The Sam Swardlick Spirit Cup was established in memory of the late Sam Swardlick, a star athlete from the Canton High Class of 1936 and an inaugural member of the Canton Athletic Hall of Fame. The award, which includes a $500 scholarship, is given annually to a senior who best demonstrates the spirit and pride of CHS athletics. This year’s recipient is Class of 2022 graduate Suraj Ramanathan.
“It was definitely a pleasant surprise,” Ramanathan said of hearing his name announced at the annual senior banquet hosted by the CHS Athletics Department. A four-year varsity tennis player, he credited his coaches — Bill Donovan at CHS and Marton Balla and Harshana Godamanna at Sportsmen’s Tennis & Enrichment Center in Dorchester — for their training and encouragement and for helping to make him the competitor he is on the court as well as the person he is off the court.
Born in Chennai, India, Ramanathan was 3 years old when he immigrated to the United States with his parents. The family initially settled in New Jersey and it was there that Ramanathan started to play tennis, after his father saw a match on television and thought his young son might be interested in learning how to play the game. “My love of sports comes from him,” Ramanathan said.
His father purchased tennis balls and some plastic rackets, and they started playing on the court at the apartment complex where the family lived. “Every time I remember playing with my dad, it was always something I looked forward to,” Ramanathan recalled. “It was always something fun.”
Eventually his younger brother joined them on the court, and around the age of 9 Ramanathan started practicing and playing at Sportsmen’s in Dorchester.
By the time he entered CHS in the fall of 2018, Ramanathan was a budding tennis talent, and he immediately seized the No. 1 singles spot on the varsity team, holding his own against much older competitors while earning the first of his three Hockomock League all-star nods. (The 2020 season was canceled due to pandemic restrictions.)
With COVID’s impact lingering throughout 2021 and limiting his time on the court, Ramanathan had less practice than he would have liked coming into his senior year and was edged out by teammate Max Kupferman — the eventual league MVP winner — in a preseason battle for the first singles position.
“I think the reason that I got the [Swardlick Cup] is because I didn’t let that phase me; I didn’t whine or quit the team or complain to coach every day,” said Ramanathan. “I tried even harder to be a better teammate and the most coachable player.”
After spending his first three years atop the team’s depth chart, Ramanathan said in hindsight that he may have let his standing as the No. 1 player go to his head a bit. But this year he realized he had a responsibility to his team just as much as he had to himself and embraced his role as a team leader and captain. On the court, he proved to be unstoppable at second singles, winning 16 straight matches to finish with a perfect regular season record.
“It’s like an art for me,” Ramanathan said of tennis, which he considers one of his greatest passions. His personal hero in the sport is Roger Federer, the legendary Swiss player who has won 20 Grand Slam singles titles — including a record eight Wimbledon trophies — during his 24-year pro career.
Ramanathan said he remembers seeing Federer in tears on the court after losing a Grand Slam final to his rival one year. “I [too] love the sport that much,” he said, adding that he also shares the same positive mindset as Federer, who has famously said he loves winning more than he hates losing.
In addition to tennis, Ramanathan is also passionate about the game of chess, which he began playing as a kindergartener while living in St. Louis. He stuck with the game after his family relocated to Chicago, where he competed in tournaments and started working with a chess teacher.
By the time his family arrived in Canton when he was in fourth grade, Ramanathan had aspirations of becoming a world champion. “After school, I’d just come home and pore through chess books [and] chess videos,” he said. “That’s when chess became my best friend.”
Over the next several years, he continued to hone his chess skills through weekly lessons and regular tournament play, and in April of 2021, during his junior year at CHS, Ramanathan realized an important goal when he earned the title of chess master. “It was at one of the first in-person tournaments post COVID in the area and a few good wins in a row put me over the top,” Ramanathan said. “I think the break from regular chess that lasted more than a year helped take the pressure off. For the first time in a while, the love of the game and the gratefulness for the ability to play it took precedence over getting the title.”
Beyond his achievements in both chess and tennis, Ramanathan also excelled in the classroom and was named the salutatorian for the CHS Class of 2022. In his commencement address, he recited a poem he had written on the last day of classes to express his feelings about getting to this point in his life.
“The past year has been a lot of highs and lows, and the poem was just another way for me to get out all the emotion that I had,” he said.
Some of those emotions came from the passing of his grandfather last fall at the age of 77. Having spoken to him on the telephone only days earlier, Ramanathan said he was shocked by the suddenness of his death and deeply saddened that he could not travel to India for the funeral.
A few months later, Ramanathan was rocked by the news of his father’s cancer diagnosis. “It was unbearable, and I felt so scared for my dad,” he recalled.
At the same time, he greatly admired his father’s quiet strength, and he was filled with hope after his dad underwent a successful surgery and made a swift recovery — returning to work just weeks later.
By the spring of his senior year, Ramanathan said his family had made it to better days. As he shared in his poem, “Dad’s resiliency after surgery means he’s on the way back to normal … Grandma is smiling again, turning all of our heads towards the hope of the future.”
Ramanathan, meanwhile, wrapped up a career year as a CHS tennis player, taking home co-team MVP honors to go along with the aforementioned Swardlick Cup.
“There were so many other [deserving winners],” he said. “Everyone said that my grade is one of the most athletic. I’m just fortunate. Tennis, family, friends, that’s me. Chess, too.”
Ramanathan will be attending UMass Amherst in the fall and is thinking about majoring in engineering.