Big Interview: Former professional tennis player Imran Aswat
Craig Salmon talks to Whittle-le-Woods tennis player Imran Aswat about his career as a professional and his new role as a coach
Whatever else Imran Aswat accomplishes in life, he will always be able to say that at one time there were not ‘too many’ people better than him when it came to wielding a tennis racquet.
Although the Chorley lad’s name is largely unheard of outside of the sport, he was once ranked the 1,038 best player on the planet.
When you consider that the world’s population is 7.7 billion, that is some achievement.
Unfortunately, being in the top 0.000135% of the world’s population when it comes to tennis does not guarantee you a path to stardom or riches.
With Wimbledon only allowing the best 128 players to compete for its prestigious silver gilt cup, having a ranking in the four figures simply does not cut it.
Indeed anyone ranked more than 200 in the world has a hard time making a living as they travel the globe on the ultra competitive tennis circuit.
So while the guys at the top like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are millionaires many times over – Aswat, who hails from Whittle-le-Woods – accumulated a grand total of $13,176 in prize money during his time on the Tour.
Now retired from playing after injuries prevented him from improving on his best ever ranking which was achieved five years ago, the 24-year-old has switched his focus to coaching, but he still talks with great pride about his playing days.
“I suppose not many people can say that they have won a world ranking point, never mind get to a 1,038 in the world,” said Aswat, who also has a career-high doubles ranking of 1,404.
“I think that has to be my biggest achievement – getting that first world ranking point.
“I was only 17 and to get it so young, I was really proud of myself – it felt like the hard work was paying off.
“Unfortunately injuries forced me to stop when I didn’t want to.
“I had double hip surgery when I was 22 and then after I recovered from that, I started suffering from tendonitis in both knees. That’s not a serious injury but it stopped me from playing at 100%.
“But if you think about it, if I was the 1,000th best footballer in the world, I would probably be a millionaire now.”
The likelihood is that Aswat – who was nicknamed ‘Baby Rafa’ by his peers on the Tour due to his striking resemblance to the Spanish great Nadal – would have lowered his ranking further.
He has played against some of the world’s best such as Britain’s Kyle Edmund – who reached the Australian Open semi-finals in 2018 – and current world No.4 Daniil Medvedev, who lost to Nadal in this year’s US Open final.
He has provided hitting practice for some of the best women’s players, including the legendary 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, ex-Wimbledon and US Open winner Martina Hingis and former French Open champion Ana Ivanovic.
And arguably Aswat’s highest profile win was when he got the better of Marko Djokovic – brother of Novak – at a futures tournament held at his home club South Ribble in 2014.
“I got a wildcard into the event and I drew Djokovic first round,” said Aswat.
“He had exactly the same backhand as Novak and he was dead talented but probably lacked the work ethic of his brother.
“I think he was ranked something like 500-odd in the world so it was a good win and good experience for me. I had all the home support behind me and I beat him in straight sets 6-3 7-5.”
Growing up, Aswat was in the same age group as Edmund and scored an excellent win over him when they were teenagers.
“It’s funny how certain results stick in your mind but I beat Kyle 7-5 7-5 but we’re going back a good six or seven years,” he said. “I think it was the final of a Under-18s masters tournament in Corby.
“Kyle is known for having a massive forehand and it was big back then, but it did not go in quite as much as it does now, luckily for me.
“At the time, he wasn’t as tall as he is now – he grew about four inches after I beat him. For a tennis player, I am tiny – I’m 5ft 8in.
“ I have always been very slim and my kind of game style was similar to that of the Spaniard David Ferrer.
“I was a workhorse, good from the baseline and made a lot of balls.”
Medvedev has certainly made the most of his height – he is 6ft 6in and is widely regarded as one of the players who will eventually take up the mantle from Federer, Nadal and Djokovic at the very pinnacle of the sport.
“I played him in a futures tournament in Tunisia,” added Aswat. “It was only two-and-a-half years ago.
“I lost that one but at the time, I just didn’t think this guy on the other side of the net is going to be the No.4 in the world or even top 100.
“I thought he was nothing special but he’s moved on.
“The thing is with the top players, they just do the simple things well. They don’t hit the ball any different really to a guy who is ranked 500 in the world, it’s just their tactical awareness and mental strength is better.”
Aswat’s skills on the court meant he was a much sought after hitting partner, especially among the best women’s players.
“I practised with Serena, Hingis and Ivanovic and every single one of them was really nice,” said Aswat, who has also shared a practice court with current British No.1 Dan Evans and former world No.25, Frenchman Jeremy Chardy.
“They all introduced themselves to me – there were no big egos or anything.
“So I didn’t feel daunted having this legend on the opposite side of the net. That took the pressure off really”
Aswat enjoyed a hit with Williams and Hingis in Paris at the Patrick Mouratoglou Tennis Academy.
He was called up to practise with Ivanovic when the Serb was based in the North West of England after her husband German footballer Bastian Schweinsteiger signed for Manchester United.
“I played a practice set against Ivanovic and I beat her 6-2. That was after she had won the French Open.
“The men and women’s games are totally different.
“The men’s game is just more physical. The women hit a very, very good ball, but when movement comes into play, they are just that little bit weaker than men.
“I tell you what though, it was still a great experience playing with them though.
“When I practised with Chardy, he just hit a massive ball and when I was coming back from my hip surgery, I was training one-on-one with Dan Evans, who was coming back after his drug ban.
“I felt a big difference with him – his ball was coming through the court that little bit quicker and his backhand slice was ridiculous.”
Arguably the most eventful match of Aswat’s career was in Turkey four years ago when he was thrashing Iranian Majed Abedini.
His opponent totally lost his cool during the match and ended up being defaulted. He then proceeded to chase after court supervisor – an incident which can be found on YouTube.
“I don’t think he was all there,” said Aswat. “The court supervisor came on to give him a code violation but then he started hitting balls at him and chased him off the court.
“Meanwhile, I was just sitting there thinking, ‘What is going on’?”
Aswat is hoping to make his mark in the world of tennis coaching.
Currently, he works at South Ribble Tennis Centre and has also taken up a coaching position at Burnley Tennis Club.
He is also helping out with the UK’s wheelchair tennis team and is also the Under-18s county assistant coach. Eventually, he would like to work on the Tour as coach to a professional.
“I am getting a lot of opportunities which is good,” said Aswat, who attended QEGS, in Blackburn.
“I do enjoy the coaching side of things. I know when I played if I had a coach who gave me 100% that was great for me and I take that into my coaching. I would love to pass on my experience to a younger player and help take them on that journey of becoming a professional.”