Former Illini, Olympic silver medalist Ram reflects on NCAA championships, career

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Photo Courtesy of Rajeev Ram

Joe Salisbury (left) and Rajeev Ram (right) pose with their trophy after the pair won the Australian Open men’s doubles competition on Feb. 2. The win was Ram’s first men’s doubles Grand Slam title.

By Jackson Janes, Assistant Sports Editor

In 2003, the Illinois men’s tennis team had their best season in program history, going undefeated and winning the Big Ten and NCAA Championship title. Though the Illini also won singles and doubles titles that year, one player from that historic season continues to dominate at the professional level as arguably one of the most decorated alumni in the school’s history: Rajeev Ram. 

Ram came to Illinois in January 2003 with an already impressive resume, having won nine national juniors titles before even turning 19. While also visiting Texas, Tennessee, Georgia and Ohio State, Ram’s decision to come to Champaign-Urbana was an easy one.

“It was pretty clear cut to be honest,” Ram said. “They had the best team at that point, or at least one of the best teams, best coach, best situation; because at that point, I felt like I was going to go to college to make it the best situation for me to get my tennis better to become a professional … It really just checked all the boxes for me.”

Though he only stayed for one semester, Ram helped lead the Illini to a 32-0 record and a team championship. He was named an All-American, Big Ten Freshman of the Year, First Team All-Big Ten and also won the NCAA doubles championship with junior Brian Wilson, yet Ram considers the team championship to be far more memorable.

“The individual stuff in the NCAA Championships is great, but you are really there for the team and to try and win that,” Ram said. “I think that’s the main focus for pretty much everyone there.”

After winning both a team and individual title, Ram decided to leave the Illini after one season to pursue a professional career. His first major tournament appearance was in 2005 in the U.S. Open, facing Swiss powerhouse Stan Wawrinka, who is currently ranked No. 17 in the world in singles play, in the opening round. Falling in five sets, Ram used the experience to continue to improve his game, and his first singles title eventually came in 2008 when he won the Nielsen USTA Pro Tennis Championship in Winnetka, Ill. His first ATP title came shortly after in 2009, when he defeated then-world No. 39 Sam Querrey in the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Tennis Championships in Newport, R.I.

Ram soon determined that his focus would turn to doubles competitions, something he excelled at while at Illinois. This decision paid off immensely, as he has won 20 total ATP doubles titles, including two ATP World Tours Masters 1000 competitions, Indian Wells, California, in 2017 and Paris, France, in 2018.

In 2016, Ram received news that he had been selected to represent the United States at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

“The opportunity to represent your country is like nothing else to be honest,” Ram said. “When you play for a team, whether it’s your high school, or your college or in this situation your country, any time when you represent something bigger than yourself I think it’s really special. The Olympics for an athlete is as high as it gets.”

Ram partnered with Venus Williams in mixed doubles competition. Williams, already having won four Olympic gold medals, seven singles and 16 doubles Grand Slam titles, brought much-needed experience for Ram, who had never competed on the Olympic stage before.

“The fact that she had so much experience in the Olympics before, let alone all the other stuff that she’s done, was really helpful,” Ram said. “She’s played more big matches than probably anyone else, other than her sister, in that whole tournament.”

The duo cruised through the early stages of the competition, defeating the Netherlands, Italy and India to set up a meeting with fellow Americans Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jack Sock in the gold medal match. Ram and Williams won the opening set, 7-6(3), before falling in the last two, 1–6, 7–10.

Though the pair lost in the finals, getting a silver medal in his first Olympics appearance made Ram extremely thankful, especially since another American team took home gold.

In the end it was nice that, even though unfortunately we lost, when we are on the podium you can still hear the American national anthem,” Ram said.

Three years after winning a silver medal at the Olympics, Ram won his first Grand Slam title in mixed doubles with Czech partner Barbora Krejčíková. The pair entered the 2019 Australian Open as the No. 3 seed, ultimately taking down Australian duo Astra Sharma and John-Patrick Smith in the finals, 7-6(3), 6-1. 

Photo Courtesy of Rajeev Ram
Rajeev Ram smiles after winning the Australian Open’s men’s doubles competition on Feb. 2. Ram won the mixed doubles competition in the same tournament in 2019.

Ram’s first men’s doubles Grand Slam title came this February at the Australian Open after he and Englishman Joe Salisbury defeated Australia’s Max Purcell and Luke Saville, 6-4, 6-2, to win the competition. 

While he has no idea when tournament play will resume again, Ram hopes to continue playing despite being older than many of his competitors.

“At this point I’m just taking it day by day, week by week,” Ram said. “I just want to play as long as I can … I’m having a great time playing and competing, so I would like to hang on to my career for as long as possible, assuming I’m playing a decent level.”

Ram credits Illinois’ tennis program for helping him prepare for his success as a pro.

“The level of the players from top to bottom was so high that it became more than just the matches that we played, it was also the day-in and day-out practice that was really helpful for me,” Ram said. “I know it was short for me but just the fact that every day when we went into practice, just the fact that everyone else on my team was so good was the best thing that prepared me and was one of the most important things for me now, more so than some of the matches we played.”

Across the course of his career, Ram has won seven Futures titles, 32 ATP Challenger titles, 18 ATP Tour titles, two ATP World Tour Masters 1000 and two Grand Slam titles, per Fighting Illini Athletics.

Ram is currently ranked the ninth-best men’s doubles player in the world, two spots behind current teammate Salisbury. He hopes to represent Team USA again at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

@JacksonJanes3

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