By Shan Reddy
This article is part of a running series The Daily sports staff will be publishing on graduating seniors.
Senior Sameer Kumar was a captain on the 2018-2019 Stanford men’s tennis team, which recently finished its 19-7 season in the third round of the NCAA championship. Carrying a 3.92 cumulative grade-point average, the economics major was named Pac-12 Men’s Tennis Scholar-Athlete of the Year and helped lead the Cardinal to a No. 12 national ranking. Kumar was 27-12 in dual match and tournament singles play this season, and paired up with sophomore Timothy Sah for the majority of the season in doubles. The Daily’s Shan Reddy sat down with Kumar to talk about his time on and off the court.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): How does it feel that your time as a member of the Stanford tennis team is over?
Sameer Kumar (SK): I’ve been playing tennis since I was five years old, so I’ve been playing for sixteen years now. It’s almost like all of the sudden it’s coming to an end. Obviously I knew it was coming, but it’s still crazy when it hits.
TSD: Any plans with tennis after Stanford, tentative or otherwise?
SK: I may play tennis for fun, but not necessarily competitive tennis. I got a job in finance in New York, so I’ll be moving and working there — long hours for sure — so I’ll see how much time I’ll have for tennis going forward.
TSD: Walk me through your last match here at Taube Family Tennis Center as a Stanford player.
SK: My last match at Stanford was the second round of NCAAs. We played UC San Diego; they were a good team and had just beaten the No. 20 team the day before, so we knew they were playing well and that they’d be a tough team. We were playing a man short — our No. 2 player was injured; it was important that everyone stepped up.
I knew it was going to be my last match at Stanford. Win or lose, I knew it was my last match. I obviously really wanted to win and go out on a good note, but more than that, I wanted to enjoy it — not putting too much pressure on myself. I wanted to keep the energy and have fun with it. The team had a close match, but it was a really good win, and we advanced to the Round of 16.
TSD: You played most of your final season with sophomore Timothy Sah. How important was it for you as a doubles team to build a rapport throughout the year?
SK: I think it’s super important. One thing about doubles is that the more you play with someone, the closer you get and the more you understand one another’s game styles and preferences. And ultimately, the better you get. We had a full year to play alongside one another, building a strategy of how we wanted to play. It changed a lot throughout the year as we started to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses better; we were playing some of our best tennis at the end of the year, which is what you’re always looking for in the postseason.
TSD: What was your favorite moment from your four years playing with Stanford tennis?
SK: That’s tough — we’ve had so many good memories. In general, going on road trips with the team was really fun. Every year from January to May is our dual match season, and when you travel on road trips, your team gets really close.
During my sophomore year, playing in the second round of NCAAs here on court two, we were playing Michigan and I was the clinching match (0-6 in the third). It was actually my first clinching match ever, so that was a really cool moment. I’ll always remember it — the crowd going crazy, me celebrating, the team rushing towards me after the match.
TSD: Most of the starters on the team this year were underclassmen. What’s your outlook on Stanford tennis going forward after you leave?
SK: This year we had a pretty young team. Me and Michael [Geneder] were both seniors, but everyone else will be returning. There were four underclassmen in the starting lineup this year, if I remember correctly — a very young team. Underclassmen from year to year get a lot better. We have some great freshmen coming in next year, too, who can really help us build on our very solid year.
TSD: What was your most memorable moment of the season?
SK: That’s a tough one. We played USC on the road earlier this year. We’d lost the doubles point and were down 3-1 in the overall score with three matches left — we needed all three of them. We won No. 6, making the score 3-2, and then Will [Genesen] and myself had lost first sets in those last two. We both came back and won in three sets, and I was the clinching match.
That was a really great win for myself and a great win for the team, beating a top-five opponent on the road. That really showed us and proved to the rest of the country that we were definitely one of the best teams in the college tennis. We were able to use that momentum really well over the next few months and had some great results from the confidence we got in that match.
TSD: What was it like being the captain in your final season here? Did being captain change anything about your play style?
SK: I’ve always tried to bring the energy and support my teammates and have tried to do that whether I’m captain or not. In my freshman year, we had great leadership on the team who I learned a lot from on the court — how to be a good teammate, leader and player. I learned a lot from the captain that year and tried to apply those leadership skills this year. It was a really good experience — you often have to make tough decisions and have tough conversations — but those things help the team in the long run.
TSD: Many teams at Stanford have had a lot of coaching turnover over the past few years. How important has Stanford men’s tennis’ consistency in leadership been for you as a player?
SK: That’s been really important, not only for my development but for the team’s as well. Switching coaches midway through your career can be tough, but I’ve had a coach that I’ve built a relationship since my senior year of high school when he was recruiting me. We kept that relationship very consistent. Coach Goldstein and Coach Coupe have been so instrumental in my development on the court, learning different tactics and strategy and also as a leader and teammate off the court.
We were lucky enough in my sophomore year to have Francis — Coach Sargent — as a volunteer assistant coach. He’s been awesome and a really great addition to our coaching staff. It’s been great having those three coaches for the past three years.
TSD: Who’s your favorite pro player?
SK: Growing up, Roger Federer was my favorite player. I can’t really say I model my game after his; I don’t really play anything like him, but it’s tough not to like him. He’s so majestic and graceful on the court, so classy, such an easy guy to root for. Another thing that sticks out for me is his passion for the game and how much he loves tennis. Even when he loses, he talks constantly about the sport. That mentality is something I’ve adopted over the past year or two, especially as my time here is coming to an end — enjoying the game, not putting too much pressure on myself. I think that has really helped me play better. I also really respect players like David Ferrer or Rafael Nadal; I’ve tried to adopt their energy and competitive spirit and fight into my matches.
TSD: How did you handle the transition into the Stanford student athlete role after high school?
SK: Playing tennis from such a young age really taught me a lot of the important skills because I had to do the same thing in middle school and high school. I had to balance my time between my first priority, which is my schoolwork, and my second priority, which was my tennis practice. This often meant practicing really early before school or getting my homework done early, so I had time to train. It meant a lot of sacrifice in time with friends or social events.
The balance has taught me to manage my time well and develop a really strong work ethic and to make sacrifices for the things I love and the things I want to be good at. I think I carried those skills with me well at Stanford. One thing about Stanford that has been really helpful is that there are a lot of resources to help you, whether it’s tutoring or office hours or talking to professors who are really helpful and understand that you may have to miss class. I’ve really learned to ask, to seek out for help when I need it and to take advantage of all of the opportunities available. Because of that, I’ve been able to manage my school priorities with my tennis ones as well.
TSD: Tennis is such an individual sport. How do you find balance between maintaining the team’s high energy and morale and staying focused and calm in your own individual battle on the court?
SK: It’s a really interesting dynamic, that transition from junior tennis, which is all focused on yourself, to college tennis, where the number-one focus is the success of the team. For me, I liked playing junior tennis and winning and losing on my own accord, not feeling like I could blame anyone else for my wins and losses. When I came to college, I had so much fun with the team experience; it was so much fun learning that you could do more to support your team than just winning or losing. You need to be a good team player, which is such an important skill for life.
That team atmosphere was so much fun. Cheering on my teammates was one of my favorite things I’ll remember about Stanford tennis. Being so close with your teammates, you develop a really strong bond with them. My teammates from the past four years will be some of the closest I’ll have in life. I definitely look back more fondly on my last four years in Stanford tennis than on my previous 10 years in junior tennis.
TSD: Who’s your pick for captain next year?
SK: Coach has most of the say in it, but sometimes teammates will appoint captains at the start of the season. We don’t know for sure yet, but this year, Will Genesen did a really great job of helping me out in leading the team, not just on the court — he had a great year there too — but also off it. I think he’s definitely a frontrunner. Jack Barber will also be a fifth-year senior next year, so he’ll have a lot of experience playing and helping the team out; he’s definitely in contention.