On Sunday, I had the opportunity to take my third consecutive trip to the USTA Boys' 16s & 18s National Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I only had part of an afternoon to spend, and that meant the only options on the Kalamazoo College courts for me were the Boys 16s singles 2nd round matches. I took the opportunity to check out players who were new to me, and one of the matches that caught my eye was an engaging tussle between two players of South Asian heritage: a tall, lanky player named Shiddharth Chari and his shorter opponent, #26 seed Nevin Arimilli of Texas. I was taken by Chari's big strokes and his fluency at net. Many of the games were tense, drawn-out affairs; in the end, Chari took the match 7-5 6-4.
I thought it would be interesting to talk to this low-profile player to learn more about his journey to Kalamazoo and give On the Rise readers insight into the life of a lower profile junior player. Many thanks to Chari for taking the time to talk!
And where are you from?
And where is that?
It’s kind of close to San Jose, about an hour from San Francisco. So, Bay Area.
Tell us about your journey. How did you end up at Nationals?
Well, I was an alternate last year, but this past year, I’ve been playing really well, I really stepped up my game knowing that it’s getting close to college and I kind of want to go D1. So I was training really hard and I was really happy to make it here. I’m ecstatic over this win, I can’t believe I’m in the third round. It's pretty cool.
You played a seeded player. Did you know anything about him before you played him?
I’d never played him, I just knew he was ranked higher than me. That’s all I knew.
Where about are you ranked now?
I’m around, I think, #66 in the nation for 16-and-under. Obviously he’s higher, that’s why he’s seeded. That's why it's an awesome win for me.
Where are you ranked in your Section?
I think I’m ranked 7th or 8th in the NorCal Section.
So you’ve played some of these other guys at the tournament before?
Yeah for sure. I think there are 10 or 11 kids from NorCal and I’ve played all of them. And then there are also a few kids from other sections that I’ve played, at other nationals like Clay Courts and intersectionals and some Level 2s.
So tell me about your match today. What worked well for you?
My serves, for sure. On huge points I would break out a huge kick serve or a huge first serve, which really helped me. My confidence level on my service games, knowing that I would hit a big serve really helped me.
Also, my mentality — my mental toughness during break points really helped me. I knew I had nothing to lose because he was the higher seeded player, so I just left everything out there, really happy I came out with a win.
You've got something of a cannon of a forehand. Has that always been a weapon of yours?
No, not always. Actually my backhand used to be better than my forehand but recently I had a bad left wrist injury so I was just practicing forehands and now it’s a weapon of mine.
It seems a little bit unorthodox, your technique on it. Would you agree?
Yeah it is. My coach when I was really young told me to “break my wrist” so I’d get more hook on my balls, so I just kept it that way.
On my backhand, I have a little injury on my backhand. I think the breaking my wrist so much has taken its toll on my wrist, a little tendonitis. Hopefully it heals soon, and I’m playing well still.
Who are you here with?
Just my dad.
Did he give you any advice before your match today?
Just in general. Nothing specific against this opponent, just he gave me these five things to do. Bend my knees, because I’m a tall guy and a lot of times, stupid errors, don’t bend my knees. A lot of it was just mental. Like take your time between points, breathe, don’t get mad at yourself over anything, and just have fun out there, fight.
Did you have any chance to do any YouTube/video research on your opponent before your started?
No, I didn’t know much about him other than asking a friend how he played, but that didn’t really help.
Can I ask where you are on your college journey?
I’m starting to look at colleges right now. But I haven’t talked to anyone yet. After this tournament, going into Junior year, starting September 1 I can start talking to coaches.
Is there a part of the country or division that you’d like to be in particularly?
I’m going for Division I, and I kind of want to move East Coast but I mean there are some amazing schools on the West Coast like Stanford. But I’m going to start touring colleges and looking into that.
Do you have a favorite professional player?
Not really a favorite, but I just like looking at how amazing Djokovic is. It’s like a joke. He’s amazing. Just all the pros are so good. I like Kei Nishikori, he’s pretty cool.
Have you ever had a chance to hit against a pro?
When did you start playing?
When I was 7 or 8.
What’s your favorite surface?
Hard for sure.
Have you ever played on grass?
Yeah, I like grass. I don’t really like clay. My game doesn’t suit clay. [Smiles.]
What about your transition game — coming forward — is that something that you work on a lot?
Yeah for sure. It was really bad actually just the beginning of this year. My dad would tell me to bend my knees. I would just go up there, thinking it was an easy shot, and I would just hit without bending my knees and it would be a careless error. But I’ve been working on it a lot. My big idea when hitting those is it doesn’t have to be a great shot. Keep it safe so you can come to net, finish off there. It’s really helped me.
What about volleys?
Volleys … my coach used to be a professional doubles player, so he’s really helped me just stick it. So my technique is really good on volleys.
What’s your coach’s name?
Sandy Mayer. [Mayer, a former Top 10 ATP player, reached the 1973 Wimbledon semifinals (beating top seed Ilie Nastase along the way); that same year he was part of the Stanford national championship team. Mayer's brother Gene reached #4 in the world; the two brothers teamed up to win the 1979 French Open in men's doubles.]
Postscript: Chari fell in his third round match 6-7(3) 6-3 6-4 to Niroop Vallabhaneni of Paradise Valley, Arizona.