Seventeen-year-old Abhimanyu Vannemreddy hoping for 'something special' at Roland Garros


Almost four decades ago, an 18-year-old Ramesh Krishnan walked into the center court for the boys' singles final soon after Bjorn Borg, in his fitted Fila shirt and shorts and Donnay wooden racket, had walked off with his fourth French Open crown.

Abhimanyu Vannemreddy has not watched Krishnan play. But he senses a connect. After all, no Indian since Krishnan in 1979 has won the boys' singles title at Roland Garros, and Abhimanyu is hoping to change that.

"It feels like this is a piece of history," Abhimanyu, the lone Indian boy at the junior French Open this year, tells ESPN from Paris. "I hope I can go out there and do something special."

Abhimanyu earned a wildcard entry with a hard-fought win over Japan's Hikaru Shiraishi in the final of the Rendez-Vous tournament in Roland Garros. 'Rendezvous a Roland Garros', an initiative introduced two years ago, puts talented players on the path to a French Open junior wild card. A total of 667 Under-18 players from India, Japan, China, Brazil, USA and South Korea participated in the qualifying stages of the tournament. In the previous two editions, no Indian player managed to qualify for the final.

Luck too aided Abhimanyu's journey to Roland Garros. Having lost in the regional qualifying final of the tournament to Siddhant Banthia, Abhimanyu came in as a last-minute replacement after Banthia suffered an injury and pulled out. "It was unexpected," he adds, "This is a huge stage for me." The main draw of the juniors' event will take place from June 4-10.

Tennis was actually Abhimanyu's father's idea to get him out of the couch. "Badminton was the first sport I took to as a child," he says. "When the kids I played with moved out of the country, I ended up plonking myself before the TV.

"Anticipating that I'd turn into a fat, lazy kid, my father got me into playing tennis when I was six."

Abhimanyu trained at the Arusha Gymkhana club in Tanzania in his early years before moving to New Delhi as a 14 year-old.

But till a couple of years ago, Abhimanyu was heading in the wrong direction - with a wrecked game and a broken spirit.

"Training in Bradington, Florida had totally ruined his game," former Indian Davis Cupper Vishal Uppal, Abhimanyu's coach, recalls. "When I met Abhimanyu in Delhi around four years ago, he could barely hit a ball so we had to focus on his mind for him to regain self-belief."

A grinder who uses his athleticism and speed to run down balls, Abhimanyu feels he has been able to adapt to the conditions in Paris fairly quickly. "The courts are a lot slower here and though I've never competed in Europe before I managed to adapt to the conditions soon enough and now it feels really familiar."

In fact, Abhimanyu is so far the only Indian name in the boys and men's singles put together at the French Open this year with Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan losing in the first round of qualifying.

"His build doesn't favor him to play 'big boy' tennis. He's fit, fast and his body still has to mature," Uppal says. "He is one heck of a kid with an amazing attitude. You can ask him to do something and wouldn't need to watch over him. We've trained him to be a slugger."

With Roger Federer - whose poster you're likely to find blu-tacked to Abhimanyu's wall - skipping the second Slam of the year, Abhimanyu lapses into a starry-eyed kid who hopes to catch Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal chip away at the ball from close quarters. Among his goals, the staid list of Slam wins and top world ranking find no mention. He is not looking that far ahead.