Five years since he quit playing the sport at a professional level and moved out of India, Karan Rastogi is helping a fledgling tennis nation touch new milestones, shape its future and rediscovering his own potential as a player.
On Sunday, Hong Kong turned to their Indian hope. It proved to be winning.
Tied 2-2 against Vietnam in their Davis Cup Asia/Oceania Group II tie, the side fielded its senior-most player Karan Rastogi in the deciding fifth rubber. Though Rastogi conceded the tiebreak in the opening set against Nguyen Hoang Thien, he bludgeoned the 21-year-old over the following three sets to take Hong Kong into the group semi-finals - the farthest the South eastern Chinese nation has trudged in the annual team competition since 2006.
"The plan was to rest me on the first day and have me play, if the situation so arose, on the final day," Karan, 30, who was part of the Indian side in Davis Cup ties between 2004-2011, told ESPN from Ho Chi Minh City. On Saturday, Karan along with partner Kevin Wong had handed the side a 2-1 lead before Vietnam drew level after the first reverse singles. Captain Mike Walker knew it was time to whip out his trump card for the final reverse singles - Rastogi, 30, who served as coach of Hong Kong's Davis Cup and Fed Cup sides till 2016 and continues to train their national players.
"I know I can't last as long as I could a decade ago so I pick my battles well. Today there's no need for me to spend six hours on court. A good two-hour session is enough."
Plagued by injuries, Rastogi called time on his professional career when he was just 25. Doubles, he reckons as an afterthought, was a facet that discovered at the fag end of his professional career. He could have hung around in the circuit for longer had he switched to doubles, but the idea didn't seem compelling enough nor did he have the funds. Briefly coaching in Mumbai after his retirement, he was soon invited by the Hong Kong Tennis Association (HKTA) for a year's stint as coach. "In ten months' time, we spoke again and I liked the role and realised that I could make a difference," he says. A fledgling tennis nation, Hong Kong's highest-ranked singles player Jack Wong is ranked 905.
According to the International Tennis Federation (ITF) regulations, a player should not have represented any country in the Davis Cup for two years and should be a resident of a country for which he wishes to play, for two years before he can be included in the national side.
Rastogi last represented India in an away tie against Serbia in 2011. He moved to Hong Kong the following year and was named Davis Cup coach in 2013. After completion of two years as coach the HKTA proposed that he play for the Davis Cup side. It was an offer he wasn't keen on refusing. "I said to myself 'why not' and spent some time getting into shape," he says. He made his first Davis Cup appearance as a player for Hong Kong against Iran in July last year, before fashioning the side's promotion into Group II.
"It's a little different for me with regard to where I am now in life and my career," explains Rastogi, who's represented Hong Kong as a player in five Davis Cup ties so far. "Before being a player was pretty much my day job so it was a lot more pressure. I coach six hours a day now so I just have a couple of hours if I have to practice. I don't want to push my body too hard. When we were training in Thailand before this Davis Cup tie I pulled a stomach muscle. I know I can't last as long as I could a decade ago so I pick my battles well, am a lot smarter on court and think more clearly. Today there's no need for me to spend six hours on court. A good two-hour session is enough. Now coaching the national team is my full time job and I try and play when I can. I have nothing to lose."
His teammates in Hong Kong's Davis Cup side are those who have been coached by him from their junior years. It adds to the camaraderie but Rastogi is careful to not overstep. "When I'm in the team as a player I don't overdo the coaching bit. The team has a coach and captain and I like to respect that. Of course on court when I say something they listen to it. I'm open with the players and try to keep the mood light in tense situations."
Over a self-deprecating laugh, Rastogi, who touched a career-best singles ranking of 217 in 2012, recalls an incident during his early Davis Cup years for India when he was named in the reserves for the tie against Pakistan in Mumbai in 2006. "Traditionally the new guy has to do something to initiate himself into the side. At the official dinner at the governor's house, suddenly my name was called out and I was asked to deliver a speech," he reminisces, "I was totally taken by surprise and went up to the stage and mumbled something with the chief minister and 400 other guests in attendance. It was a pretty embarrassing moment but also a great one when I look back today." He played three Davis Cup ties for India, his final one being against Serbia in 2011.
"At least we're winning our singles rubbers now. Ten years ago we were just relying on Leander (Paes) and Mahesh (Bhupathi) to win in the doubles."
One of the regrets he still carries is over not featuring in any of India's home ties. "All my ties were away ones against tough opponents," he says, "I sometimes wish I had played that one match at home before a home crowd."
On a day that Rastogi steered the Hong Kong side to one of its best showings in a long time, Indian singles players - Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan -propelled the hosts to an emphatic 4-1 win over New Zealand. Winning all its four singles matches, the sole point India conceded was in the doubles - an indication of greater quality and depth in the side now as opposed to the scenario a decade ago. "At least we're winning our singles rubbers now. Ten years ago we were just relying on Leander (Paes) and Mahesh (Bhupathi) to win in the doubles. India needs to utilise the talent it has now. If the players stay motivated, are surrounded by the right people and remain injury-free I don't see why they can't do better," he says.
The biggest challenge for Rastogi after shifting base from India to Hong Kong though was realigning his expectations and coming to terms with sport being viewed largely as a medium to gain admission into foreign universities. "At the start I was hoping to make tennis of the same level or better than what it is in India. After a while, I had to adjust my expectations. Some players had no idea as to what it takes to be at the ATP level or winning Davis Cup matches," he adds. "It's definitely frustrating when you train kids who you know are talented enough to turn pro, but choose a different path. At some level you can't blame them because the competition in tennis is ruthless. Things are gradually changing now. It's a slow process, but we're getting there."
What helped him in the transition phase was the predominant Asian culture that conjoins India with countries such as Hong Kong - that of a reverential attitude towards coaches. "It was a lot similar to India that way unlike the brash attitude of kids in Europe and America," he says, "It made my integration into the Hong Kong tennis set-up a lot easier."
In his first year as coach, the Hong Kong side moved up to Group II before finding themselves relegated the following year. A lasting impact though he's made in the side is in the doubles area. "Our doubles results have improved vastly, be it the juniors, Futures events or in the Davis Cup. I think that's one serious difference I've been able to make so far thanks to my innate skills as an Indian player."
His fairly sound knowledge of Indian players also often comes in handy. Suffering their first-ever Fed Cup defeat against Hong Kong, coached by Rastogi, in 2014, India had to stay put in Group II of the Asia/Oceania competition. Both of India's top players -Ankita Raina and Prarthana Thombare - lost to unheralded, lowly-ranked opponents. "I knew all the Indian players well and was familiar with their style of play which helped us a lot," he says.
Five years since he quit playing the sport at a professional level, Rastogi acknowledges that he's matured as a player and given the right opportunity, he would love to return to India and make a difference in the tennis scenario back home.