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The TENNIS Conversation: Rajeev Ram and his path to doubles No. 1 at the age of 38
Ahead of his Vienna opener, the American discusses his groundbreaking achievement, steady success with Joe Salisbury and helping pro tennis return to Indianapolis this past summer.
Published Oct 26, 2022
WATCH: Ram and Salisbury won their second tournament of 2022 at the Western & Southern Open, teeing up their second US Open victory three weeks later.
Age is relative, we’re often told.
Take the current state of men’s tennis. Following his US Open victory, 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz became the youngest world No. 1 in ATP Tour history. Three weeks later, 38-year-old Rajeev Ram climbed to the top of the ATP doubles rankings—the oldest first-time No. 1 in the tour’s history.
For Ram, entering uncharted territory has often come at his own pace, one he’s learned to embrace. At 25, he won his first of two Newport singles crowns. On his 33rd birthday, he celebrated his first Masters 1000 title in doubles at Indian Wells. His first major, the 2020 Australian Open mixed doubles crown, arrived at 34. A year later In Melbourne, Ram tasted victory in a major men’s doubles draw for the first time. The American’s first of two successive triumphs at his home Slam with Joe Salisbury came at the age of 37.
In this TENNIS Conversation ahead of his Vienna opener, Ram discusses his latest achievement, steady success with Salisbury, helping pro tennis return to Indianapolis this summer and more:
With a couple weeks passed by now, has what you've accomplished sunk in, being able to really look back on your journey to this milestone?
RAM: When you have a little time to reflect, it's not so much the journey for me, it's more that the people that have always been there and supported along the way—how many people through the course of different phases of that process it really takes. Many people have met so much in certain stages and I think that to me has been the thing that I've reflected on the most, let's say.
It’s always sweeter when you can share success with others around you. Did you take any time to celebrate earlier this month? I imagine you received many messages of congratulations.
RAM: Yeah, I did. At the end of the day, I wouldn't have been able to do it without others' help. I don't think these kinds of things happen alone. I really don't believe that. Anyone who says they would've done something significant alone, I don't think is fully aware of it. The second thing, nothing really to celebrate per se. For me, the celebration was more just sort connecting and sharing it with some folks that I don't always talk to that have helped along the way and just expressing my gratitude for what they've meant, to my tennis career and life in general. And it's two minutes, three minutes, whatever it is. But I think it's important and that to me is probably more special than having a celebration if you will.
One aspect of your achievement that has obvious focus on is the statistical side of you becoming the oldest first-time world No. 1 in ATP doubles history. Can you talk a little bit just about your path specifically and maybe how this reinforces there isn't one way to get to the top?
RAM: I think I have a record of the most Grand Slams played before winning one, and now this. I used to run away from those types of things a little bit, but I embrace it a little bit more now. Everyone has their own path and that's really true. And perhaps when it takes a little bit longer, maybe it means a little bit more, maybe it's a little sweeter, you realize all the ups and downs and all that. But I think everyone's just on their own path to reaching their potential and mine just was a little bit longer than most. And that's okay. I'm proud of the fact that I hung in there and stayed the course for as long as I did even though things don't always happen very quickly for me.
To that, your path in the last few years has been one with Joe Salisbury. You’ve been consistently strong, especially at the bigger tournaments. But from your side of the court, how would you say maybe you've reinvented your game to stay so competitive?
RAM: From my end what has made us consistent is that we share a common goal of always trying to improve and always trying to get the best out of each other and ourselves. And that sometimes leads to brutally honest conversations and some difficult things to share. But so far in our four years, it's always led to better consistency, a better level and better results. I'm hoping that's a trend that we keep going for not necessarily the results—that's not in our control—but more just how we go about trying to achieve them. I feel like that's the behind-the-scenes work that maybe isn't always shown on the match court, but it is a lot of that stuff, just trying to be completely transparent with everything that we're doing.
I was going to ask how do you keep things fresh and moving forward in a partnership that's developed for a considerable time? In today's sport, you don't generally see these five-year collaborations, but you two have stuck it out and perhaps it's a testament to having that openness you referred to.
RAM: I think the other thing is that we don't spend every waking moment together. We share a lot of time together on the court, both in practice and in matches, and travel to the same tournaments and play them. But we're not eating every meal together. We are different ages in different phases of our tennis careers, so we're not spending that much time with each other off the court. It's kind of planned that way. Going and having our own space in certain areas has been really helpful for us. When we do get on court, we're both excited to be there and work.
On the subject of doing your own thing. How important has it been for you to have other avenues from time to time to balance the heavy grind of tour life? Your long-running charity work is one example. Thanks large in part to your foundation, Indianapolis hosted an ATP Challenger Tour event in July.
RAM: It's really cool. The foundation's been around for some time now. One of the reasons it started in the first place was to try and keep professional tennis in the area after Indianapolis lost a tournament, basically a 250, that had been around for years and years.
We did manage to secure and run a challenger this year in the summer. It had been a long time coming. Anything can inspire one person, maybe even better, a child to either stick with the game or pick up the game or work harder at the game or just be a little bit more motivated. I think it's great.
Getting to see high-level professional tennis in your backyard was something really cool for the community. A lot of the kids and even adults had never experienced that. A guy like Ben Shelton was there and then he goes on to have an amazing summer with great results. You hear these people be so excited about it: ‘Oh he was just here in Indiana!’ People might be more excited to go out and play themselves by seeing it up close. A kid might either stick with the game, pick it up or work harder—be a little bit more motivated. I think that's really cool.
Going to shout out the RCA Championships, because it was the first tournament I ever attended.
RAM: Oh really? No way.
I actually saw you play Ivan Ljubicic in 2004 when visiting family in the area. I didn’t grow up in a part of the U.S. with access to pro tennis. So what that event did in a sense was open up a door of, ‘Hey, l can’t play professionally but I can work in the sport’ after seeing in person all the different roles involved with putting it on.
RAM: Exactly. I was a ball boy as a 13-year-old. A lot of my friends were doing it, too. One of the coolest ones I did was Agassi versus Corretja—Andre's a legend and Alex is a great player at his own rate. I ended up playing some of the guys that I ball boyed for like Jonas Björkman, Daniel Nestor and a few others. Formed a relationship with Corretja a little bit, so these experiences come full circle. Getting to be that close to professional tennis has its effect on everybody in their own way I'd say, just like you.
OK, Raj. Here’s a chance to pitch your city for an ATP Tour return. Let’s say hypothetically there are single-year licenses on the table again next year. Why should Indy get a tournament?
RAM: Indy in general is an amazing sports town. If you look at the things that we as a city have hosted in the past even 10 years…the Super Bowl, Final Four of basketball, the Big 10 tournament of football. We’ve hosted golf majors before. Held a Davis Cup tie years back. Obviously the 500 race is the biggest thing that's been a staple. We have Pacers, Colts. So it's just a community that really, really thrives for sports and they live for it. Having a town and a culture that's so integrated in professional and amateur sports, I mean what more could you ask for? That would be my pitch is that it's not just tennis, it's a sporting town.
You mentioned Davis Cup. Last month, you helped the U.S. squad qualify for the knockout phase. One the key wins with Jack Sock came at the expense of Joe and Andy Murray. Are you guys approaching that from a business point of view that there's a job at hand here? Or was that one of the more difficult situations you’ve faced?
RAM: No, it was very difficult. One of the reasons we have been successful is we don't really approach it from a business standpoint. We approach it more from a human standpoint. All of a sudden when we got to go five days after winning the US Open and play such a big match, it's really difficult because I know how he is, he knows how I am and you're trying to try to compete against your brother in a way. And beat him, which is really difficult.
We had a quick chat before the match just to kind of say, ‘Look, whatever happens we're going to compete as hard as we can for our countries. It's so important to both of us and whatever happens, happens.’ Even though it was probably known, it was really important to say it, but it was still not easy. I haven't faced him since we started playing together. Emotions were tough. And also from a tennis perspective, it's hard because I feel like I know a lot about what's going on the other side of the net, which is not normal.
It definitely felt like one of the most stressful matches of the event from afar, but from a competition standpoint, it also had the drama and level one would hope for at an event like this.
RAM: Yeah, I agree. Especially given the magnitude. It was a live (rubber), in a robin-robin format where every match meant so much. I think it was pretty good quality tennis and it was also a very meaningful match.
Anything you can share what it was behind the scenes with your U.S. teammates as the ‘elder statesman’ of the bunch in Scotland?
RAM: The team was great. There’s a bunch of guys who are a lot younger than I am. So it's kind of cool to see them go through this point of their career. I think they're all playing so well and they're all having their own way. And then for me personally, Bob Bryan's been a part of the last couple of ties and as a doubles player, I can't really ask for much better than that to learn from. Just having him around and picking his brain on all kinds of things was an amazing experience.
So just looking forward, Vienna is next for you. This event marks your debut at No. 1. Is there any extra adrenaline going into this, having this behind you now and returning to the match court?
RAM: Not cause of being No. 1. The extra adrenaline is just that this is a home stretch of the season and as Joe and I have always said, the most important thing for either of us is the team ranking. And we're still behind on that. We’re going as No. 2 and we would love to try and finish the year as No. 1.
The ATP Finals in Turin is also a tournament that we have not won. We got pretty close last year. Everything's trying to lead up to put our best foot forward there. We're proud of where we are and what we've accomplished, but there's still some big events to play for and that provides plenty of motivation.
To finish, I just have a travel related question for you.
As someone who is an expert at hitting the road for an extended period, what's something you’ve learned along the journey to either improve your packing approach or overall travel experience?
RAM: Whether I pack for a week or a month, it's basically the same minus the amount of shoes I take because that just means that I'm playing more tennis. I'm not very good at it, but trying to be minimal and cut out any extra is usually useful just because all it seems to do is get in the way. Learning not to pack for every single occasion has been helpful, because usually you can work it out when you're on the road.
One of the other things I didn't do as well when I was younger was appreciate different cultures and pick something up from everywhere I go. As I've gotten older, you realize the best part about travel is getting to experience the culture. It doesn't mean that it takes priority over the job, but if I can do one or two things a week involving that side, it’s really nice.