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When Sriram Sugumaran walked off the court at Coe College's indoor tennis facility last May celebrating a Class 2A state doubles championship, his father was the first to embrace him.

It was appropriate given Dr. Ramanathan Sugumaran, referred to as Sugu, was the central influence in his son picking up a tennis racket at age 3 and starting lessons a year or two later.

"He just had a great love for the game," Sugumaran said.

But when Pleasant Valley's senior takes the court Friday at Veterans Memorial Tennis Center in Cedar Rapids for the state tournament, there will be one noticeable void from his cheering section.

Sugu died unexpectedly at 49 in his home on Jan. 25.

Just months from beginning the season as the team's No. 1 player, his high school graduation, his 18th birthday and heading off to college, Sugumaran was grieving and trying to comprehend how this could happen.

"Obviously, it is very tough and there's not a day I don't think about him, but it has made me focus a lot harder," he said. "There are a lot of things I wanted to do this year that I know he wanted to see."

Adversity has not deterred him from success. 

Sugumaran is 21-1 in singles, the lone loss to last year's state runner-up in Joe Hoff of Iowa City High. He won a fourth straight Mississippi Athletic Conference singles title (the first at the No. 1 flight), qualified for state as a district champion and led PV to its first state team semifinal in 16 years.

"My dad loved watching me play as I got older and got better," Sugumaran said. "The toughest part has been not seeing him at my meets, but I couldn't ask for a better group of guys and coaches to help me through that."

PV coach Randy Brockhage labeled Sugumaran one of the best leaders in his program as a freshman and sophomore.

So when his top player had his world flipped upside down, the qualities that Brockhage saw from Sugumaran the past four years came to the forefront.

"He's done an exceptional job of keeping it all together," Brockhage said. "It really is a credit to his father, who was such an extraordinary person, nice, friendly and upbeat.

"Sriram has been made in his image, so to speak. He's handled a lot and handled it with grace."

Sugumaran was born in India. Soon after, he moved to Scotland where his father was studying to get his doctorate before going to Columbia, Missouri.

From preschool to seventh grade, Sugumaran lived in Cedar Falls. After his mother, Vanitha, received a promotion with Deere & Co. and transferred to the headquarters building in Moline, the family relocated to Iowa City for a year.

Then in Sugumaran's freshman season, they came to the Quad-Cities.

"I didn't know much about him at that point, but it didn't take very long to see that he was a very special player and that he was going to have an impact on our program," Brockhage said.

Charlie Humes and Sugumaran served as a two-headed attack at the top of PV's lineup for three years. Humes starred in singles with three top-four state finishes. Sugumaran was a success in doubles, placing in the top six at state his freshman and sophomore year with two different partners.

Humes and Sugumaran came together last year and claimed the program's first state doubles crown.

"(PV) gave me the best opportunity to shine as a tennis player," Sugumaran said.

The numbers illustrate that. 

Besides a fourth trip to the state meet and six MAC titles (four in singles, two in doubles), he is 74-2 during his career in singles and 78-13 in doubles. He is PV's benchmark for singles and doubles victories. 

When Brockhage handed Sugumaran a piece of paper earlier this week at practice with his career accomplishments, it had the Spartan in awe.

"I never expected anything like this," Sugumaran said.

Brockhage calls Sugumaran the best doubles player he's seen at the high school level in 26 years of coaching.

"I've been so amazed at times by what Sriram can do with a tennis ball around the net," Brockhage noted. "Even with some of the best players in the state firing shots at him, he'll hit it misdirection or make it look easy."

Golf, in fact, was the first sport Sugumaran was passionate about.

"I wanted to be like Tiger Woods," he said. 

Thanks to his father, tennis soon took over. By eighth grade, Sugumaran focused all his athletic energy on tennis. 

He was playing USTA tournaments across the Midwest and practicing year round. 

It was advice from his father that led to his growth in tennis. 

"When I was younger, I was so competitive that I would cry a lot after losing matches," Sugumaran said. "He was the first person to tell me, 'Hey, I want you to take this seriously, but in some aspects you need to focus on getting better as a player instead of worrying about winning and losing.'"

That's when Sugumaran said he went from average to a top-tier talent. 

He played No. 2 singles for three seasons behind Humes. His junior year was flawless — 22-0 in singles and 24-0 in doubles culminating with a state title. 

"It was definitely a good accomplishment that I can definitely look back on as the highlight of my tennis career," he said.

Sugumaran is continuing his tennis career at Grinnell College in the fall. He plans to study pre-med, with the intentions of becoming a cardiologist. 

"Tennis is something I love to play and happen to be pretty good at, but my number one goal is to become a doctor," he said. "I've been set on cardiology since I was 5 or 6 years old."

His father was a professor at Missouri, Northern Iowa and Iowa before working at Deere & Co. Sugu was involved in analytics and led the innovation team.

Recently, Sugumaran and his mother accepted an award Sugu had earned.

"He was pretty good at what he did and did a lot at John Deere in his short time there," Sugumaran said.

Sugumaran was playing tennis with his instructor at the Quad-City Tennis Club when he heard the news about his father.

"It was just a sudden thing, very unfortunate," he said.

Sugumaran has stood tall for his brother, Srivishnu, almost nine years younger.

"We have a great relationship and we're able to talk about things," Sugumaran said. "He's mature beyond his years."

Sugumaran said the first practice following his father's death was emotional. 

"It hit me that he wasn't going to see me play tennis anymore," he remarked.

Early in the season, Sugumaran admitted it was difficult to compartmentalize between tennis and what his family was facing. 

"He's my father, so obviously it is there all the time," he said, "but I've been able to do a better job of keeping my emotions in check."

Sugumaran, named PV's top male senior athlete earlier this month, has gone the singles route this year in the postseason.

It won't be an easy road with two-time champion Jiung Jung, Hoff, Fort Dodge's Johnny Bowser and Ames' Timmy Ellis among those in the 16-player field. 

"I have standards for myself, but in terms of the outside world looking in, I'm not supposed to do that well," Sugumaran said. "Winning last year puts even less pressure on me."

But like the past four months of his life, Sugumaran is taking it one point, one game and one set at a time. 

"It'll be tough being back at state without my dad, but I want to continue making him proud," he said, "That's my focus, and I think I'm doing pretty well with that so far."


Sports Editor

Prep sports editor, with emphasis on covering the Mississippi Athletic Conference and Iowa area high schools. I've been in sports journalism for 17 years, the last five at the Quad-City Times.