Rajeev Ram is still playing tennis at age 39, still grinding on practice courts and booking flights across eight time zones and waking up in a hotel in Rome or Atlanta or wherever he is now – Washington D.C., pretty sure – because that’s what his dad taught him.
You could say the renaissance of Rajeev Ram, owner of five major championships, all since age 35, started six years ago. He was 33 in 2017 when he stopped playing singles and poured every bit of his 6-4 frame and serve-and-volley game into doubles. That’s when his career took off. That’s why he’s still playing now as 40 approaches.
That’s what you could say.
Better to speak the truth, though, and the truth of Rajeev Ram’s dominance on the tennis court is that he wasn’t raised to dominate. That’s not what Raghav Ram taught his son. That’s not why Raghav let his only son, 3 years old at the time, grab that badminton racket and bash that Nerf ball around the house like he was Stefan Edberg or Ivan Lendl. Stefan Edberg? Raghav Ram didn’t know Stefan Edberg from Steven Spielberg, but he knew his son was having a good time with that racket in his hand, so he encouraged it.
Rajeev was getting bigger, and now he’s carrying around a racquetball racket. They live in an apartment in northern California, not much room for tennis, but Rajeev is smitten and his net is a windowsill or crack on the wall.
Pretty soon he’s on the sidewalk with his dad with a kid’s tennis racket – his dad’s the one with the racquetball racket, now – hitting balls. Then they’re finding a court, and going back every day. Rajeev was an active kid, playing every sport, but nothing grabbed his attention like tennis. His dad took to the sport himself, but no surprise there. Raghav Ram had been a fine cricket player back in the day in India, the homeland he and Sushma left in the early 1980s for the United States. Raghav was a biotech botanist, Sushma a contractor.
Rajeev was falling in love with a sport he’d seen only on television, moving with his parents to Carmel at age 12 and practicing at the Carmel Racquet Club. He won an IHSAA state singles title at Carmel. He was getting better, becoming great actually, and here’s what Raghav told him, once twice a million times:
Enjoy the game, or don’t play it.
“He never played tennis with me or wanted me to play to become a professional,” Ram’s telling me this week from a hotel in Washington D.C., site of the 2023 Citi Open. “That wasn’t the ultimate goal. It wasn’t to make money. It wasn’t to win slams or be ranked in the Top 10. It was just to enjoy the game.”
Even when Rajeev was older and doing all of those things – making money, winning slams, being ranked in the Top 10 – his dad was asking him the same question.
“Is your tennis fun for you? If not, go do something else.”
Raghav Ram wasn’t trying to raise the best tennis player in Indiana history.
Which is why it happened.
No. 1 ranking, five majors, one degree
Raghav Ram saw his son reach the top. Pancreatic cancer took so much, and eventually it took it all, but not before he saw Rajeev achieve the goal of a lifetime.
No, not the 2019 Australian Open title, Rajeev’s first major championship, though Raghav Ram was alive to see that. He died in April of that year, three months after Ram and Czech pro Barbora Krejcikova won the mixed doubles title. That trophy is somewhere in the home Rajeev shares with his wife in northern California. Probably in the workout room. In a closet, he thinks.
The winning matters – come on, of course it matters – but Rajeev Ram had already made his parents proud by checking off a family goal one month before he left for Australia: earning his college degree.
“The cultural background I’m from, it was important for my mom and dad,” Ram says. “It was stressed in my house.”
The ATP Tour partners with IU East, of all schools – yes, the campus in Richmond, Ind. – to work with players seeking their degree online. Ram had turned pro after one semester at the University of Illinois in 2003, long enough to win the 2003 NCAA doubles title and lead the Illini to the team title, but he’d always felt uncertain about leaving without a degree.
Not that his parents leaned on him. They’d made it clear: He had their approval to turn pro. We should all have parents like Raghav and Sushma Ram, a dad who comes home from work and plays our favorite sport with us, and a mom who joined in the family fun while working her own job, helping provide the funding for the kind of coaching a tennis prodigy like Rajeev Ram required. When the Carmel Racquet Club celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019 and wanted to name the court after its most successful product, Rajeev Ram had a counter proposal:
Name it the Ram Family Championship Court.
“I wouldn’t have done any of this without my mom and dad,” Ram says.
The degree from IU East? Ram did it for his parents as much as anything. Look, he might become a college coach someday, and to do that, yes, he’ll need a degree. But he’d been pursuing his degree well before landing on the idea of coaching. He wanted his degree for himself and for his parents, and it’s hard to say in what order, and his only regret along the way is that his father wasn’t able to see him walk across that stage for his diploma.
There wasn’t going to be a graduation ceremony, not for one online student, but the folks at IU East – Ram’s counselor, professors he’d met only on Zoom calls – knew what this meant for Ram and his family. This was December 2018, and IU East created a ceremony for Ram: cap-and-gown, diploma, faculty in attendance, all of it. By then, though, Raghav was unable to travel. He stayed home and Sushma cared for him as Rajeev drove to Richmond.
The folks at IU East shot video of the ceremony. Rajeev showed his parents. His dad saw him graduate. He saw it.
“It was a really nice thing they did for me,” Ram says of IU East, saying it softly and then pausing until I change the topic.
Psst … Rajeev Ram’s great
Sometimes when he’s back home in Indiana, staying with his mom between tournaments, Rajeev Ram will look for the next Rajeev Ram. He’ll drive past junior high courts, see activity there, and park his car. He watches through the fence, the world’s recently No. 1-ranked doubles player often going undetected at a tennis court in his home city.
He goes undetected a lot around here.
The news cycle around here is dominated by the Colts and Pacers, college football and college basketball, high school sports. Not much time left for other team sports in our vicinity: the Fever, Fuel, Indy Eleven.
Not any time left for tennis.
It’s no excuse for any of us, and while I’d like to say any of “you” – like, what’s your problem? – it’s on us at the newspaper, and at the TV and radio stations.
Rajeev Ram was ranked No. 1 in the world just last year, becoming the oldest player in ATP history to reach No. 1 for the first time – read that again – and he has won five majors (U.S. Open doubles in 2021 and ’22; Australian Open doubles in 2020, and mixed doubles in 2019 and ’21). He competed for the United States in the Davis Cup in 2021, and is doing so again this year. He won the silver medal in mixed doubles at the 2016 Olympics. His partner was Venus Williams, for crying out loud.
Oh, you didn’t know? What’s your problem?
Rajeev Ram Foundation for kids
Ram’s aware of the anonymity in which he toils, and he’d be lying if he said it didn’t bother him. It does, but for the most noble of reasons: He wants to grow the game in Indiana, and he understands the power one person’s story – his story, in this case – can have.
“Sure, I’d like more (recognition), if for no other reason than I would love to put my sport more on the map,” says Ram, currently ranked No. 5 in the world in doubles. “If I could do one more thing it would be get recognized and inspire more kids to play. I really do enjoy watching kids pick up the game of tennis and enjoy it, and play it like I played it at that age.”
Not everybody has a dad like Raghav, going with his son to the sidewalk and learning the game himself, eventually playing it a 4.0 or maybe even 4.5 level, which is to say: just fine. Ram started a foundation in 2010 to raise money for scholarships and tennis programs, and in 2022 brought the Rajeev Ram Foundation Indy Challenger tournament to Pearson Automotive Tennis Club in Zionsville. It’s a satellite event with great players like Ben Shelton and Christopher Eubanks, quarterfinalists at the 2023 Australian Open and Wimbledon, respectively.
Ram was at the Challenger event, seeing the ball boys and ball girls crouching at the net, same as he did at the RCA Championships in Indianapolis. Ram was there on a summer night in 1997, working the net as 14th-seeded Andre Agassi, then 37, worked over third-seeded Alex Corretja.
“I remember what it’s like to have people who are professional stand in front of me at age 10 or 12,” says Ram, who hopes to revive the Indy Challenger in 2025 and keep it here for the long haul. “If me being there can take one or two of those kids and make them want to play more, I’m all in.”
For now he’s focusing on his career – think it’s easy being ranked in the top 5 in the world at anything at age 39 – and his foundation, which funds clean water programs internationally and Magic Bus in India, which seeks to break the cycle of poverty for children there.
Locally, Ram’s foundation is sponsoring a free children’s tennis clinic next month in Zionsville and funds college scholarships, underserved high school tennis programs and grants to local youth tennis players. There’s a grant for especially promising players, and one for kids who just enjoy the game. That grant, for kids looking to have a good time playing tennis, has been named after Raghav Ram.
“It didn’t matter to my dad if I won or lost,” Ram says. “He just wanted me to enjoy it. I still enjoy my tennis a lot, and it’s because of the way he and my mom put it on me.”
Now he’s pausing. This story is bigger than tennis.
“Being a good human,” he says. “That was more important than anything else to my parents.”
You raised a good one, Mr. and Mrs. Ram.
Tennis Clinic with Rajeev Ram
Kids ages 7-10 are invited to a clinic with world-ranked Carmel pro Rajeev Ram at Pearson Automotive Tennis Club at 4560 S. 875 E in Zionsville. The clinic, Sept. 17 from 3-5 pm, is for players of any level. Call 317-559-7100 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to register (required). Cost is $20. Includes pizza and prizes.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Rajeev Ram: Any idea how good Carmel grad is at tennis? Any idea why?