Mumbai: Sixty-six—Divij Sharan precisely remembers the number of days since he last stepped on a tennis court. The unusually long wait finally ended on Wednesday, with India’s world No 56 doubles specialist having his first on-court training session in Manchester, where he currently resides, since the COVID-19 outbreak.
The 34-year-old thus becomes one of the first elite Indian sportspersons to resume proper training, impacted across sports by the global pandemic. In its latest lockdown relaxation measures issued on May 11, the UK government allowed the use of tennis courts in England, albeit with strict restrictions and guidelines. Starved of on court training, Sharan waited for a couple of days before heading to a nearby club where the family of his wife Samantha Murray Sharan—also a professional tennis player from Britain—are members. A five-minute drive from their house, Divij and Samantha checked into the club’s courts around 1pm on Wednesday for a light hitting session that lasted about 45 minutes.
“It just felt amazing to be back on court,” Divij said from Manchester. “The last time I was on a tennis court was for the (India v Croatia) Davis Cup tie in Croatia (in March). I’ve been away for such a long period from tournaments but never from a tennis court, probably since the time I started playing tennis itself.”
The guidelines issued by Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) allow a maximum of two people per court, although it can double up to four for members of the same household. For people from different households, it is mandatory to follow social distancing, mark their own balls and pick up only their balls with their hands. Luckily for Divij and Samantha, they ticked the ‘same household’ box, making the rules a bit more relaxed for them. That’s not to say that the duo wasn’t extremely cautious while on the court.
“We still followed all the rules of social distancing,” Divij said. “It was just the two of us on our court. The gates to the courts had been kept semi-open, so I used my shoe to open and close the gate. We waited for the players playing before us to leave first.
“Because it was going to be a light session, I literally went on court with one racquet and tennis balls—didn’t take a bag with me. We didn’t sit down on the court benches. We left the court before the end of our time slot,” he added.
Divij revealed there wasn’t an iota of apprehension from either of the two to get back on the court. “Playing under all these new restrictions was a little different but I’d rather have that than not be able to play at all,” he said. Although they had been working on a few drills—like hitting against a blackboard, serving into a sheet, volleying with each other—in their backyard at home even during the lockdown phase, the southpaw reckoned it doesn’t match even a light training session on court.
“During the lockdown, we’ve been trying out different drills at home like volley to volley or hitting against the wall or hitting into a sheet, but it was more with the idea to stay active and keep the shoulder moving. We did that very occasionally and nowhere close to the time we would spend on a court in normal times,” Divij said.
The first session back comprised hitting a few ground strokes, volleys and sending down some serves at a low intensity. Divij—who won the 2018 Asian Games doubles gold partnering Rohan Bopanna (with whom he is also expected to pair up for the Tokyo Olympics next year)—plans to hit the court three to four times a week and gradually build the frequency and intensity. This, despite him getting a feeling that the 2020 professional tennis season might have seen its last match.
“The tour has been officially cancelled till July but I feel there is a decent chance that there won’t be any more professional tournaments this year. It’s possible that there may be some domestic tournaments subject to how the countries are coping with the pandemic, but even that is months away. So it’s not easy to plan too far in advance in terms of training,” he said.