By : Vishnu Reddy, December 16, 2017
Born in Chandigarh, Nandini Sharma was amongst the top Indian Juniors in the 12-15 age bucket players. During her time at Chandigarh Lawn Tennis Association (CLTA) and Harvest Tennis Academy (HTA), she was a contemporary of many of the current top Indian players including the likes of Karman, Mihika and others. However a combination of back injury and a horrific arm injury had kept her out of Tennis for two years.
Just when the entire system (coaches, academies and possibly even family) was starting to doubt and give up on her, she didn’t, and with her dad acting as the pillar of strength, she ended up at the Felner Academy in Portugal. At what she fondly calls as her second family and a home-away-from-home, Nandini has been able to significantly remodel her game and within few months of getting back onto the Tennis courts, she has been able to get the Indian Tennis observers to stand up and take notice of her performances.
Nandini has been able to win the prestigious Golega Open Womens (Portuguese) event after coming in as a qualifier, thereby becoming the first Women ever to do so in its 19-yr history. She has had multiple top-700 wins and a top-450 win already in the last 3 months. At 3h 18m, her win against Lucia Quiterio (Portugal U18 #1 and Nandini’s friend from the Felner academy) is arguably one of the longest matches by an Indian women. She holds the unique distinction of having a higher ranking in Portugal than in AITA Indian rankings! She has been in the top-20 of the Portuguese rankings.
Nandini, through her good run in Solapur, has made it to the WTA rankings this year. Given her inspiring and touching comeback story, when Indian Tennis Daily reached out to Nandini for an interview, Nandini was generous to allocate some time for us.
Photo credits: Nandini Sharma and Felner Academy
Excerpts from the interview below
Brief background on where you grew up in Punjab and what got you into Tennis.
I was born in Chandigarh. I come from a middle-class background. I was good in studies. One day, my dad was watching tennis and liked it. He decided to put me into tennis for fun and as a physical activity. I went to the Chandigarh Lawn Tennis Association (CLTA) and the coach Rampal Sir was impressed and told my dad that he should take my tennis seriously. My dad got motivated with this feedback and I gradually started enjoying Tennis too. The journey began from there.
Which School did you study in? How did you juggle between Tennis and Education? What were some exceptions that were made in School for you?
I studied in St Anns Convent school. They were very supportive. The school supported all the sports kids unconditionally. Attendance requirements were very flexible. The teachers helped us with the homework and I had to just come back and give the exams. After the 10th standard, I shifted to DAV model school – sector 15. They were really supportive too. I was on a scholarship of about 90-95% because of my tennis. The same year, we won the team event in the School National Games and I was the No.1 player for the team. In the same event, I won the bronze medal in singles. I was there for two years on scholarship and now I am pursuing BA.
When did you start taking your tennis seriously?
I was always serious about my tennis and wanted to be a professional. I had made up my mind early that I will put in whatever is the amount of work required, to reach the top-level.
What was your first tournament outside of your hometown? Who accompanied you?
I started playing tournaments when I was 8. Around the same year or around when I was 10, I started traveling for Tennis. Most of the times, it was my dad who used to travel and occasionally it was my mom.
When did you move to the Harvest Tennis Academy (HTA)? What prompted the move?
I was there when I was in 7th grade. I was there for 1.5 years. It was 2.5 hrs away and I was there on scholarship as the director at HTA was very impressed with my game.
When did you start progressing from the AITA national ranking events to the ITF events? How was the journey?
Becoming professional and being world no.1 has always been a dream for me. We knew that after the AITA events, the next logical progression are the ITF events. I started playing them when I was 14 or 15. I haven’t played AITA junior events for a long time now.
In the Asian Junior Championship final qualifying round (2013), you had won against Karman in a tight 3-setter (7-6 (8)). Now she is the Indian No.1. Anything that you remember from this match?
I don’t remember that match. However, I had quite a few matches with Karman back then. Our matches used to be very competitive and we both used to win our share of matches. I remember about 3-4 matches clearly and they were split 2-2. There was one specific match in Harvest which was a really really long match – lot of people were watching and I won 6-4 in the 3rd set. Next day, I had to play against Karman again and I lost. We had one or two close matches at DLTA too.
Your first ITF Junior final was at the YMCA Grade IV in Chennai (Aug 2014). Any experience that you can share from this event?
It was a really memorable tournament. I had played against players whom I hadn’t played before and most of them were better than me. I just had a never-say-die attitude and I was fighting all the time – never gave up. I was in the zone that week.
What was your first event outside India? Where was the event and any interesting experiences to share?
It was in Thailand and it was my first time outside of India. I had food poisoning, high fever, allergic reactions and all kinds of sickness possible. My match was at 9 AM and I was awake till about 5 AM because of this. Nevertheless I had a good match and the score was pretty close.
My Mom had accompanied me for this event. I had played doubles with Jennifer Luikham during this event.
You stopped playing Junior Tennis at the age of 15/16 itself. What prompted this move?
It was two things
- I always wanted to be a professional and Juniors was never the goal. I wanted to get a bit of ranking and gain a bit of exposure to top players of my age group.
- After I played my last junior match, I was injured for a long period of time. This continued till last September.
Can you share more detail on the injury?
First I got back pain and then I had an arm injury. The arm injury was really painful. It almost kept me away from Tennis for 2 years and this has dragged me back in terms of my progress. I had not played more than 5-7 events in the last 2 years. When the pain started, I couldn’t even raise my racquet. The doctors were clueless – some suggested medicines, some said surgery while the others said some rehabilitation exercises are more than good enough. We were not sure on what to do.
This injury, though painful, has really shaped me up as a person and made me mentally strong. Those were the toughest two years of my life.
How was the journey towards the recovery?
The injury was due to a combination of things. It was my posture, the way I did my runs, my racquet grip was big (size of 3), the way i used to hold was also very tight and my service motion too – lot of these aspects had to be changed in my game.
During the injury, the Felner academy had a huge impact on me. It is like my second home now, a home-away-from-home. They motivated me a lot, made multiple tweaks to my game like grips, posture, rehabilitation and still do it now. It is all thanks to them.
When and how did your stint with Felner academy begin?
Since I had my injury, I did not have a proper place to train or practice. I realized that I needed a professional setup to take things forward. I needed to change my entire lifestyle – the way I train, practice, eat, exercise, etc,. – everything needed to be done professionally. In India, I wasn’t really happy with the way my progress was happening. I couldn’t find a person or system that really cared, believed in me and that could guide me on the right path.
My dad had searched for lot of academies and suddenly came across the Felner academy, reached out and things worked out. I joined Felner academy in last October (2016).
Did Felner Academy have any history with the Indian players?
No, they did not have any Indian players. However, they have amazing set of players over there. Frederico Silva is there and he was Jr World No.6 and a top-250 ATP player already. He was also the French / US Open Jr doubles champion.
Who are your primary coaches and playing partners?
My primary coach is Filipe Polónia. However, to be frank we are all one team. They believe in me, they help me out in every way possible, not just with Tennis but with every aspect of life as such.
- Joana Roda: she helps me mentally so much that it is unbelievable. I am more calm, have changed my mind and I am more disciplined now – thanks to her.
- Flip Rebelo: He is strict with me on my diet and is my coach.
- Filipe Polonia: He is my coach. He is my motivator, supporter and a father figure.
- Pedro Felner: My overall coach and ensures everything is right for me and others. He takes care of everything at the academy. All of them are like my coaches.
- Joao and Lameiras: I practice with them, they coach me as well and are also the fitness coaches.
We also had Luis Vazao but he has left to Dubai now.
Felner Academy is an amazing setup. Pedro Felner (Owner)’s wife takes extremely good care of us and makes us feel at home. We have a chef too who prepares food for us. The administrative in charge is a very nice person too. Overall it is an extremely nice setup and I feel lucky to be there.
Getting back to your Pro transition, your first pro event was in Dehradun (Jan 2015). How was the event experience? You retired from your R2 match with Prarthana – was it the same injury?
A week before the event, I had come out of the back injury. I didn’t do fitness nor any preparation and played for only about 5 hrs. My coach recommended me to play this event to ease my way in and see how it goes.
Unfortunately, my arm pain came back during this tournament. It was horrible. I had to take pills before / during / after the match. I called in the doctor too during my match. After a point, it became too severe and I just could not raise the racquet anymore and had to quit. It was horrible.
Are you completely recovered now. What is the status of your injury?
I have recovered but I have to do some rehabilitation exercises without which, the pain could come back. My physio has told me that I need to do these exercises till the time I play Tennis.
You had participated in Portugal U18 National Championship: Open Juvenil de Portimão – McDonalds. You came through the qualifying and won the event.
There were two memorable tournaments for me. First was called the Golega Open Womens event. It has been happening since 19 years and it is a big tournament there. I was the first person to win the event from the qualifying. It had a huge prize money too and the winner had about 20-25 thousand prize money.
I had also won the Open Juvenil de Portimão U18 event and doubles event as well with Elizabet.
One needed to have a Portuguese card to be eligible for these events.
On your first tournament back in Gwalior (Feb 2017), you almost won against Pranjala Yadlapalli – was that a huge confidence booster?
It was a huge confidence booster. I hadn’t practiced much before the tournament but running her so close given her track record, it was a huge morale booster. It told me that if I can compete so well without preparing well then if I do my homework and prepare well – I could be right up there soon.
Your first big run in Lisbon (Oct 2017). You had a top-700 win against Spanian – Ainhoa Gomez (6-4 6-1) and you ran top-500 player (Romy) very close. After all the tough qualifying attempts, did you think you were due for this run?
I was really pumped up for the match. I felt that even if I win or not, I will fight for every point and give my best for each game / point. I pushed myself to do it and I ended up doing it.
Tell me more about these two matches – 2 weeks later in Obidos
- Win against top-450 player Irene Burillo 7-6(5) 6-4
I played two weeks in Obidos. In the first week, I had a win against Alicia Barnett who was a top-700 player. In the next round, I lost to a Russian player who was again around top-700.
In the next week, I faced an unseeded player in QR1 and in QR2, I met a top-450 player in Irene Burillo and won against her in straight sets. In the next round, I won against Dalila Spiteri (top-600) in 3 sets.
In the match against Irene – I just went with the intention that to fight till the last-minute and never give up and that I have the ability to do it.
- Win against Lucia Quiterio (Portugal U18 runners up, U16 Champion) : 6-7(4) 7-6(4) 7-5 [Probably the longest recorded match by an Indian woman]
Lucia Queterio is a great Portugese player (U16 champion and U18 runner-up) and it was an extremely close match. She is one of my really good friends and we are from the same academy. The match had stretched to the next day due to rain. It was a very long match indeed.
- Were you drained out for the next match?
My next opponent was top-180. These weeks were some of the longest in terms of match time for me in some time. However, to give credit where it is due, she is a top-180 player and was amazing on the court. Her service, ground strokes and overall game was amazing – it was really difficult to win anyway.
What do you consider are the strengths and weaknesses in your game?
Serve is my weakness. However, given that I did not serve much for 1.5 years, it is in a decent state. However, it does need improvement. Forehand and backhand are strong. I am more smarter in my decision-making now. I am not confident in drive volleys yet. Service returns are okay but I tend to have off-days with it.
What are the changes that you have done to your game Your game has given indication of top-650 level now.
My serve / returns / drive volleys / decision-making and overall everything has changed drastically. I am more confident about my game now and things have improved overall drastically.
These changes have been driven by both the Felner Academy and me. We both worked hard on it a lot.
Your practice schedule. What kind of physical training you do to keep yourself in top shape?
1.5 hrs on fitness and 4 hrs on court. Stretching for 45 mins which includes my rehab and stretching routines
Any dietary restrictions that you follow?
I eat more vegetables and fruits. My coaches in the Felner Academy really care for me and go crazy on me if I do not follow the diet plans! Vegetables, nuts, meat and fruits is what makes up my diet.
How do you juggle your time in Portugal and India
My parents are here. The time difference isn’t much. In India, I don’t really have a base to train as such. Sometimes I go to the Strawberry Fields School to practice and I go to sector 42 to practice with the boys over there.
There are so many Pro events happening week-in and week-out. How do you plan out your schedule? Who helps out with the logistics of bookings/travel?
My coaches from Felner academy manage everything for me. They guide me on what Tennis events I need to play, the schedule / routines I need to follow, the weekend schedule and the diet/fitness – they are all provided by the Felner Academy.
Given that you traveled for so many weeks. Who are some of your best friends on the tour.
Nikita Bishnoi, Goncalo Santos and Ines Mesquita. They play Tennis too and have been really supportive and have had a huge influence on me.
What were the best parts of life on the tour? What did you dislike?
I enjoy playing the game I love and getting to compete with new players. I dislike the travel that is involved, I don’t get to rest as much.
What were some of the tournaments/destinations that you enjoyed the most and prefer to play every year?
I have only played abroad in Portugal, Thailand, China and Spain. Would love to play in Thailand, Spain and Portugal again.
If you had to change any aspects of your approach to Tennis / Physical conditioning during your formative years? What would that be?
Start playing pro tennis. Stretching routines and posture – I would have focused on it more. Enjoying tennis instead of feeling the pressure from it.
Tennis is a very expensive sport. Can you share a bit more detail on how are you being supported?
I do not have any sponsors. It has been my dad, my family and my uncles. They have been supporting me throughout. It is very expensive. It has been very difficult in Punjab to secure sponsorship and in spite of that, my father has completely believed in me through all the phases so far.
I am from a middle-class family and my dad goes through a lot to support me but he makes it a point to shield me from being aware of the costs involved as he is worried that I may feel stressed if I know about it.
Who have been some of the biggest influencers on your tennis career?
My dad. He never ever gave up me. There was a time when I was injured for long. My coaches / academies gave up on me. My family was starting to get a bit apprehensive about my tennis career too but my dad stood like a pillar and always believed in me. Even now, as I am getting into pro tennis, he is supporting me in it completely.
My dad was a boxer and he worked really hard to get our family to a state where it is today. He still does everything that is humanly possible to make things work for me.
Most interesting experience on the tour
I cherish all my tennis year. Everyday I learn something new. I get to learn new tactics, new decision-making, meet new people and players. Tennis life has been tough but this is what is life about. I would cherish everything and there is not a single moment I would choose to skip.
Given your experience of how Portugal tennis federation operates, if you had the authority / power, any changes that you would make in India?
In Portugal, the top players get free training and have the coach and trainer travel with them. The players travel with the federation group and the federation takes care of things.
We need to have something similar in India for the top players. Even if it is like 10 international events that the federation can take care, provide for a coach / trainer and send the players as a group to these events, that would be a huge game changer.
What are your goals for the end of 2017, and upcoming 2018?
I would hope to get my ranking this year. In the next year and onwards, I would like to keep improving it year by and year. Given that I will get into the main draw of these events, I hope to make bigger progress next year.
Rapid Fire –
|What do you do in your free time?||Movies, read books.
In Portugal, I put my headphones with music on and head out for a walk
|Dream Mixed Doubles Partner||Roger Federer (or) Novak Djokovic|
|Favorite Food||Junk food
Portuguese: Pastel de nata
|Favorite Surface||Hard court|
|Favorite Tournament||None – Like all of them|
|Favorite Movie||The Hitman’s Bodyguard|
|Any sport that you play (outside of tennis)||Football, Boxing and Bowling|
|The song that’s been on loop for you recently||Ready for it|
|Favorite city and why?||Algarve – famous for its beaches|
|A place that you haven’t been to and would like to visit?||Netherlands – greenery, less pollution|
|Best win of your career||Win against the top-450 ranked player|
|Best friend(s) on tour||Nikita Bishnoi, Goncalo Santos and Ines Mesquita|
|Languages that you speak||Portuguese, English, Hindi, Punjabi. Also learning Ukrainian.|
|What racket do you play with?||Babolat Drive|