Rohan Sachdev is constantly volleying with someone.
The 12-year-old from Cary spends nearly three hours each day on the tennis court, where he is considered the second-best player in North Carolina in his age group.
He also studies the dictionary for three hours a day at home, where his mother and younger brother help him practice for spelling competitions by lobbing complicated words at him.
These days, it’s hard to tell if Rohan has a better serve or “sprachgefühl” – a noun that refers to someone’s intuitive grasp of language and is also one of Rohan’s favorite words.
Rohan, who is home-schooled, won the Wake County Spelling Bee in February, allowing him to advance to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The 285-contestant bee, which includes 13 other North Carolina residents, begins in Washington this week.
All spellers take a multiple choice test Tuesday to determine who moves to the preliminary round Wednesday, May 27.
The championship final is televised at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 28, on ESPN.
Rohan can’t wait. He views each word as a puzzle that he’s eager to solve by learning about its definition and origin. He lists what he considers the coolest and most abstract words on a dry-erase board that sits just inside the family’s front door.
“I hope to make it at least to the finals,” he said in an interview at his house.
Rohan won his first spelling bee as a second-grader at Laurel Park Elementary. He’s stayed on the spelling circuit – qualifying for the Wake bee every year since he was 6 – because he loves to compete, especially with his 10-year-old brother Rahul.
“If we play Scrabble or ping-pong or tennis, (Rohan) gets so into it,” said their mother, Shubha. “We sometimes have to tell him that it’s not always about winning.”
But Rohan and Rahul love to battle. More than 50 of their gold spelling and tennis trophies are scattered throughout the family living room.
Shubha, who home-schools her sons, tries to temper their competitiveness by teaching that they can sometimes grow more as spellers and tennis players by trying their best and losing.
“If they win, they might not pay attention to some of the things they did wrong,” she said.
She noted that Rahul once was ranked the top tennis player in his age group in the state, but now plays in U.S. Tennis Association tournaments against players who are two years older than him so he can learn at a faster rate. Rahul is now ranked the 19th-best player in North Carolina who are 12 or younger.
“If you don’t acknowledge and fix those problems, you can’t improve,” she said.
Despite Shubha’s interventions, the back and forth between Rohan and Rahul rarely stops.
When the brothers compete on the tennis court, Rahul tells jokes to try to break Rohan’s concentration. Rahul claims the strategy has yielded a couple of wins, but Rohan disputes the legitimacy of those matches.
At home, Rahul, who has come in second to Rohan in several spelling bees, rummages through the dictionary for words that might trip up his brother.
Rohan says Rahul only stumps him by mispronouncing the words. For example, Rohan says he once misspelled the word “grave” – the burial resting spot – because Rahul pronounced the word as “grah-vé” when prompting him.
“It’s a valid pronunciation, I’ve checked!” Rahul declared during the interview, pointing to a cell phone screen.
As Rohan shook his head and smiled, it’s clear the brothers’ rivalry doesn’t dampen their love, but in fact increases their appreciation for one another. They often play together as doubles partners.
Rohan credits Rahul for constantly pushing him, and Rahul is quick to compliment Rohan.
“I think he’s best with words that have silent letters ... the words with French and German origins,” Rahul said of Rohan.
A support system
They also enjoy each other’s successes.
On a recent afternoon, the boys were both home when a mailman delivered a box with Rohan’s name on it. Rohan opened it to find an official invitation to the national bee, name tags for his family and four blue T-shirts.
His father, Rajan, watched as Rohan handed one of the shirts to his brother. Rajan hopes the boys focus on the experience rather than winning and losing. Neither will be eligible for the national bee once they turn 16 or go to high school.
“This is a process they should enjoy,” Rajan said.
Expanding vocabulary, Shubha said, “enriches you in so many ways.”
Rohan likes learning – his mom doesn’t even have to make him study – but he’s driven by hardware.
If he makes the semifinals of the national bee, he’ll win a medal. If he makes the finals, he’ll win a medal and possibly money. If he wins the bee, organizers will award him more than $37,500 in cash prizes and a giant gold trophy.
It will have to go on top of one of the family’s trophy cases, Shubha said.
The case shelves are already full.
When to watch
ESPN plans to broadcast the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee live across three of its channels.
Wednesday, May 27: Preliminary rounds, 8 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. ESPN3
Thursday, May 28: Semifinal rounds, 10 a.m., ESPN2. Final rounds, 8 p.m. ESPN
Fourteen of the 285 participants in the Scripps National Spelling Bee are from North Carolina. Four of them are from the Triangle.
▪ Andrew Bowen, 11, Angier. Fifth grade, Angier Elementary.
▪ Bettie Lehem Closs, 11, Durham. Sixth grade, Lucas Middle.
▪ Abigail Pittman, 12, Clayton. Seventh grade, Southside Christian School.
▪ Rohan Sachdev, 12, Cary. Sixth grade, home school.