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The Rediff Special/Ashish Magotra

April 28, 2004

One of Indian tennis' great quests is to identify the player who will lead the country this coming decade.

While tennis has never matched up to cricket in terms of popularity in the country, it does have a long and varied history.

For every Ramanathan Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj, Leander Paes or Mahesh Bhupathi, there are hundreds who never make the cut. Yet, all through the first few months of 2004, even before he played his first match on the senior ATP circuit, 17-year-old Karan Rastogi was being touted as something special.

But how does one identify a champion? Is it simply his will to win, or is the talent a shining light none can ignore? One suspects it is a combination of both.

Born: October 8, 1986
Reached semi-final, Junior Australian Open 2004
Highest ranked Asian junior player
Played his first senior ATP tournament (The Tata Open) in 2004
A look of boredom was creased across Rastogi's face as he waited for a press conference to begin, perhaps the only indicator of his age. But he handled the media with a calm confidence beyond his years.

"I was a very shy person when I first started out, but now I feel more confident," he revealed.

His approach to life has changed. He is more mature in his dealings with people, say his parents Shilpi and Rahul.

"We can still remember how nervous he was when he took his first flight, from Ahmedabad to Mumbai. The flight is not long, only around 30 minutes, but he couldn't sit still for a minute. And now he travels all over the world, alone!"

Since Leander Paes, Karan is the first Indian to earn a place in the elite ITF Grand Slam juniors team. Before joining the team he will train at the Sanchez-Casal Academy, near Barcelona, the complex created by Spanish stars Emilio Sanchez and Sergio Casal. The training will be mainly on clay courts.

Given the scarcity of clay courts in India, Karan feels it will help him prepare better for the European season in his last year on the junior circuit.

Every summer, the Mumbai lad travels to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, where he played against the likes of Tommy Haas and Serena Williams.

"Serena beat me then, but I could probably take her easily now. Bollettieri told me I have a lot of potential and when it comes from someone who has trained so many champions it means a lot," says Karan.

It all started for Karan when he was four. His mother bought him a plastic racquet and ball to play at home. His dad used to take him to the Practennis Academy in Andheri, northwest Mumbai, to watch other children play tennis. After going there for a few days, he was noticed by the coach who asked him if he wanted to hit a few balls. The child of four stepped onto the court with that plastic racquet in hand, ready to pound the ball back. That gesture won the coach's heart.

"At seven, I first took part in the state tournament. Between eight and ten I started winning for my age group. Success was not easy. I mean, the first few times I played in the state-level tournament I was getting hammered by everyone. But then it really did not matter, I loved the game too much," said Karan.

"When I was in the eighth standard I had to decide whether to pursue tennis full-time or continue with studies. It was my decision; my parents helped me take it but there was no pressure on their part."

Shahrukh Khan fanatic
Very lazy at home
Likes Hindi music
Listens to music before games
His parents feel it was a calculated risk.

"We have our own business. At the end of the day we ask ourselves what's the worst that could happen. If he does not make a career in tennis, he can manage the business.

"I mean, at one point Karan asked us, 'What if I don't make it. Then what?' We told him, 'It's simple. You have a family business to fall back on. Give it a go. Live a dream'."

That is exactly what Karan has been trying to do: Live a dream! He agrees his parents have made millions of sacrifices to enhance his career.

"During school it was very difficult to schedule practice and there were many times when I would be changing clothes in the autorickshaw on the way to practice, eating in the car, traveling; it was tennis all the time, day in and day out," says Karan.

"But I started doing well almost immediately. On my second international trip I won one tournament and was runner-up in another."

Karan recently won the honour of representing India in the Davis Cup.  For one so young it was an enriching experience to play alongside Leander Paes.

"His professionalism stands out. There is no fooling about while you are on court. Everything is serious," says Karan.

"He has been playing tennis for 13 years now. If he didn't love the game he would have never played it. 13 years of non-stop practice, 13 years of getting up early at five in the morning, 13 years of hard work. You don't do that if you don't want to," adds Karan's dad.

Financially, it is tough for the Rastogis. While Adidas sponsors his clothing, they do precious little to help with his huge travel costs.

Brendan Evans of the United States is ranked 13 in the world junior singles in comparison to Karan's fifth ranking, but he already has sponsorship worth a million dollars. Karan has nothing worth the mention.

As a child Karan never liked to lose. He was so competitive that he would practice until he beat his coach. In reality, unknown to the young, innocent mind, the coach would let him win because that is the only way Karan would let him leave the court.

"I hit with power and from the baseline. My strength is my return of serve. My serve is getting stronger -- I serve at around 180 to 185 km/h. Now that I have taken the plunge, the most important thing to do is not lose. I have to do well.

"Being able to play on the circuit is motivation enough. I am trying to do justice to the hopes of so many people I know. What more motivation does one need?"

Certainly, Karan has all it takes to become the champion India is desperately looking for.

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