BENGALURU -- At 17, Christopher Rungkat was Indonesia's No. 1 tennis player. He was in the top 10 of the ITF singles rankings. In 2008, he became the second Asian male player, after Japan's Kei Nishikori, to win a junior French Open doubles title. For the south-east Asian island nation with a population of around 300 million and an abiding love for fellow racquet sport badminton, Rungkat held hope for tennis' deliverance.
Twelve years since that promise flickered to life, Rungkat, now 30, is picking up his belated rewards. Last week, he won his first ATP tour-level title, at the Maharashtra Open in Pune, making him the first-ever Indonesian to win an ATP title. He had a run to the quarterfinals with partner Andre Goransson of Sweden at the Bengaluru Open Challenger this week, before being stalled by the Leander Paes-Mathew Ebden partnership. Having touched a career-high singles ranking of 241 in 2013, Rungkat has since been shadowed by two of the worst enemies in a professional athlete's career - injury and financial ruin - pushing him over the edge. He almost gave up the sport, switched to doubles three years ago and has now hit the road to recovery.
"I was the No. 1 player in my country," says Rungkat. "But I knew nothing about being a professional athlete. Indonesia had no successful tennis players before me whose path I could follow. There was no one to tell me, 'don't train like this or don't eat that,' or, you know, just that playing on the tour is very different from being a successful junior athlete. Now, I have that understanding but I've lost some of my best years just trying to figure out where I wanted to be."
Some of the gleanings he's had in the sport, Rungkat says, is from his travelling years as a teen with the Ratiwatana twins of Thailand. The Indonesian Tennis Association agreed to the idea of Rungkat accompanying brothers and doubles partners Sanchai and Sonchat Ratiwatana as a full-time hitting partner. "I would play some ITF junior events and travel with the Ratiwatana brothers on the tour, sleeping on the floor of their room, and also offer up myself as a practice partner to other players looking to warm up. The Ratiwatana twins were mentors to me then, teaching me drills and getting me to tag along in training. But singles was a completely different challenge and survival was cut-throat."
In 2013, Rungkat tore his hip flexor muscle, the rehabilitation ate up a whole season and soon his sponsors started walking away. His singles ranking plummeted from 241 in April 2013 to 1064 in just 12 months and he was caught in the abyss with little hope of finding a way out. "I was devastated," he says. "With my sponsors gone, I didn't know how I would survive. I began living out of my savings and whatever prize money I had earned, my bank account almost went dry. I really lost the will to play tennis."
Prize money trickled in with three gold medals at the 2011 South Asian Games. "It allowed me travel for a few tournaments and came as a timely blessing just when I was about to give up." However, Rungkat's singles efforts were taking him nowhere and he looked around to find his contemporary players flourishing in doubles. "That's when I sat up and thought to myself that maybe that's what I should also be doing."
After pairing up with India's Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan and Taiwan's Hseih Cheng-Peng, he stumbled into his current partner Goransson through Facebook in October last year. Rungkat dropped him a message asking if he'd like to partner him for some tournaments in Asia. The plan was to stick together for three weeks - two in Japan and one in China - but it's already been three months now, plus one ATP-tour title.
"I've always looked up the Indian guys," says Rungkat. "There's someone like Leander who's put Asia on the tennis map and even at 46, it's hard to beat him. I remember once, when I was much younger, during a tour event, Mahesh (Bhupathi) looked at my plate on which I had a stack of sweets piled, and then at me and said, 'buddy if you want to be a pro you shouldn't be having these. Talent alone won't take you anywhere, you need to win some ATP titles.' I felt embarrassed but I realised he was right."
Waif-like and fleet-footed, Rungkat has over the years ditched his love for trans fat-laden food and chocolates and taken the hard road to fitness. He travelled to Kep, Cambodia, where his coach Robert Davis, who coached the Ratiwatana twins, lives. Rungkat started distance running, often up to 10km every other day, in addition to mountain bike training, running the hills and swimming in the sea. "I've always found gym routines boring," says Rungkat. "But I didn't do distance running for too long because it may not be great for my joints."
He finished with a mixed doubles gold at the 2018 Asian Games and featured in all four Grand Slams last year, making the second round at Wimbledon (mixed doubles) and French Open (doubles). In many ways, Rungkat has put his life on hold for tennis. "I was dating my girlfriend for three years and we were putting off marriage until we decided to go ahead with it in January this year," he says. "I really want to start a family, have kids together but we both know the next couple of years are crucial for me tennis-wise."
Much hasn't changed, though, when it comes to Indonesia and tennis since Rungkat was a teen with a junior Grand Slam title. His country has no men's singles players featuring in the ATP rankings and it's just him in the doubles, now at a career-high spot of No. 68. Three Indonesian women feature in the singles rankings, only one of them within the top 400.
Rungkat is still the solitary reaper, ploughing and furrowing a lonely path in a country where tennis exists in the fringes. "I'm older, wiser and have learnt to respect the game and my body," he says. "It's taken many years but I'm here now and this is my best shot."