnership. The match started with a couple of loose serves that the opposition capitalised on, and the freshers were under immense pressure straight away. The Jindal boys were clinical and functioning like a well oiled machine. Before they could blink an eye, Jindal had won the first set, and continued their dominance into the second set, taking a dangerous 2-5 lead. Our protagonists were a mere game away from losing the encounter. They could not afford a mistake anymore. Clutching up when they needed it most, Siddhanth held his serve and made important returns to help break the opponents serve, and the match entered a tie break at 6-6. With a bit of luck—two double faults from the opponents—they somehow won the set, and were tasked with doing it all over again, one last time, to secure the gold.


“The final set was all about tiring out one another and pushing each other to their limits. We continued to dominate from the baseline and some tactical net game here and there did the trick for us as we had our noses ahead with a lead of 5-4. I was going to be serving for the match and my heart was pounding faster than ever. The home crowd was trying to get behind their team and I could barely hear Pranav's faint cheers from the bench as a result of the commotion. A couple of aces and a sweetly timed volley from Siddhanth's racquet set up a match point for us and for the very first time in my life, all I could think about was my cosy bed back in Ashoka. I went for a huge body serve which invited an error into the net and it was finally over. The misery was finally over. The anxiety was finally over. The tournament was finally over.”



It had been a year to remember; and those close to the tennis players on that team will be talking about it for a while. “I was undefeated in my first year, and the game plan was clear: I want to continue that streak into second year.” says Sarthak.


Second year, however, would not be smooth sailing. The team picked up in monsoon where they had left at the end of last year, winning tournaments in the usual clinical fashion. During the winter, Sarthak picked up an unfortunate shoulder injury, which kept him out on the sidelines until february. 


“Injuries have been demoralising for me in the past, it sucks to be off court for a long duration. My first major injury was in 2021. I was India no. 19 at that point, but I was out for about 6 months and lost all my ranking points. There was less at stake at this time around, especially since it was the offseason. But regardless, it’s disappointing not being able to play the sport that I love.”


“Honestly, second year just didn’t feel the same. I had a lot of expectations from myself, especially given the year the team and I had just had. That pressure translated into pushing my body beyond the limit which is what eventually led to the injury.”


“We won all the tournaments last sem (Monsoon 2023) but we’ve already lost two this sem, and I lost my first singles match at a tournament since joining Ashoka. That’s a tough pill to swallow, especially since I lost against my rival from the agneepath finals in my very first match back from injury. That was difficult to cope with because it was a new, different feeling, which I didn’t know how to deal with. I spent quite some time off the court just coming to terms with the disappointment, I knew I had to do that before getting back on the court if I wanted to regain my confidence.”


“Magnus this year was another disappointment. We lost in the finals because I cramped up; I couldn’t move for three and a half hours afterwards. I think my downturn in form has been the result of psychological and physical factors which have accumulated over the past three semesters.”


When asked about his plan for the comeback trail, Sarthak lets out a small laugh and says “Winning all the tournaments, of course!”


He straightens his posture and gets a little serious, you can tell he’s thought long and hard about what he needs to do to return to his best form. 


“I want to put in a lot more effort off the court: on my mental strength as well as in the gym. Its been about three and a half months since I worked out properly and its affected my endurance and strength.”


“I want to take a step back and ease things up a bit. During the Magnus final was the first time at Ashoka that I felt the pressure getting to me. It was this weird feeling, difficult to put into words, but it made me uncomfortable on the court, which has usually been like my second home. I was quite tense and not able to play my regular game.”


“My playstyle had switched a little. I had become quite defensive and wasn’t playing my shots which were second nature to me at one point. I just wasn’t having fun on the court at that moment. At the end of the day, this is my sport, I love this sport. I want to play my game on my own terms, and that’s what I’m going to get back to doing.”


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