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“One masala tea please,” the young man from Chennai says to the hotel staff. I bin all stereotypes about south Indians and coffee. I realise I will be binning some more in this interview. As I wait, the young man from Chennai, with a small but noticeable ash and turmeric tikka on his forehead, finishes an interview in Spanish.

Just 10 minutes, I say. “That means 20!”, he says, half joking, half dreading he is right. He has little time to spare. He needs his rest. It is Thursday, and the Davis Cup draw ceremony has just wrapped up. Tomorrow is the day he is supposed to play Rafael Nadal.

“I hope I don’t get nervous playing Rafa”, said Ramkumar Ramanathan during our chat. He has been waiting a long time for this. Most tennis loving five year olds would. Except most of them grow up and decide that such dreams were too puerile. Ramanathan is living that dream.

“I have to thank my dad for putting me in tennis.”

That happened when he was five. By eight he was playing state ranking tournaments. By 10, winning some. By 16, he had won the junior nationals twice. Then came third place at the Junior Davis Cup, and a steady rise in ranking.

“Kartik Chidambaram and MA Alagappan of the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association helped me get sponsorships.” Those sponsorships sent him to Barcelona, Spain, on a three-month scholarship to the Sanchez-Casal academy. “That was my first step up.”

The Sanchez-Casal academy was to become his gurukul, to which he returned on annual stints in the next couple of years. “The first day I was there, we trained for two hours and played for two hours. I just didn’t get up the next day! Slept for 24 hours straight.”

The secret ingredient to his steady success soup? Hard work under the Spanish sun. Michael Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman considered hours spent in the pool akin to making bank deposits, to be withdrawn at tournaments. Ramanathan had made some serious deposits in the Bank of Sanchez-Casal, and is now making withdrawals with cheques payable in India. “That’s why I can play so many tournaments without any injuries.” (That and the fact that he is 21.)

But the Spanish weren’t done testing him yet.

After he probably spent the night visualising his game against Nadal, it was Feliciano Lopez who appeared opposite him on court on Friday. I wondered what Ramanathan would make of that: the disappointment of not getting to play Nadal versus the sense of opportunity against Lopez.

Lopez snuffed that out in the first two sets though. He took the small openings to break Ramanathan once in each set, and pocketed the first two 6-4. But in the third, Ramanathan held serve better. Fist pumps appeared. He played the crowd; raising his hands above his head, then holding them to his ears. They played back, 4,000-strong, putting their hands in the air for him.

Rohit Brijnath wrote recently that “Athletes wear pain in practice because they’re searching for perfection, but also applause.” For a brief phase, Ramanathan found both. For the first time in the match, he put Lopez under pressure. The tension was so thick that even the ball boys and girls were fumbling. Lopez double-faulted. Ramanathan blew two break points. But he converted the third. In the crowd: pandemonium.

Before serving for the set, he pulled his shoulders back as he took a deep breath. It allowed his ribs to stretch, and his lungs to expand a bit more. It allowed more oxygen to reach his buzzing brain and sinewy legs. It allowed him a moment before he served for the set. Which he did. In the crowd: pandemonium’s big brother.

Alas, that was all the joy he would get. Perhaps he was mentally still surrounded by the nebulous euphoria of winning the third set. Perhaps Lopez shifted gears. The end result was one that was expected. But one that left every fan, from both sides, satisfied. It had been hard work for both players.

“One day, in Spain, I lost a match in a Futures tournament. My coach said let’s go and practice. What started as a one-hour session stretched into three. I played a set against one guy. Then another. I lost them both. I really wanted to win the last set badly and it showed in how I played. My coach asked me, what animal are you for India, Ram? I told him, I’m a lion.

“The coach recorded that last set. He said he will show it to me when I become a great player.”

The young lion from Chennai did not show me that video. But on Friday, in that third set on the RK Khanna stadium, we all got a glimpse of what it looked like.