Nitin Ramachandran just wanted to feel normal again. The radiation and chemotherapy treatments left him drained and weak, but the thought of playing tennis again pushed Ramachandran to get out of bed each morning.
Even during treatment, he found solace on the tennis courts, where he was once a competitive and highly-ranked Mid-Atlantic junior player before he had medulloblastoma, a malignant brain tumor more often found in children, diagnosed by doctors.
“Whenever I could, I would get on the tennis court and hit a few balls and maybe get some rhythm back,” Ramachandran said. “I wanted to get back that part of my life that I lost.”
Ramachandran has been in remission since finishing his treatments in June 2015 and wasted little time in returning to the sport he began playing at age 6. Now a 15-year-old Oakton sophomore, Ramachandran has spent the season as the Cougars’ first-alternate player, working to crack the starting lineup and reestablish what was once a very promising tennis career.
It’s been a quick ascension for Ramachandran, who entered last spring devastated after being cut during the preseason.
“Even before my treatment, I saw the tennis players at Oakton and knew this is a team I could succeed on,” he said.
Oakton Coach Betsy Tsykowski remembers watching in amazement some years ago as her then high school-aged son struggled to win a practice set against Ramachandran at the Fairfax Racquet Club, where both her son and Ramachandran trained.
A short, skinny kid with smooth strokes, Ramachandran said he lost the tight set, 7-5, against the bigger and older opponent.
Ramachandran was 8 years old.
It’s that same tenacity that Tsykowski sees when Ramachandran, who stands 5-foot-3 and weighs 108 pounds, challenges the player on the team no one else dares to, or when he accepted the manager position last season with the intention of eventually earning a varsity spot.
“He’s just the picture of determination,” Tsykowski said. “He’s relentless. Obviously, when you go through what he’s gone through you’re kind of fearless, because you’ve already been to the bottom … He’s very confident and what he’s been through has made him such a stronger person. When you’re around him, you just feel that. I know the kids have a lot of respect for him.”
Matthew O’Connor, the usual No. 1 singles player for Oakton and an All-Met honorable mention last spring, met Ramachandran a month and a half before his diagnosis. He marveled at Ramachandran’s speed and fitness, and says that it was clear Ramachandran, whom coaches had told before his illness that he was on track to play collegiate tennis, was the superior player.
“I was just his warm-up buddy,” said O’Connor, who is dealing with a wrist injury this season. “I was nowhere near his level.”
But the diagnosis derailed those plans and the physical changes in Ramachandran happened suddenly. One day, he was on the tennis courts, putting in another three-hour practice session, the next morning he was in the hospital receiving a CT scan that revealed the malignant tumor.
Friends and family rallied around Ramachandran, a Herndon resident who considers himself a die-hard D.C. sports fan. His older brother, Nikhil, also plays tennis and was a starter on the 2016 Jefferson senior class that won four consecutive state titles.
“We always had this huge love for sports before any of this happened,” Nikhil said. “I think after he was diagnosed, sports helped him stay calm, stay motivated and gave him something to look forward to every day. … I think it was a main reason for him to be able to get through it all.”
In March of 2015, a year after his diagnosis, the Washington Wizards and Make-A-Wish Foundation invited Ramachandran to spend a day with the players, including John Wall, and sit courtside as the star point guard scored 32 points in a double-overtime win over the Hornets.
Moments like that were instrumental.
“I feel like that day, also like my game of tennis, forced me to get out of bed and walk around,” Ramachandran said. “It impacted my recovery so much, and was also a turning point in my recovery. Not only that day, but also when I watched the videos. … It helped me get out on my feet and start working on my physical abilities.”
By the time Ramachandran stunned Wall by appearing in the star’s summer basketball camp a year later, his health had significantly improved and he was regularly participating in physical activities.
Ramachandran’s focus is now on tennis and his Oakton teammates. His fitness has slowly returned and he is back to playing tennis six days a week, showing flashes of his old self on the court and enjoying the life that was nearly taken away from him.
“When I finished treatment, the drive to get back on the tennis court was huge,” Ramachandran said. “That drive to be back to where I was motivated me to work harder and play harder [so I can] play like the way I was before.”