Interview with Sriram Balaji

The power-hitting young man hailing from Coimbatore, a winner of 9 ITF Pro Circuit singles titles and 43 doubles titles, and 4 ATP Challenger doubles titles; talks to us about his life revolving around tennis since a very young age and also how it is outside those courts. To his credibility, he has had a brilliant season of his career in 2017 where he attained a Singles CHR #287 and currently Doubles CHR #128.

With a motto of, “Being the best player that I could possibly be”, this has just envisaged his zeal of excelling even further to touch his zenith.

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Balaji and Vishnu with their recent Chennai Challenger title(their 4th title
as a pair)

When did you start playing Tennis and what got yourself interested to play it for so long? When did you think of making it your profession?

I started playing tennis at the age of nine. Just started it because the tennis courts were close to my house. However, I was always very keen in playing sports in general. My dad was a volleyball player. Even in my school I would take part in every activities like cricket, football, etc. Then onwards slowly. I started winning local, district and state-level tournaments.
After completing my 10th, when I was 15-16years old, it got serious and that is when I decided to move forward with whatever I am best at.

Who has been your idol/role model growing up? Any other source of inspiration that you have had? Biggest influence on your career so far?

While I was growing up, I looked up to Mahesh Bhupathi as my role model. I have always admired LLeyton Hewitt’s game. Later on, quite obviously, it has been Roger Federer.

Outside tennis, my greatest inspiration has been my Dad, a former volleyball player. He used to train the kids in our city. As I did not have any specific fitness coach back then, he used to tell me what to do. That might not have been the right way, which I realised later on, but then were the best possible ways that could keep me fit.

Biggest influence was after I moved to Germany; my whole outlook of Tennis has changed since then. My outreach has become a lot more professional. I learnt a lot about my strengths and weaknesses.

What are the sacrifices that you and your family have made in order to pursue your career as a tennis pro?

I will have to surely thank my parents. My mom and dad have sacrificed everything for my career. Even my twin sister, in fact my whole family is responsible for the support. Be that financially or otherwise. I even had a very supportive staff back in my school, who let me play tournaments even during exams. I was even allowed to practice during the school hours, early morning and evening periods, which made it more convenient for me as well. Nevertheless, I was a very decent student too.

If you were to change any aspects of your game or physical conditioning during your formative years, what would that be?

I do not regret anything. I have lots of strengths and weaknesses in my game too. I would work hard to improve on my weaknesses. But I wouldn’t want to change anything from what I have learned before. Everything happens for good!

You and your friend-cum-doubles partner Vishnu have set your sights on making it to the main draw of Wimbledon this year. You both have started probably one of the most comprehensively explained crowd-funding campaigns to support you guys in order to achieve your goals and make the Nation proud. What other targets have you decided for yourselves to get them fulfilled by the end of this year and so on (both singles and doubles)?

For me, I think I am kind of shifting towards doubles now. But I won’t stop playing singles, and will play wherever I get an opportunity. But 60-70% focus in towards doubles now. I also believe that we as a team can do a lot of damage I the Grand Slams. For that we have to work a lot together and we are doing it righteously. Before April we both want to get into top100 and we are very close to achieving that. By next year we want to play all the Tour-level tournaments.

Can you share with us briefly regarding the sponsorship/financial support that you have received? How does TNTA help in a player development?

TNTA is one of the associations which is always read to help the upcoming players. It has always been producing and supporting many great players. Even for myself, it has supported one year domestically and one year internationally. It helps the players a lot, to play their game freely, stay relaxed. Even now upcoming players have been provided funds from TNTA.

Right now I do not have any sponsors. TNTA had sponsored me when I was 18-20 years old. After that I has always been my dad or whatever I have earned from my tournaments. There have been a lot of tough times when I was in completely foreign countries, stranded without money to even book my next flight tickets. But always believe that something will turn up and never give up, and that’s have I manage it. I have surely been through a lot of hard times; really, really hard times

You are out of those special ones who have gotten to represent India in the Davis Cup ties. What was that feeling like to play, and more so to win? What would you tell about Mahesh’s style of captaincy? How are the interactions between the players, captain and the team management staffs?

I have been in the reserves few times before. This was the first time the whole team was always together during every practice session. The captain was always there for us, kept motivating us. Bops is always there with us. The team was more-so young this time like me, Praj, Ram and we all really liked it. We even had a camp before the tie in New York. Mahesh did an amazing job keeping the whole team together.

Mahesh has always been texting us, even before the Davis Cup ties, asking about our updates, congratulating us. He has always been following all the players grow closely.

You have been associated with Schuttler-Waske Tennis Academy in Germany, received plenty of praises from Alexander Waske previously, have played for German Clubs, etc. How did it all start? How has been your experience so far? 

The Academy has been renamed now to Alexander-Waske Tennis Academy. Alex is more like a brother to me. I was the first player to enter when he started the academy. It has been 7-8 years after that. For giving this opportunity, I will have to thank Karti Chidambaram, who had even sponsored me for the first year. After that I have been on my own, with the help of Alex and a few other coaches.

Every summer I get to play for the German clubs. That experience has been great. There is so much to learn from it: Being a team event (3 singles/3 doubles), you even get to know about different players, with varying backgrounds, cultures, etc. The surfaces there are slow and one has to tactically earn every point.

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Balaji with Prajnesh (they train together at Waske Academy in Germany)

Your match against Thiago Monteiro this year in the Pune Qualifiers was so close. He went on to win it 3-6 6-3 7-5. What are your thoughts regarding that match, given that he went on to defeat Gael Monfils just last week? How does it feel to know that your level is so proximate to the level required?

I have always believed that I have a very big game. On my day, when everything works, I surely think I am able to beat top 100-150 level players. Even during Pune Challenger even I had a match point against former top100 player (i.e. , Aleksandr Nedovyesov, KAZ). It was more of a mental thing. But now since my focus is on doubles, I’ll have my partner to help me in times like that.

What are the best parts of life on tour? And what are those that you dislike?

Best part is undoubtedly travelling around the world (laughs). Sometimes we get to roam around in the city, but otherwise we are busy with our schedule and we don’t waste too much time outside. Trying to focus on our match. There’s nothing that I dislike, but occasionally I miss being with my family.

What is your opinion regarding way National Tennis Federations work elsewhere when compared to India? If you were given the authority, what reforms would you suggest so that it becomes easier for the younger players in order to have a better Tennis scene in our country? 

I would not want to comment anything about that, but would say that am a little disappointed. And I don’t want to blame it on anyone. That’s how it has been. But definitely at some point, I would like to give it back to the game, after my career.

How has Tennis changed back in Coimbatore? Any advice that you would give to the upcoming players and their parents so that they can manage it better?

Ans: Firstly, I’d like to set up a really good centre that starts from the grassroots-level, which has a professional system of coaching, where everything is taken care of. Then, plan on having lots of tournaments for the kids. The National Tennis Centre, on which Somdev is working on, is surely a great idea could be the first step to take forward.

Frankly, there hasn’t been any significantly appreciable changes even now, players are still struggling. Parents usually want their kids to focus primarily on education, etc. But surely the enthusiasm for sports in general has greatly increased. We even had a sorts of Kids Clinic, Q&A session with the kids and their parents. Around 300-400 tennis enthusiasts had showed up for it. We even got positive reviews from them.

But then, of course, there’s no substitute for hard work. Keep working hard and do not keep expecting anything out of it. Results will come by themselves.

Rapid Fire –

What do you do in your free time?Listen to music
Dream Mixed Doubles PartnerAndrea Petkovic
Favorite FoodKerala Parota
Favorite SurfaceHard
Favorite TournamentChennai Open
Favorite MovieGilli(Tamil)
Celebrity CrushKeeps changing
A place that you haven’t been to and would like to visit?Venice
Where do you go next?Japan
Song thats been on loop recentlyBaarish (Half Girlfriend)
Cricket or footballFootball
Best winDavis Cup doubles rubber last year

I'm the extravagant highfalutin you are looking for.

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