Interview with Laxmi Poruri

By : Vishnu Reddy, December 8, 2017

Born in Guntur in the year 1972 (November), Laxmi Poruri had moved to the US when she was 3. She soon emerged as a child prodigy and was earmarked for greatness in Tennis. When she was just 14, she had won the Orange Bowl defeating the legendary Monica Seles. She also reached the Jr US Open Semis. At the tender age of 15, she reached the second round of the US Open Women’s event in 1988. However at the age of 17, she quit Tennis and decided to pursue education at Stanford. After a tough freshman year, she established herself as the US Collegiate No.1. She returned to Pro tennis in late 1994 to play for couple of years before she quit the game.

 

For a person growing up in the 1990s, her story was often mentioned (especially in the Guntur/Andhra region) and it was both iconic as well as enigmatic. Laxmi’s column for the New York Times in November 1996 (article copy) was widely referenced in the English & Telugu dailies in India and had touched many a people. There has not been a news story about her since.

 

Fast-forward to 2017, she works as the Director of a major Law firm in Texas after having worked in the Wall Street. She is proud of her Indian heritage and these days relishes sambar / rice as her staple food. When Indian Tennis Daily contacted her for an interview, she was gracious enough to take time out from her busy schedule.

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Photo Credits: GoStanford.com, Montreal Gazette, India Today

 

Interview excerpts


(Q) Brief background on where you grew up in Guntur and background on your family

 My paternal grandmother lived in Ongole in Guntur. I was too young to remember the exact area. Both my parents were physicians. I speak Telugu and had been a few times back to Guntur. My paternal grandmother had stayed with us and so I know the culture pretty well.

 

(Q) What got you into Tennis

 My father was a big sports nut and used to follow Tennis. He wasn’t rich enough to play it himself. He had watched Ramanathan Krishnan couple of times and he had hoped that he could have his kids also play Tennis like him.

 He put us into Tennis and we started taking Tennis lessons as a family. The coach noticed my potential and told my parents to take my tennis seriously.

 

(Q) Which academy were you part off? Who were the initial set of coaches?

 I never went to an academy. I didn’t have a real coach as such. It was very unstructured. They would just let me play during my free time. Parents started getting into it at the age of 13 when I started winning a lot and had won several US National Junior titles. It was very haphazard in how things went unlike today’s era where everything is structured.

 After I had defeated Monica Seles to win the Orange bowl, my dad was offered by the agents from Nick Bollettieri’s Academy to train for free at the academy for 4 years. My father didn’t take it, as he was the typical Indian conservative father and was worried about keeping me alone there. My parents being from the small town of Ongole, did not know much about the various career paths that Tennis offered like scholarship to schools, best approaches to Pro tennis and so on.

 

(Q) When and what prompted your family to move to the US? Where in the US were you based?

 It was a typical immigrant story. My dad moved for better career opportunities. The options were very limited for him in Ongole and at that time, there was a huge migration, lot of his friends from Medicine had moved to the US. This triggered the move for him.

 We went to Chicago, then moved to northern California for sometime before being based in southern California.

 

(Q) Which School did you study in (and where)? How did you juggle between Tennis and Education? What are your recommendations for the parents / kids on this topic?

 I was in public school all my life before I got into Stanford. For my generation of Indian-Americans, we were caught between two cultures and didn’t mix as much (unlike the current generation). Typical Indian style of education was emphasized. So I was very much a loner and used to do homework during the recess and breaks. I had only 1 or 2 friends. I did not socialize much and never went to the parties. I was a very hard worker and managed to do well academically as I would just do homework all the time. I loved Tennis too. Before I go to School, I would watch VHS tapes of Navratilova, Evert and watch them play as I loved them so much. I couldn’t wait to play after school.

 Tennis and School together went along. Unlike this era, where it’s much more structured and kids have to make the choice much earlier around what they want to pursue – which I feel is unfortunate. I really feel the kid needs to love it. End of the day, the long term viability of it exists only if the kid is really into it, especially in Sport because it is intensely competitive and only the top players can make a living. Whereas with Engineering / Medicine, you can make a decent living even if one doesn’t like it as a career as much. Ultimately, the parents need to be able to gauge, is the kid playing Tennis because you are pushing or is he/she saying I want to practice an extra 30 mins to serve / volley, etc,.

 Additionally, during my time, there were only 2-3 Indian kids playing tennis at the USTA national tournaments. The number of Indian kids (in the US) playing Tennis has dramatically increased, which is great.

 

(Q) Were there some exceptions that were made in School for you?

 The School did give me exceptions. I had to go to Australia for one month during my senior year. It was a honor system. I took all my homework and I had to fax in my homework..

 

(Q) What were you first set of tournaments? How was your performance back then?

 I used to play novice tournaments when I was age 7 or 8. At the age of 10, I played my first Jr Nationals and in the next year, I had lost in the quarters to Amy Frazier, who was a great player and ended up being top-15 in the world. The next year, I ended up winning the Nationals and it all happened pretty quickly.

 

(Q) When did you first realize that you were good at this sport and want to take this up further? [when did your Parents first realize that?]

 It was around 13/14. I started winning almost everything and capped it by winning against Monica Seles in the Orange Bowl. Lot of things happened to me too early. I wish I had peaked a little later. It is unhealthy for kids to face such pressure / expectations at such a young age.

 

(Q) Given your experience, how would you recommend a parent to approach their kids tennis career around that age?

 Parents these days have their kid dedicate on one sport only at a young age which I think is not right and it is probably the cause of players having big injuries in the very early stages of their careers. I played different sports till I was in the Sophomore year in High school and thankfully did not have any injuries.

 I would recommend to the parents, have your kids continue to play different sports too. Tennis is a long and lonely road and it’s tough out there with no team around you. It’s not a sport / environment which is conducive to making friends. So be prepared for the long journey.

 

 

(Q) You had your best year as a 14-year old winning the next best event after the Grand Slams (Orange Bowl). Beating Monica Seles (and was Vicario too). What made you so strong during that phase?

I was in what they call an athletic zone. I didn’t have as much pressure then, as I had later. I grew more and became stronger. I didn’t practice as much as the kids who went to the academies but I was very athletic. I practiced a lot with my brother. I have to credit him for a lot of my success as he was always there to play with me.

 

(Q) Who were some of the toughest players that you encountered in your region and then in the national circuit? Any interesting journeys / experiences during that phase?

 I didn’t play many international players. There are about 6-7 of us players who were hovering around each other in terms of performances and often meet in the later stages of the events. These players included the likes of

 

  • Jennifer Capriati
  • Monica Seles: She didn’t play as many junior tournaments after a while
  • Carrie Cunningham: She was a Jr US Open champion and reached 3rd/4th rounds of the slams in Pro circuit
    • She is now a doctor. She was a surgeon at Harvard and is doing very well now.
  • Arantxa Sanchez Vicario: She was also there but we didn’t play as much
  • Amy Frazier was there but she was so dominant that I wouldn’t put her in the same bucket.

 

(Q) What was your first event outside the US?

 It was either the Junior French Open or the Banana Bowl in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I played in Canada as well. There were not as many Jr events outside of the US back then. It has grown so much more now.

 

(Q) How did you balance between Junior / Pro events in the ages between 14-17?

 There wasn’t much structure or format as such. I just played a lot of tournaments whichever fit into my schedule, I am not sure if I handled it well and didn’t really differentiate them as such.

 Frankly, I did not have guidance on how to handle the fame and the stress. There was no-one in my family who had gone through this grind, it was exciting and new. It was a lot of expectation for a kid. Nowadays, we do not see 15/16 yr olds playing Pro events whereas during my time, there were a lot of us and then later on, up until Hingis.

 

(Q) What was the role of your coach / mentors during this transition stage?

 USTA provided support but I didn’t have any one person whom I could pick as my mentor. I wish I had someone like that.

 

 

(Q) You made it to the US Open Main Draw (1988) R2 as a 15-year old. You won your first match against Monique Javer 7-6 6-3. She was a fellow Californian. Did you know her before or had you played against her before?

 I didn’t play her before. Her mother was from Great Britain, so she didn’t play for the US.

 The match was an amazing experience. A lot of Indians had turned up. Your whole life, this is what you dream to do and I got there. I got in via wild card as I had won a big Jr USTA U18 Nationals event. It was a huge thrill for me, very hard to get to that level – period – no matter at what age.

 

(Q) Your second match was against the No.14 seed: Katerina Maleeva. You lost 1-6 1-6. How did the match go from your perspective?

 She was No. 11 in the world. So it was tough and I was also overwhelmed by the situation. I just didn’t focus as much as I should have at that time.

 

(Q) What made you opt for College (instead of Pro Tour)? Any goals that you set for yourself?

 Stanford was the Uni that I always wanted to go to. It was the best and it also had very good tennis program. However, I was already in the top-120 in the world, playing all the Grand Slams and so I was pretty confused at that time on the path to take. I ended up taking the safe option of education first.

 I didn’t have any goals. I went with the flow. I was doing too much. College is tough and takes lot of your time. Doing that and trying to do well in Tennis as well, was tough. In my freshman year, I was lost. Then I had the goal of getting my Tennis back to where it should be, which I was able to do.

 

(Q) How strong did you find your team and the competition to be? Any highs and lows of the College circuit? You were the player of the year and Collegiate No.1 in 1994.

 My first year at Stanford was not a great year. From playing on the high echelon of the Pro tour to playing College tennis, I couldn’t motivate myself in the first year. Players usually do it in the other order and not this way round.  For the first six months, I had played terribly, didn’t play well at all. I was a bit depressed in the first year and eventually had to pick myself up again.

 

Highlight: Winning the NCAA Championship with my team and managing  to get to No.1 in Singles

Lowlight: Beginning of the first year when I did so badly in Tennis. It was all up and down.

 

 

(Q) How did you restart your journey on the Pro circuit? Was there any doubt about moving to Tennis full-time again?

 There were no doubts as such but I was burnt out a bit. When you have the habit of winning a lot and then to face a lot of losses is tough and it is human nature. This is where all the early success was detrimental for me from the long term perspective.

 This is where I would caution the parents that if your kid is winning a lot, unless the kid has an easy-going and be happy personality, facing failure will be a lot harder later. So let them fail a bit early too and it’s more important to think about the long term.

 As an example, when I was 15, Pete Fischer, the man who guided and coached Pete Sampras, had mentioned that I had the most fluid strokes he had seen in a woman and that I could be a tennis great. Pete told me to change my two-handed backhand to a one-handed one. He said it was the only thing holding me back. Hitting one-handed felt awesome. But my parents didn’t want me to change my winning game. I wish we had a more long-term view.

 

(Q) How long did it take you to get back to close to your previous best in the Pro circuit?

It took me more than an year to reach the level I had before and then I didn’t end up playing much more after that.

 

(Q) What do you think were some of the biggest gaps in your game that hindered you from achieving the goals you had set.

 As mentioned before, I should have had a more long term view. Additionally, I should have focused more on my fitness and played more aggressively. I used to play aggressive only intermittently but I should have done that more as I was moving up.

 

(Q) There are so many Pro events happening week-in and week-out. In an era where connectivity was not at its best, how did you plan out your schedule? Who helped out with the logistics of bookings/travel?

 I did things by myself. I didn’t have too much of a guidance. When I look back  at things, I am surprised how I was able to manage all I did by myself. I wish I had a bit more structure back then. I just got away with lot of these things on the court because I was an athletic talent, had good hands and was quick on the court. It eventually catches up as everybody is good after a certain level.

 

(Q) Given that you traveled for so many weeks. Who were some of your best friends – on the tour.

 My college team-mates. Lot of people from Jr Tennis are on my facebook. I had also met lot of good people on travel. I wouldn’t say any of them are my best friends but I was very lucky to have that overall experience.

 When I look back and at the level I reached, it is not easy. I don’t know how I got there. I worked hard but lot of people work hard too. There is a bit of luck involved too – I didn’t have any injuries that put me out of the game.

 

(Q) What were the best parts of life on the tour? What did you dislike?

Loneliness / Travel are the toughest parts. Some people like that and it depends on the personality. Anybody who wants to make it big in Tennis, needs to like the lifestyle too (being alone, travel all the time and son on).

 

(Q) What were some of the tournaments/destinations that you enjoyed the most and prefered to play every year?

 

US Open was amazing. I will never forget the year in which I lost in the semis of the Jrs. Australian Open was phenomenal too. It just felt that the entire world was there when I played these two tournaments

 

(Q) Tennis is a very expensive sport. Can you share a bit more detail on any sponsorship support that you have received ?

 I had equipment sponsors but nothing more. My parents funded my tennis. On the Pro tour, I earned enough to break-even but nothing more.

 

(Q) Who have been some of the biggest influence on your tennis career?

 My dad pushed me a lot into Tennis. Looking back, I would probably call out my brother, Kalyan Poruri, who is a doctor now. He was always ready to play Tennis with me and he was the better player up until a certain age before I started getting better.

 

(Q) Any fitness routines and superstitions that you had followed back then?

 I was very unstructured which I probably regret. I did not have any fitness routines back then. I was very superstitious and I had my racquets labeled, they had to be strung in a particular way and that kind of stuff.

 

(Q) Do you still play and follow Tennis? Do you by any chance follow Indian Tennis players?

 I follow Tennis on a cursory level, say the later rounds of a slam. I don’t follow Tennis on the internet.

 In terms of Indian players, I follow them when they reach the later rounds of a major event or if they make the news. I had of course followed Mahesh, Leander, Somdev, Sania. I knew Mahesh and Leander when they were on the tour. They have done fantastically well for themselves, for the Indian Tennis community and for the country itself.

 Once I quit tennis, I didn’t follow Tennis much as I was not a big surfer of internet (not for tennis atleast). I have only started getting back a bit into watching Tennis about 8-10 yrs ago. The Men’s tennis is off the highest quality ever these days and it’s so fun to watch.

 

(Q) Do you still visit Ongole or India once-in-a-while? Any family roots that you have, that you can still trace back?

 I have a few relatives in Ongole and Hyderabad. Most of the ones that I knew, have either moved to the US or have passed away. There are a few in Ongole and Hyderabad though.

 I haven’t been to India since 2004 because I don’t have family there anymore. I should visit sometime though.

 

(Q) (Question from sports-india.com: Gautam) How has coaching changed from your time to now and what are your views on academies especially since you never went to them yourself.

 My honest opinion is that a lot of these academies have too much structure. It has gone too much the other way. From the days I had, where there was not much structure (though there were academies then too, I hadn’t opted in to them) to now too much structure. Specialization is done too early. Physical requirements are too much.

 I feel the most important requirement for a kid is to have 9-10 hours of sleep.  I don’t think you need to be on the court as much, there is too much risk of injuries. At the end of the day, outliers are outliers. Someone that is brilliant will excel irrespective of structure or no structure. If we look at the Williams Sisters, they were coached by their dad who is just a random person, not a tennis pro and was very poor. They were outliers and look where they reached.

 It really depends on the kid and his personality. End of the day, they have to really like the sport, hangout on the court and do it hours together on their own without parent pushing it. I am not a fan of the academy approach. I have seen a few of these coaches and they lack fundamentals but they have gotten into it because of the money. That is one thing I would caution the parents. If you are taking the approach of getting a coach for your kid then pick a coach who has the right fundamentals before you put it in lot of money.

 

(Q) On the same point, if the kid really shows interest in Tennis. How would you recommend the path forward?

 Get a coach who is really strong in the fundamentals of the sport. Get the kid to play other sports too like swimming, basketball and others. They all enhance one’s athletic capability and allow the kid to become stronger without the constant repetition of one sport.

 

(Q) (Question from sports-india.com – Puneet) I had a long chat with her, as we watched an Indian player try to qualify. She was going to teach in New England, and take a shot at writing. I remember telling her that she might write the next Great American Novel!

 Good one! I was working on a book but never finished it. Hopefully one of these days, I can get back to it and finish it.

 

(Q) How is your life after Tennis. How has the journey been?

 I am married now – I have a kid. I do Business Development for a big law firm. I enjoy lot of the things that I get to work on. I am still healthy. I have a bit of arthritis in my knee and so do not play Tennis as much. I am starting to get back into it as a bit of exercise.

 Tennis overall has been a great experience. It gave me a lot of opportunities in life which I otherwise would not have had. Even today, when I go to a job interview, the first thing I am asked is how was it to play the US Open. I am grateful for that and it taught me a lot of things.

 

Rapid Fire

 

What do you do in your free time? Hanging out with daughter, watching daughter play her sport, read and trying out food from different restaurants
Favorite book A Fine balance – Rohinton Mistry
Favorite Food. Earlier Italian. Now – Sambar, Charu, Rasam, Rice – Typical Telugu food. Additionally, my Mom cooked food
Favorite Surface Hard courts
Favorite Tournament US Open, Australian Open
Favorite sport outside of Tennis Basketball
Favorite Movie Fan of independent foreign films

Lives of others – German film

Favorite TV Show Law & Order (Crime mystery)
Favorite holiday destination and why? Salt Lake City, Utah. Additionally, I enjoy going hiking during my holidays
Best win of your career Juniors: Orange Bowl – Monica Seles

Seniors: Win against Ai Sugiyama – when she was in the top-40

 

 

 

 

 

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