Friends on fire: Jeevan-Balaji, the last Indians standing at Maha Open

Jeevan has had a fair amount of success alongside Rohan Bopanna and later Vishnu Vardhan. But it is his childhood buddy, the immensely skilled Balaji, known for his short tapping wristy forecourt slamdunk kills, with whom Jeevan would aim to make the finals.

Serendipity played its bit part – with other doubles partners fading out. But mostly, the friendship sufficed. Sriram Balaji and Jeevan Neduncheziyan knew each other since they were 12 and 14 – each winning Chennai’s mini tennis talent hunts, in u12 and u14, a competition that a famous shoe brand used to put together. They are 32 and 34 now, with a double-decade rapport intact.

Another warm winter 10 Januaries ago in Chennai, they had their first-ever wildcard for that ATP event, though they would lose early in 2012. This week though, making the Pune ATP 250 main draw as alternates, the duo did well to sideline second-seeded Americans Nathaniel Lammons and Jackson Withrow to end up as the last Indians standing in any sort of contention – albeit in doubles.

The entirety of the match had just one break point as every one of the four on the court served well. It ended with the Indians keeping their nerve on crucial points to win 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-5), making the semis where they will meet the Brits, Julian Cash and Henry Patten, who in red-hot form and are sort of legendary on the Challenger circuit (where they had 10 wins) for cruising on the Tour with equal panache and success in the subsequent season.

Jeevan has had a fair amount of success alongside Rohan Bopanna and later Vishnu Vardhan. But it is his childhood buddy, the immensely skilled Balaji, known for his short tapping wristy forecourt slamdunk kills, with whom Jeevan would aim to make the finals.

“We’ve been good friends since school, there’s a lot of respect for each other, and between families too. We stick together in bad times to make the good moments happen. It’s fantastic to play with him,” Jeevan says. The two followed divergent paths – Jeevan played Collegiate in the States. Balaji got into the Army on sports quota with the Madras Engineering Group, and given how talented he was, proceeded to train for singles in Germany. It was only last April when they reconnected, and Covid cemented their partnership (“It gave me perspective. I was happy to be able to just play tennis after not playing for an entire year,” Jeevan said.