It’s not every day that you get to test your skills against the best athletes in the world. But for four SMU tennis players, that opportunity of a lifetime came this week at the 2022 Dallas Open, thanks to wildcard entries into the professional-level tournament.
SMU tennis players Caleb Chakravarthi, Liam Krall, Ivan Thamma, and Adam Neff made their debuts on the ATP Tour while juggling classes, studying, and the stresses of being college students.
Chakravarthi, a senior on the SMU tennis team and a two-year captain, headlined Tuesday’s College Night, dropping a 6-1, 6-0 first-round singles match to Canada’s Vasek Pospisil, a professional player who has been ranked as high as No. 25 in the world.
Though Chakravarthi lost his match in just 56 minutes on the stadium court, he said he would not forget the experience of playing in his first pro-level tennis tournament in front of a home crowd. “It was a little nerve wracking, but it was nice to get to play in front of my coaches, parents, family, and friends,” he said. “It was a great atmosphere and experience.”
Krall, who last season was named the 2021 American Athletic Conference’s Freshman of the Year and has posted an impressive 26-13 record in his first year and a half of collegiate tennis at SMU, lost his match Saturday in the qualifying singles draw by a scoreline of 7-6, 6-3 to Austria’s Jruij Rodionov.
“It was pretty exhilarating,” Krall said. “The pro atmosphere is something really, really special, and to get a chance to play at that level—it’s amazing.”
In one of the more exciting matches of the Dallas Open so far, the SMU doubles duo of graduate student Ivan Thamma and sophomore Adam Neff took the professional American tandem of former world No. 11 Sam Querrey and Jackson Withrow to a third set tiebreak in the first round of doubles action on Tuesday. The pros ultimately came out on top in the tightly contested 7-6, 4-6, 10-5 match, but it was nevertheless an impressive feat for college students.
“It was an incredibly close match,” Neff said. “We had three set points in the first set when we were up 40-love. At the end of the day, they were the more experienced team, which was the difference in the match. They played some great tennis and turned it on in the tiebreak when they needed to.”
A Lifetime of Work
Collegiate tennis players spend countless hours on the practice court, perfecting their games. But according to the NCAA, less than 2 percent of student-athletes go on to be professionals in their sport. That stat won’t deter Chakravarthi, Krall, Thamma, or Neff, who say they’d like to see if they have what it takes at the next level
“I want to go pro and see how it goes,” Chakravarthi said. “I’d like to go play on the challengers’ circuit and, hopefully, someday come back and play in the Dallas Open again.”
For Neff, the experience of facing off against the best tennis players in the world was a confidence booster. “I think it helps with belief,” he said. “We’ve seen what it looks like to get to the next level, and it shows us that we can compete with anybody. There’s nobody in college tennis that we don’t feel like we can share a court with and be right there with them.”
And the most significant difference between playing tennis at the college and pro level? “Definitely fitness,” Krall said. “They’re able to stay in points longer. They have bigger shots, and they have bigger serves.”
All four Mustangs say their favorite tennis players to watch growing up were Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Neff even named his childhood dog Rafa, after the 21-time Grand Slam champion.
But the closest pro connection comes much closer to home. Thamma shares a Northern California tie with pro tennis player Jenson Brooksby, who is currently ranked No. 54 on the ATP Tour. Brooksby was born in Sacramento, while Thamma is a transfer student from the University of California Davis, where he played four years on the tennis team. (Thamma is using his fifth and final year of eligibility studying at Cox School of Business, earning his master’s in management.) The two could be seen Wednesday hitting on the practice courts ahead of Brooksby’s second-round match.
SMU’s head tennis coach, Grant Chen, praised Dallas Open tournament director Peter Lebedev for his support of his team and college tennis. (The week-long Dallas Open takes place at SMU’s home court, the Styslinger/Altec Tennis Complex.) “The opportunity for Caleb and Liam, and Adam and Ivan in doubles, is just incredible,” he said. “It’s a moment they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives.”
But it will be a quick turnaround and back to business as usual for the foursome. The SMU tennis team faces off against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Sunday at 9 a.m.
Limited tickets are available for the remaining sessions of the Dallas Open, which concludes Sunday with the championship singles match starting at 1 p.m.