At 24 years old, Taranaki’s Ajeet Rai has emerged as New Zealand’s number one male tennis player. It’s a remarkable achievement that has served up a fresh set of challenges as he now embarks on a journey to compete at the Grand Slam level.
Rai was back in Taranaki recently, reconnecting with family and friends while reenergising for the next onslaught of tennis tournaments he will face in Sweden, Indonesia and the United States.
Following a successful year in 2022 when he achieved his best world ranking of 384, was named number one in New Zealand, and New Zealand’s top tennis player, Rai then went on to beat world number 92, Japan’s Taro Daniel, at Auckland’s ASB Classic in January 2023. It was a real moment for the Taranaki athlete as he signalled his arrival to the world.
The streak of success saw him bid farewell to the ITF Futures Tour he previously played on, and join the ATP Challengers Tour alongside the current greats of world tennis. While he did win a doubles title at his very first ATP event, the level has since asked, expected, and demanded more from Rai than ever before.
“The ATP tour is such a dramatic difference. Everyone is at a high level, so in the first round you’ll be playing a guy who has won pro titles. It’s almost like playing a World Cup rugby semi-final, every single match.
“The last six weeks have probably been some of the hardest in my life. I’ve lost a lot of tennis, but it’s made it pretty clear what I need to do to get to the next level and I find that very motivating. When you come through those hard times you find a sense of strength within yourself, and I will use that in the future.”
The step up he’s currently experiencing is all a necessary part of Rai’s master plan as he enters his prime tennis years. By the end of 2023, he hopes to have achieved a top 300 ATP ranking which would earn him a place in the US Open Qualifying tournament. To get there, Rai knows he needs to make some key advancements with his off-court processes and preparation.
His journey to date has been self-funded by his family and one or two loyal, local supporters. While that support has been enough to assist travel and accommodation in the past, it will not stretch to cover a travelling coach or physio – a “standard norm” for players on the ATP tour.
“If I really want to take my tennis to the next level then I need to have my coach and physio travelling with me so I can be in the best physical and mental condition heading into each match.”
Many of the top players have access to a head coach, fitness coach, physio, analysis and mental skills support while on tour – a stark contrast to Rai’s current set-up.
“At the moment I’m sort of trying to do everything from organising travel and accommodation, to finding practice partners, washing my shirts, and hunting down physios overseas who can help me out. It’s not really the glitz and glam of professional tennis that people think,” he laughs.
While Ajeet receives product sponsorship from the likes of Head and Palidin, he would love to partner up with local Taranaki businesses who share his love for sport, people, and the local community, to help him build that support team he needs.
“When it comes to sponsorship I’d really like someone who wants to come on board with the real me, not just ‘number one tennis me’.
“I’m a regular kid from Taranaki who went to Mangorei School and New Plymouth Boys’ High. I like going to the beach with my mates, I enjoy talking with people and playing golf, the only real difference is that I’m obsessed with tennis.
“Part of that obsession isn’t just playing the sport, but watching it and encouraging young kids to play, especially here in Taranaki, and showing them that tennis can provide a pathway.”
While encouraging people to pick up a racquet and give tennis a go is high on his priority list, Rai’s quest also runs a little deeper.
As a high-energy athlete who wears his heart on his sleeve, he has been using tennis as a way to grow and develop on a human level, a journey he enjoys sharing with others.
“I can’t sit still and so tennis is a game that has always matched my personality perfectly – it’s a high-paced game of chess. It’s also given me a lot of clarity into who I really am and how I can be a better person.
“For example, I’ve learnt to identify and deal with anxiety. If I have a loss, I’ll go as far as questioning who I am as a person and worry about people not wanting to talk to me. I think there’s a strong correlation between how you deal with pressure moments on-court, off-court, and also how you approach entirely different high pressure situations in general life. I’m grateful to tennis, for that.”
Rai says he continually looks to older brother, Amrit, for ways to improve as a person.
“He’s the pinnacle of human beings,” says Rai. “So calm, the nicest person, works really hard. He’s basically who I want to be. I know the more I improve as a person, the better I’ll become as an athlete.”
Balancing his personality and how he reacts to external situations is an ongoing focus for the professional sportsman, but he credits his humble Taranaki upbringing and strong family support, for keeping him grounded.
“I do wear my heart on my sleeve. During a match I’ll show all my emotions and do everything in my power to win. But the most important thing I keep in mind is holding myself to a standard my parents and grandparents would be proud of, because I will always be representing our family name and carrying that honour on court.”
Rai will be back on New Zealand soil to lead his team in its Davis Cup clash against Thailand on September 16-17.
If you’re interested in hearing more about joining Team Ajeet and supporting his journey to the Grand Slams, please contact Jaron Mumby on 021 522 477.