Interview with Rishika Sunkara

By – Vishnu Reddy, 9th Feb, 2018

Coming from an Indian Tennis powerhouse city – Delhi, Rishika Sunkara has been a prominent player in Indian Tennis this decade both in Junior and Pro Tennis. Emerging on the scene as a 16-year old with her great run at the Australian Open and the ITF tour, Rishika may not have realized her full potential yet but the 24-yr old has plenty of accomplishments to her credit already.

Rishika has a rare distinction of being the Junior and Pro No.1 in India while still being a teenager. Apart of her run at the Australian Open, Rishika has 10 ITF titles to her credit. She has been a medalist at the SAF Games, National Games and part of the medal winning contingent at the Asian Games. She has also been part of the Punjab Marshals team in the Champions Tennis League.

Indian Tennis Daily caught up with Rishika Sunkara about her journey so far and her viewpoints on key aspects like Junior vs Pro tour balance, College route vs turning Pro, Training vs Tournament schedule balance, role of the Tennis Federation and so on.

Excerpts below

 

Photo credits: Rishika Sunkara fan page

When did you start playing tennis and what got you interested in the first place?

I have an elder brother who is 1.5 years elder to me. He was an active child and he joined tennis. I used to go and watch him play. After he came back home, he used to teach me how to play Tennis. One day his coach asked me if I would like to try Tennis and I apparently said yes and so the journey began from there.

I am born in Vijayawada but brought up in Delhi and my first coach was Mahesh Kumbria sir in Cosmic.  

You have been at the Team Tennis Academy from a young age with Aditya Sachdeva. Who are some of the key people that molded your career at the academy and any other players along with you in your cohort there?

I have been with Aditya sir since the age of 11 and was there for about 9 years. It was a long journey for me. I started off with Prerna, Shalini and others but I think Prerna Bhambri was the only one who stuck by for a long time. In terms of coaches, Aditya sir, Bhuvan sir and there were other coaches who came in / out and played an important role for us.

Who are you training with right now?

I am with a personal coach now – he is Anantha Bhaskar.

When did you start taking Tennis seriously and start getting into tournaments

I started early and I have two Under-8 event trophies. I started at the age of 6+ and used to play North Zone and local Delhi events. As I kept winning events, we began to take my Tennis seriously when I was in the age 8-10 bracket. Even under-12, we had Nike masters all over India which was a big event.

At the age of 14, I was selected for the Indian team to travel to Indonesia, which was my first event abroad. At the age of 15 and 16, I played the Junior Fed cup for India.

You emerged on the Pro circuit as a 16-yr old making the QF through the qualies in ITF Delhi (2009) before losing to the eventual winner. In the first round, you had won against the French girl Viktoria Larrierre, who is a top-200 player now. Any detail that you can share?

I went into that tournament with no expectations. I was fighting for every point, was still a junior and participating in the Women’s event itself was a big thing for me. I still couldn’t believe when I won against the French girl. My Mom and Dad were there and it was a huge moment for me. The French girl was ranked much higher then and was a very good player.

You reached R2 of the Aus Open Jrs (2010) as a 16-yr old after 4 wins on the trot. It includes the win against the Japanese Miyu Kato (pro career high: top-30 doubles, top 130 in singles). Then you came up against the Jr WR # 1 Daria (current top-20)

That was one of the best tournaments ever for me. I was the only Indian girl to qualify into the main draw. Playing in the qualifying itself was huge and playing in that arena which we’ve always dreamt of playing – it was an unforgettable event for me. There were a lot of Indians cheering for me on these international grounds which was a very different experience.

I cleared a round against the Japanese girl and then played against Daria – it was not a great match for me. Daria was seeded at that time and I had nothing to lose, I played freely and I enjoyed my every moment on the court then.

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As you were transitioning from the Junior to the Pro circuit, did you ever consider taking the College route before turning pro?  

I never gave it a thought. I also come from a conservative family and we never thought about moving abroad, staying alone and pursuing college tennis. My dad also believed that 18-22 are crucial years in terms of Women’s Tennis and one tends to peak then.

At that time, we did not have any real success stories in terms of women taking the college route and then having a successful tennis career. None of the Indian girls really came back to the circuit. We had a few men but none on the Women’s side. So given that history, my parents did not consider it as an option.

What are you thoughts on balancing the Jr / Sr Circuit during the age of 16-18 especially when the player is ranked high enough in the Juniors.

If you are financially stable enough or have sponsors backing you, the junior circuit, especially the big tournaments are equally important. I mention financially stable as there is no prize money in juniors and it’s a very expensive sport. However, if you have the opportunity, I would recommend it as you play players in your age group, against the very best and you learn a lot by playing a lot of matches.

I was always good as a junior and so at the age of 16/17, when I got opportunities to play the Grand Slams, I did not even think twice. Slams were the big thing for me and that itself was a big goal towards giving my best in the juniors.

What were some of the initial goals that you had set during your early days in Pro tennis? How do you review your progress so far?

When I was 18, I played the Australian Open in January. I decided to focus on the Women’s tour from then on. There were a lot of ITF Pro events in India back then. We used to have about 12-15 events per year. I gave myself sometime since there were lot of experienced girls on the Pro circuit and I was just starting off.

I didn’t have any major goals but wanted to adapt myself to the circuit soon and grow myself as a player.

You were the Indian No.1 in Singles as a 19-yr old. It is a fantastic achievement and must have been very satisfactory.

It was around March / April 2013. I remember that occasion very well. I was No.3, with Kyra Shroff as No. 2. Sania Mirza had suddenly retired and Kyra dropped off in the rankings elevating me to the No.1 position in India. The worst aspect was I had a major wrist injury then and I had to be off from Tennis for a while – so I didn’t play any Tennis as the Indian No.1 then which was sad.

This motivated me a lot to come back and retain that spot. Being an Indian No.1 is a dream for any girl and it was a huge occasion for me.

First title in Delhi – ITF $10K – 2012

My Mom is usually there with me but for this event in Delhi, my Grandmother was also there and so she was a lucky charm for me. It was in May and the Delhi heat is scorching. It was very tough during all  the matches and it was a case of who had the energy to sustain the heat and continue with the match.

Playing Simran was a bit of pressure as she was from the same academy and was my junior too. Adi sir had also come to watch the match as we both were his trainees. I had to handle that pressure and it was also my first final – wanted to win it badly. Glad I was able to come through the match as a winner.

You had a great run again in late 2015 with the 2 finals and a title (Raipur)

I was training in Chennai that year and working on lot of aspects of my game and fitness. Sometimes it is also a matter of the overall game coming into place and clicking. It could be triggered by one point or one match. The confidence just rises from there.

The 3 weeks in Hyd, I had QF, SF and then a final. I reached final again in Lucknow and then the final in Raipur. I just grew in confidence from match to match and event to event – it all worked out.

You haven’t been able to set the standards that you may have set for yourself since that run. Any reasons behind the same?

In 2016, I had a few health issues and also had to split with my coach. There were very few tournaments in India and I was struggling to find a good base to train in. It all contributed.

Additionally, I felt that from I should take some time away and work on my game. Tennis has evolved quite a bit. For the last 8-9 months, I have been working with Anantha Bhaskar, my new coach on improvements to my game. I played a few tournaments in Sri Lanka end of last year where I felt my new game was starting to work. I want to give myself more time as I adapt to the new style and hope to perform this year.

How do you assess your strengths and weaknesses now in terms of where you want to be

Strengths: Consistency and movement on court

Weaknesses: Need to be more aggressive. I have been focusing on this aspect over the last few months.

Few years ago, I just used to play tournaments all the time thinking my game would improve like that. I realized it doesn’t happen that way. If what I have been doing for the past few months, had I done that 2-3 years before, I would have given myself better opportunity to go up the rankings.

 

Tennis is a very expensive sport. Can you share a bit more detail on the sponsor support that you have received ? You had sponsorship from GVK, Head and Adidas.

GVK supported me very young, at 13. They were one of the main reasons for me doing so well in the junior circuit. They supported me for 5 years. They used to provide for mine and my mom travel which was very important given that I came from a conservative family.

I got Adidas Sponsorship when I won the Adidas U14 nationals in Chennai. They supported me for 9 years. I lost them two years ago when my ranking completely dropped.

Head still supports me and I am very grateful to them for that.

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Who have been some of the biggest influence on your career so far?

My Mom has been the biggest influence on me so far – she has always been there for me and guided me at all stages. My dad has been very supportive as well.  

Aditya sir – he was involved with me for a very long time. Current coach – Anantha Bhaskar – its not just about improving my game but also about keeping me motivated all the time. It is important in a sport like Tennis to have a good support system.

Your experience with the Punjab Marshalls team in the Champions Tennis League (Somdev Devvarman, Leander Paes, Wimbledon Champion – Garbine Muguruza)

It was a great experience to be a part of this experience for all the Indian players. Muguruza was not as well known back then, she was the same age as me and observing / interacting with all these great players showed us what it takes to reach that level.

I even ended up playing one match as Muguruza and others got injured. Somdev and Leander were my coaches in that match against Pranjala Yadlapalli. It was overall an amazing event.

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You were also part of the National Games and also the Asian Games medal winning contingent. You were in the SAF games as well – how do you view these team events.

I won medals in both the singles and doubles events in Kerala. Asian Games was a surreal experience. I reached doubles second round with Shweta Rana. The team got an opportunity to stay in the same apartment. The opportunity to know Sania Mirza personally was a great experience for me from the event.

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Playing for your country is an amazing experience which brings the best out of someone and you put your team / country interests ahead of yours. We have each other backing us. This is very different compared to the tour where you are grinding it out as an individual. On the other hand, an individual sport has its benefits, with all the politics that we see in sports these days, there is only so much damage that it can cause on your career and you can still give your career the best possible shot.
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Same question that we try to ask in most of our interviews. Compared to the foreign federations, any areas that we are lacking from your perspective

In India, unfortunately, the federation influence is very minimal. We are all on our own trying to do our best with limited to no support. We could achieve so much more if there was a bit more centralized coaching and fitness support. That would give us more confidence to go for our best.

2018 Goals

Play as many tournaments to give myself with the best chance given my new style. Important, enjoy the game too.

Rapid Fire –

 

Question Answer
What do you do in your free time? Read, listen to music and go out with friends
Dream Mixed Doubles Partner Roger Federer
Favorite Food Chinese
Favorite Surface Hard
Favorite Tournament Australian Open
Favorite Movie Dil Dhadakne Do, Dangal, Taare Zameen Par
Favorite country/city and why? Melbourne – Great moments from my junior
A place that you haven’t been to and would like to visit? Switzerland
Racquet that you use Head Radical Graphene XT
Song thats been on loop recently NaJa – Pav Dharia
Favorite Actor Hrithik Roshan
Best win Australian Open Junior R1 win and Raipur title

 

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