It’s been more than 35 years since Ronald Reagan stated, during his first inaugural address, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.” We discovered heroes in every state, starting with the determined 69-year-old who won a match at an ITF Pro Circuit event earlier this year in the Alabama town of Pelham, and culminating with the coach who has overcome multiple sclerosis to build a winning program at the University of Wyoming. Their compelling stories of courage, perseverance and achievement demonstrate that the message delivered by our 40th President rings as true today as it did then.
Not every great venue in tennis needs to reside in the likes of Monte Carlo or Indian Wells. Sometimes it’s all about the atmosphere and a raucous crowd.
That was the case in landlocked Indianapolis, IN, where the erstwhile RCA Championships—a professional men’s event beloved by ATP tour players and fans over the decades—shuttered seven years ago. Despite that setback, pro tennis lives on in the area.
Rajeev Ram, 31 years young, was born in Denver to Indian parents but was schooled in Carmel, just north of Indy. After the 2003 season at the University of Illinois, when his Illini team went 32-0 and he claimed the NCAA doubles title, he went pro. A few short years later, Ram began to ponder how he could bring the pro game back to his hometown.
“I felt the need to give back to the community that I came from,” he says. “And I felt like it was important to keep professional tennis in the area, even if it is in the form of an exhibition, after losing the ATP event in 2009. I wanted to do my part to keep tennis relevant as best I could.”
Advantage, Hoosiers. Ram started a foundation, dubbed EntouRaj for Kids, and its centerpiece event has pulled in such players as Bob and Mike Bryan, James Blake, Alison Riske and Brian Baker (Ram’s doubles partner in both the junior ranks and at the Rio Olympics.) Another of Ram’s favorite EntouRaj guest stars: Tamika Catchings, the recently retired WNBA legend who played for the Indiana Fever.
The real coup came this September, when EntouRaj landed Andy Roddick as its marquee player. Locals raved about his showing, which injected new energy about tennis into the community and let fans wax nostalgic at the same time.
Star players and crossover appeal are well and good, but Ram has commanded an unswerving focus throughout EntouRaj’s seven-year existence.
“We offer tennis-playing high-school seniors financial assistance for college through funds we raise,” he says. “They write essays as to how and why tennis has positively influenced their lives, and the goal here is to affect and inspire them.”
In doing so, Ram says both sport and education are encouraged.
Goal reached—and exceeded. Despite its relative boutique size, EntouRaj pulled in $64,000 in 2014 alone thanks to Blake and Riske’s cameos, sponsor giving and more.
Ram’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed among his compatriots.
“Rajeev was one of the guests at my charity event the very first year I had one,” says Eric Butorac, who retired at the U.S. Open after an illustrious doubles career and served as the president of the ATP Players Council. “For him to come to my home in Minnesota in December, I was absolutely going to do the same for him.”
Butorac notes that he, Ram and other pros simply love to see the sport grow.
“Bringing pro tennis to our hometowns is key,” he says. “We get to see amazing tennis all around the world, and at the highest level, so to bring that back to friends and family and let them see what we do is great.”
Butorac particularly fancies the event’s clever structuring of an exhibition the night before clinics and personal lessons.
“The demand is that, once they see you play, they want to hit with you,” he says. “I played the event and then did a doubles lesson, so it was cool. We had a lot to talk about.”
Welcoming famous friends to Indy for a night of overhead smashes and laughs isn’t the point for Ram, of course.
“The biggest thing is meeting the recipients of our scholarships,” he says. “To see the sense of gratitude, as well as accomplishment the kids feel, is the biggest driving force behind the whole idea.”