If Novak Djokovic thinks of Melbourne Park as a second home—winning eight Grand Slam singles titles at the place sort of does that for you—then Rajeev Ram also gets a warm kind of feeling when he arrives for the Australian Open each year, especially as he has turned it into his own kind of hot streak, winning the mixed title in 2019 and, last week, adding the men’s doubles with his British partner Joe Salisbury.
Craig Tiley has much to do with that. Sitting at his desk, in a glass walled office with a large bowl of chocolate and candy in front of him—visitors dip in freely—Tiley presents a very familiar face for Ram. Now Tournament Director of the Australian Open and, increasingly, one of the most influential movers and shakers in tennis, Tiley had Ram on his team at the University of Illinois during his tenure as Head Coach of the Illini tennis squad between 2003 and 2005.
“We had a very strong squad,” said the South African whose success in leading the Fighting Illinis to the NCAA Division One title in 2003, following with Indoor titles triumph in 2003 and 2004, set him off on the road to more influential roles in the game. “We had Kevin Anderson, Amer Delic, Brian Wilson and other excellent players as well as Rajeev. They were a good bunch to coach.”
Tiley had little doubt that the long-limbed Ram would also go on to greater things. “From a young age, Rajeev showed that he had great intuition,” Tiley told me. “He made playing the game look easy. On court he was always in the right place at the right time. He had excellent swings and was very efficient in the way he hit the ball. I always knew there was a special future for him.”
It took a while. For the Colorado-born Ram who grew up in Carmel, Indiana, the ATP Tour proved a more daunting challenge than college tennis and it was not until 2009 that Rajeev, partnering Eric Butorac, won his first title at Chennai, a city not too far from Bangalore, the original home of his Indian parents before they emigrated to America. It was in July of that year that he grabbed a piece of good fortune when Mardy Fish pulled out of the grass court event at Newport, Rhode Island, putting Ram into the draw as a Lucky Loser. Riding that luck, he beat Sam Querrey in the final.
With his serve and volley game, Ram always enjoyed playing on grass and repeated his success in the International Tennis Hall of Fame event by winning his second singles title there with a 7-6 in-the-third victory over Ivo Karlovic in 2015.
But Ram’s future successes lay with having a partner alongside him. Enjoying the company of Venus Williams, he hit the highlight of his career to that date by winning a Silver Medal at the Rio Olympics, going down to Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jack Sock in the final. With the spotlight on him, Ram was asked by the New York Times to talk about his Hindu religion.
“Part of the Hindu religion, more than anything else, is having control of your mind—self-control, basically,” he explained. “If you can have inner control, a sense of peace, your body is going to follow.”
Ram’s quiet, reserved nature is evident in the concentrated style he brings to court although arms were flung wide on Rod Laver Arena when he won his first Grand Slam title in partnership with the Czech Barbora Krejcikova, last year.
With fate taking its hand again, a viral illness over Christmas made Ram take the decision not to try and defend his mixed title with Krejcikova. “I was committed to the doubles with Joe Salisbury and thought two events might be too much,” he explained. The result worked out well for everyone. Krejcikova went on to retain her crown with a new partner, Nicola Mektic of Croatia, and Ram, feeling just fine, won the doubles with Salisbury.
Playing against an unseeded pair of young Australians, Luke Saville and Max Purcell, Ram and Salisbury dominated the final, 6-4, 6-2, and collected $263,000 each for their efforts. Ram’s serving and Salisbury’s hard, flat returning were features of a final that showed why this Anglo-American partnership, which has already secured ATP doubles titles in Dubai and Vienna, should be one to be feared in the coming months.
By winning a Grand Slam title relatively late in their careers, both Ram, 35, and Salisbury, 27, offered evidence of perseverance paying off. Ram, in fact, broke a record in having to wait longer than anyone else in the Open era to lay his hands on a Grand Slam doubles crown—this being his 58th attempt.
There is no players guide to finding the right doubles partner. The chemistry is either there or it is not. In this instance, it was Salisbury who approached Ram and the extent to which the partnership has gelled was summed up by the American: “We’ve become really good partners to each other. I think when we’re nervous in tough situations, we’re not afraid to say what we think. There’s a bit of trust there.”
While Ram and his wife head back to their home in Walnut Creek, California, Salisbury, who grew up in the south London district of Peckham, will be talking to real estate agents. The pair will hook up again in a few weeks and, given the form they have shown Down Under, London house prices with be the least of Salisbury’s concerns.