Interview with Vijay Sundar Prashanth

By – Vishnu Reddy, 11th May, 2018

Fondly referred to as the Terminator amongst his Tennis friends, Vijay has been a stalwart of Indian Tennis over the past decade and is one of the most inspiring Tennis stories you would read. Coming from a middle class background with no sponsors, Vijay was unranked and down and out at the crucial phase of 18-22 age. Never the one to give up, Vijay played prize money events all over India to fund and kickstart his Tennis career. He brought German club tennis into limelight through his exploits there. Through this hard-working and unique self-funded approach, Vijay has been able to represent and win medals for India, reach a career high of #335 and #218 in singles and doubles respectively, play in the elite ATP Tour events across Europe / Asia and had some riveting matches against some of the very best – Tennys Sandgren, Evgeny Donskoy, Nikola Mektic, Yuki Bhambri, Somdev Devvarman to name a few.

In this interview, Vijay also gives peek into life beyond Pro Tennis – staying at local places via AirBnB, cooking Indian Food for them and the friends he has made!, culture of club tennis in Europe (you will get your answer into why some of the unranked players from Europe cause big upsets of ranked players) to the cameredie amongst the Indian players, especially the Tamil Nadu boys.

The interview is long but recommended read to gain a deeper insight into the life of Tennis player, one of the most inspiring ones at that. Bonus for the long read – Rapid fire at the end! (you will get to know why Vijay is called The Terminator!)

Cover Picture credit: Indian Express, Sriram Veera

When did you start playing tennis and what got you interested in playing tennis in the first place? Which academy / coach were you involved with, in your formative years.

Started off when I was 5. I was in the school – Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan (PSBB). We used to have a Games period. Each kid had to choose a sport from Cricket, Basketball, Swimming and Tennis. My parents made me play Tennis while most of the boys choose Cricket. My parents felt that with so many kids playing Cricket, I would not get as much attention from the coach. Tennis being an individual sport, would solve that purpose. I started playing it for fun.

My parents did not have any background in any sport and we were just a normal middle class family.

When did you first get the realization that you were good at this sport and want to take this up further? [when did your Parents first realize that?

I started playing tourneys when I was 8. I lost in the semis in my first event and the next tourney was two years later and I remember winning 4-5 events in a row. They thought that it was something they could put me into as a strong option. I loved playing Tennis too – we weren’t thinking about going professional or anything but just going with the flow. More than winning / losing, it was about getting on the court, being with friends, competing with them and so on – winning just happened.

I was part of the Krishnan Memorial Club (KMC) which was in the same school PSBB. I was there from age 5 till the age of about 15, for about 9-10 years. I know all the coaches there and still keep in touch with all of them. Some of the players from the same who were a bit senior to me were Manoj Mahadevan, Kamala Kannan and others who went onto pursue Tennis professionally. Majority of the group stopped playing Tennis when they were 17 or 18 and focused on education from then on.

It was overall a nice social experience – traveling with friends for tournaments. My parents enjoyed the experience of traveling with other parents too. My life would have probably taken a different turn if I was losing but back then it was about hanging out with friends.

I think by the time I was 12 or 13 when I was winning all the tournaments – Junior / Sub-Junior and so on. They might have thought, why not let him pursue this more seriously. My school supported me as well and I didn’t have to attend the school everyday.

Playing in the Jr AITA ranking events would have required you to travel all over India. Who supported you with all the logistics/planning, what kind of support did you receive from your family. Which academy / coach were supporting you in this.

When I was 14, I started playing the AITA ranking events. The association stepped in and said they will take care of the coach, access to best training facilities, take me abroad and handle the tourney schedule. We were from a middle class family and we wouldn’t have been able to afford this otherwise. So the entry of the association came in at the right time.

You were part of the TNTA Excellence Scheme for Junior Players. What kind of support did this scheme provide, where did you get to train and how do you view the impact it had on your game?

The main goal of the scheme to promote the players and enable them to transition from the Juniors to the Pro tour under the guidance of a professional setup. For me personally, I was just playing events, won them, came back and had fun. I didn’t have an insight into the larger view of how Pro Tennis operates. I didn’t know much about the structure of scheduling, U16s, the Jr Davis Cup and so on – my parents were also not from the Tennis background.

The setup this scheme provided was professional – they would take care of the tournament scheduling, coaching and funding me for the tournaments. TNTA had few academies with Mr. Joshi as the head coach. Most of us played under him for the next 3-4 years. They used to assign a traveling coach, who would take notes and provide us feedback on our performance. As a youngster you need that to get into the professional mindset early on.

We were based in Chennai, 7 of us in the opening batch of that scheme – 4 boys, 3 girls. It wasn’t a contract but we would play till the age of 18.

Players from the Tamil Nadu do not tend to play much of ITF Juniors (Ramkumar, Manish, etc,.). You also played very little ITF Junior Tennis yourself. What is the thought process behind this and given your experience so far, your thoughts on it.

I don’t know if there is a process or if its happening on its own. If we take Ram’s example – At the age of 16, everybody knew that he was better than all the 16 and 18-yr olds. Amongst the current youngsters, they have more opportunities to play ITF Futures. Till around 4-5 years ago, there was a lot of emphasis on playing ITF Juniors and  playing the Slams. When Jeevan was there, I remember he played a bit of juniors and quite a few others too.

When the next set of juniors came into the 15-16 age bracket, there were a lot of futures in India where these youngsters could play. As a tennis player when you have a ranking point and are amongst the ATP ranked players in the world, you feel you almost belong there. It’s important for the players to assess if their game is ready, for some good players the transition is easy, while for the majority their game might not be ready yet.

For young players like Manish and Abhinav – their game is there and they know they are within striking distance of making that transition. If you keep playing the Mens tour, you are bound to improve. There are a lot of qualified coaches now, there is more game awareness via YouTube / TV / Blogs and so the transition to the Futures level might appear easier than what it used to be.

For me personally, I didn’t make the transition easily, it took me a lot of time.

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Vijay Sundar Prashanth with fellow mates from Tamil Nadu – Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Sriram Balaji. Picture Credit: Sportstar

Did you ever consider taking the College route before turning pro?

College tennis became big after Somdev. Before Somdev, it was very few players like Harsh Mankad, Ajay Ramaswami and others but it wasn’t famous or popular. People like Somdev knew and took that opportunity. I wasn’t aware back then and didn’t know what to expect. My parents didn’t want me to go over there alone but overall it was more about lack of awareness for me.

When Somdev came back, he was the one who explained it to me in detail on what the program offers, the benefits and so on. After Somdev’s success, there has been a boom, the young kids are more aware and prepared now. I was supposed to go to college at the same time as Somdev, I had no idea and didn’t have funds to pay even if I had scholarship of 60-70%. So all these factors contributed for me.

What was the role of your coach / mentors during the Pro transition stage? What were some of the big changes that you felt you needed to make / and made during the first couple of years of Pro tennis? How did you go about fixing them?

I was very good with U14s and U16s. For the next two years, my level dropped and I didn’t do well when I was 17 and 18. I was still working towards establishing myself in the ITF Juniors then. The head coach was not a fan of ITF Juniors. He felt that when a player turns 16 or 17, he should start playing on the Men’s tour, which is fair enough. When I played in the Futures, I wasn’t able to make it much beyond the qualifying. So basically when I turned 18, I was left out and left in the open.

My family couldn’t support me for my tennis career. We had enough to support ourselves but didn’t have anything more to support for Tennis. Age 18 to 22 are crucial years in terms of tennis. I was doing ok with winning titles for the Loyola college but it was very different having been U14 & U16 No.1. There was no support in terms of coaching or which tournaments to play – I had to fend for myself. We were 4-5 friends together, used to pay Rs 2,000 tourney fees and figure out how to maximize things within the limited budget by planning tournaments as a group. Through this phase, thankfully, I decided to continue playing Tennis – I had invested close to 8-9 years already and there was no point quitting before the real journey had even begun.

There was no clear path in front of me but I decided to stuck it out and see what the future holds.

From 2005 to late 2009, you had only 2 trips outside India – both to Indonesia. It must be tough to rise up the ranking when you are limited by the number of tournaments you play.

The only way forward I felt was that I should stop finding excuses on why I couldn’t play. I figured out that there were lot of AITA tournaments which give the winners around Rs 35,000 to Rs 40,000. I decided and told my friends that I am going to fund myself (and not burden them) by playing in these prize money tournaments.

There were very few Futures events and so one had to win or perish. Thankfully I did well in the AITA events  – I think I participated in about 17 events and won about 16 of them. This gave me confidence and money to spend. So I was able to fund my Indonesia trip to play the futures.

Earlier I had done well in the Indian Satellite series in 2005. I earned some ATP points. I didn’t have a great time in Indonesia but it was a start. I realized that this is a path that could get me out – I needed to get better at what I was doing but there at least a way out that I could see myself now. When I came back to India, I went to the drawing board and realized I need to improve my fitness and my game further and go through the grind of the AITA events again. So that’s how it went – just didn’t want to give myself an excuse.

You had your first big run in singles in Cambodia in early 2011. You had reached the finals before losing to Karan Rastogi. This was after 6-7 years of playing Pro tennis. Any memories of that event?

I remember the playing arena and the club was fantastic. We were there for 2 weeks in Cambodia. Everything felt good, the food was great. After a while, I started to let off all the pressure I had put myself on. I changed my mindset to be happy that I am still able to play Tennis given my situation and able to travel and gain these experiences – ensure I don’t worry too much about the rankings and the points. I took it one match at a time.

There were quite a few good players and even the young Yuki was there. I knew I could compete with these good players. The result gave me the confidence and the confirmation that yes, I can indeed do it.

Your journey with German Club Tennis also began around the same time in 2012. How did this journey begin. Which are the clubs that you have represented so far. Did you have any other TN / Indian players joining you in these clubs

  • Your club in Phillipsburg had some history with Vijay Kannan. Did that help?

We came to know about Club Tennis in Germany through Ranjeet Virali-Murugesan, who was 1 year senior to me. He was one of the first players from our batch who had that offer. I had been trying for 2-3 years through him but things did not work out. The primary motivation was to earn some money which can fund my tennis career.

Around 2012, thankfully, I got a call from Vijay Kannan who has been there for about 4 years that his club had lost a player that year and was looking for a new player. Vijay was done with his career by then or was almost on the way out. I had been winning most of the AITA events that I was playing in India. So Vijay reached out to me, felt I could do well on clay and obviously, I had been searching for a German club for few years and so was interested. I got in touch with TC Phillipsburg – it was based in a small town of around 20,000 people.

I initially started off with a 1-month stint. It was my first time in Europe. Not only the Tennis but I really enjoyed the overall experience there. People respected the Tennis professionals which was different compared to what I was experiencing back home. I was able to love my Tennis and enjoy my life which was a great experience. I did well in the first year, played 4 matches and the team manager was impressed. He slotted me for the entire season next year.

I knew this was going to be like a stepping stone for me. I could use this location as the base to earn some money and improve my tennis. I could play the tourneys in Europe with those funds as otherwise, I would not have the money to travel abroad. I had a free accommodation and could travel around to play events, return back again during breaks. I knew I should stick to this and do it for few years.

The duration and time depends on the club and the division. In the first few years, I played in May / June whereas now, I play in a higher division league – for about 4 weeks only and its in July. I currently play for the club Post Südstadt Karlsruhe Tennis in Karlsruhe.

For the first few years, I made sure I stayed for 3 months to make use of the facilities and travel around Europe for tourneys.

Herrenteam (1)

Vijay with his German Club team – Post Südstadt Karlsruhe. Picture credit: Post Südstadt Karlsruhe

Your upward curve started to happen in late 2014 with several consistent performance in the Futures and Challengers. What culminated this rise in late 2014? Was there any specific work on your game that led to this?

In 2014, I had gone back to the drawing board. I had been stagnant in and around 500 rank for the last 3 years. I knew I had to change something drastic in my game to make the next move. My friend, Mahendra Varma, had turned into a coach by then and he took out time to analyse my game / fitness and focus on the parts of the game that needed to improve.

We took out time for this and the results began to show immediately. This was the time when my outlook towards Tennis changed and the results began to follow.

You had been playing the ATP Chennai Open since 2009. For the first time, in 2015, you made it to the Main Draw with the big upsets of Yuki and Ilya. Must have been a dream come true, especially with your family by your side.

We had worked out with my friend for the entire period of November and December. I felt a difference in my game and I wanted to test it out against better players. In both the matches where I had won (against Yuki and Ilya), I was down early 1-6 and 1-3. I just remained very focused on doing things that I was supposed to do. I had been there for 6 years already and so there was no pressure.

It was just a dream come true for all the efforts we had put for all these years for my family, my friends, my coach and my physical trainer who had played such an important role in my career. All my friends had wanted to play Tennis but they couldn’t do it. This week was emotional as they were are all realizing their Tennis dreams through me during that week.

My parents had been coming to watch the Chennai Open for about 15 years hoping one day they could see their son play in the main draw. When it happened, it was just unbelievable. It was an amazing as well as an emotional week for me.

You had your first Futures (singles) title in Trichy and then Chennai. You had come close 4 times before, losing in the finals. It must have been special to make that conversion.

The good part was that my coach and friends were traveling with me. A coach traveling with you makes a huge difference in terms of analysing how I am playing and what needs to be done. We kept it very simple. We had done a lot of pre-season work. I just went into every match with single-minded focus to execute on what me/my coach had decided and that the result will take care of itself.

Even in the final against Ramkumar Ramanathan, I went in with that focus and only on the last point, did I realize that I was so close to winning my first title. My family wasn’t there for the first event but they were there for the second event in Chennai and all my friends too.

Whatever I could work on, I was able to transfer it onto the court which felt really good.

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Vijay with his coach – Mahendra Varman. Picture credit: Vijay Sundar Prashanth

You then continued that terrific run in 2015 by running very close the likes of Tennys Sandgren (AUS Open 2018 QF), James Duckworth, Nikola Mektic, etc,. You had played in 3 ATP Qualifying events within a short time-frame – Geneva, Stuttgart and Gstaad. How did you approach your schedule in 2015 when you knew your game had taken a gear up.

For every tennis player, the goal is to play at a higher level and the tour / Grand Slam events. I had played for so many years in the futures level. Once I knew my game had improved, I had decided that I should try to play at the higher level. The future titles just happened but I had decided irrespective. I was more experienced as well.

I felt it was time for me to compete at the Challenger level. I felt I had the game now to compete and stay at that level. However, I was running all these really good players very close but was just not able to close it out. It was a block that probably I had to remove. I knew I could beat / compete with them but to execute it, I couldn’t do it at that time.

When I was playing at the German Club, I generally like to explore new places, experience the culture and try out the new events. For every player, the dream is to play on the big stage, the ATP Tour events. These 3 events were in my range and I decided there was nothing to lose – if I did well then I would have graduated from the Futures and if not, there was nothing to lose.

Then in Pune, you had the wins against Arthur De Greef (#113) and Somdev Devvarman. You almost won against Evgeny (#65), who is one of the few who has defeated Federer in the past couple of years. Winning against Somdev must have been huge as he was THE player / icon in Indian Tennis whom everyone looked up to. Must have been a special event for you.

We had basically grown up together before he took the US College path. I know him well personally and on the court as well. I don’t think I have ever beaten him before – be it in practice or juniors or mens tennis. When I had played him, he had already achieved greatness and was India’s best player. I just took the same approach as before and tried to focus on my tennis.

Somdev was not coming off of good form and did not have the results that one would expect, so I knew his confidence would be a bit down. During the match, mentally I could see that this was not the Somdev I knew and there was something missing. That gave me a bit of confidence and I am glad that I was able to pull it off. I had been in these sort of situations before against very good players but could not close it off in the past.  I knew Somdev was not 100% mentally and that I had the match under control but still based on the past experiences with other good players, it was important that I close it off.

The next thing I knew coming back into the locker room was that if I could beat the best (or one of the best) player in the event then all the others would also be the same. So I got that confidence from that win. Unfortunately, I lost the next match but if I could look back, there was nothing more I could have done. I played my best tennis there and probably few points here and there. Mentally, I was focused and it was one of those matches where somebody had to lose but you feel satisfied.

You are having a great run in doubles – Vietnam Challenger win with Saketh and now the 3 titles with Arjun. You are also at a career high of 221. Is the path of becoming a doubles specialist a possibility for you?

I wouldn’t say doubles is a priority right now. However, if you look at it, all the guys I used to play with have now prioritized doubles – Balaji, Vishnu, Jeevan and others. Its from every person’s point of view on what you want to do with your career. I still feel I can do well in singles. I am physically there, mentally feel good but I am doing well in doubles and so am not going to ignore it. I am close to the top-200 in doubles which is a big deal. I am not there yet to make it a higher priority than singles but still with the ranking, I can play the Challengers only. So I will focus on both but will ensure during my scheduling that I keep an eye on the doubles partner and the possibilities as well. Getting to a career high close to top-200 and letting it go down does not make sense as well.

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There are so many ITF/ATP events happening week-in and week-out. How do you plan out your schedule? What are some variables that you factor in while making these decisions. Where does finding a suitable doubles partner fit into the mix? How easy/difficult for a player to find doubles partners on the tour (especially outside India)

The ideal scenario is having a fixed doubles partner for a certain period of time. I played with Saketh. Saketh used to play earlier with Sanam. When Jeevan moved onto the next level, I was left out in terms of the partners I could play with. Recently I partnered with Arjun to win the 3 Futures titles but he has just come back from college and he is focusing more on singles at the moment.

Saketh has been a bit unfortunate with all the injuries and is just coming back. If he is injury free, then it will be nice to play a few challengers together because both of us, quite a few times, are scheduled to play the same challenger events.  It was always good to play with one person for a consistent period of time.

The other factors that I look into while scheduling are entries, ask players for doubles and I get offers as well from foreigners. I have to be smart with my spending as well  – we are all more mature and need to be more considerate on budget. Most of the challenger events offer hospitality and food which makes it easier.

What are the best parts of life on the tour? What do you dislike?

I like to travel to new places, new clubs, new courts, new cultures and so on. Even if it was not for tennis, I would have liked it. Ironically, after 10-12 years, the traveling part has become really monotonous. If I had a fast-forward button for the travel (traveling from place to another) part, I would press it all the time.

If I had any more dislikes, I wouldn’t have been in this profession. I also meet the upcoming players, share my experience with them – thankfully there are also a few of us from Tamil Nadu on the tour now. Though we are very competitive on the court, we are all very close to each other off the court, support each other and enjoy each other’s company.  

You have been known to be living life out of a suitcase on the tour, almost like a nomad.

  • Any pleasant experiences where strangers/relatively unknown showered you with love / support that you just can’t forget

To cut down costs, I used to stay in AirBnB and most of them were not much into sport. They used to be pleasantly surprised that I am a professional tennis player and couple of them had even come to watch me play. Those are the things I loved while traveling in Europe.

In England, I had stayed with a bunch of students. They ended up cooking for me. They had house parties every day. They were fascinated that I was a Tennis player and used to ask me about the stories on the tour. In India, it used to be a not-so-positive experience and used to meet with lot of skepticism. When I traveled, almost every AirBnB stay, used to be an experience. I used to cook Indian Food and share with them and they would in-turn share the specialities from their culture. I really developed friendships over there and they invite me now to their place when I am traveling to that region. So my stays via AirBnB have been very enriching and pleasant so far with each being distinct in itself.

  • Experiences where you really had to struggle while playing in the clubs / futures

When I was started playing, we used to play the Satellites back then. It was in NTA, Gurgaon. It was 40 mins away from the city. The only place where the players could stay was the bunk beds in the academy. There was nothing in the vicinity – one had to drive 30-40 mins to Gurgaon to get anything. We must have played about 3 events of Satellites over there. Even though I made my ATP points over there but trust me, we had nothing to do because we didn’t have any other option. Being in one place, no TV, no Internet, no connection, no sign of life nearby – we were just stuck in one place doing nothing when not playing Tennis. If it was one week, it would have been fine but 3 weeks was really tough.

It was my first year in Pro Tennis, so I can’t really complain but looking back it was an experience.

Tennis is a very expensive sport. How have you managed your funding so far? Any sponsors that have played a crucial role in your career? Impact of the Championship Development Scheme – SDAT.

I was taken into Championship Development Scheme – I am given Rs 1 Lakh per year which I can use for my equipment and for my travel for Tennis. Its not a lot but it is still a decent amount and I have the freedom to plan and use this amount wisely. I could make my travel outside India and plan my things with this amount.

Additionally, I had a friend of friend’s brother who helped me out once for 6 months. He was very keen to help me out and appreciate the support I received from him.

Apart from that, I did not receive any other support.

Given your extensive association with Germany, what could be some of the improvements that can be made to our structure or the way associations / clubs function that could raise the standard of Tennis in India.

Once I went to Germany, I was amazed by the number of tourneys that were happening. It was not the federation but the local bodies who were organizing prize money events and the players would turn up and play. Lot of tennis players there choose not to play professionally as they have around 50 prize money events a year. Some events have 2,500 Euros for the winner and some other higher category events have upto 10,000 Euros as prize money. There are also 2-3 days tournaments where you can make about 700 Euros per event. So there are players who play 4-5 events per month and make about 3,000 Euros. That’s almost equal to a well paying job. In addition, they can play for the clubs.

In India, we have lot of Junior events but there are not many prize money events in terms of Futures or AITA events. Right now, to survive in India, either you have to come from a sound financial background or give up everything financially to survive on the tour. So these are 2 ends of the spectrum. There is no option like in Germany, where even if I do not make it big on the Pro tour, I could still live on my dream of Tennis. Frankly it does not need to be the National Federation. If every academy could take the initiative to organize 1 prize-money event, we would have more than 100 tourneys.

There also needs to be lot more involvement of the associations in Junior tennis. When I see kids in the Europe, by the time they are 13, they decide to play Tennis professionally. They play till the age of about 19 and decide on the future path based on how they have progressed till then. If things did not work, they can still go back to Professional education. In India, Education is the priority which is good but we could have a better balance.

Additionally, each state association in general needs to have a vision on how we have this conveyor belt which keeps churning out quality players at the grass root level, some of whom may turn out to be successful professionally.

Any young talents from Tamil Nadu that we should watch out for.

Players like Manish Sureshkumar and Abhinav Shanmugham have started to perform well. I believe they have the right game to transition to the Pro tour and we are willing to guide them on whatever is needed to enable them to succeed.

There are few other talented players as well but these are the two with the ranking points at the moment. Hopefully Tamil Nadu will keep churning out more quality players.

If you had to change anything during your formative years, what would that be?

I believe whatever has happened, has happened for the best. Maybe I would preferred to have gone to the US College because that was the period where I didn’t know what to do and I was lost.

You have for a long time stated that playing Davis Cup as one of your goals – so representing India and winning medals in the SAF Games and Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (in Turkmenistan in 2017) must have been special.

I love team events. Tennis is a lonely sport. You represent your country, go together as a group and cheer for each other, win laurels for the country.

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Vijay Sundar Prashanth at the World Indoor Games in Turkmenistan

Views on the ITF Transition Tour and the impact of it on the players (especially players who don’t always make the Challenger circuit)

I haven’t figured out yet how it works. We have a vague picture of it. They say top-750 players will be competing at the Challenger level. We don’t know how they will select those players. From what I know, they still haven’t finalized the approach yet. From the outside, it looks like there will only be certain players who can keep playing the challengers. Additionally, we would have the best players from the ITF transition tour playing the challengers. The rest, would have to keep playing the Transition tour events.

We have to wait and see how it pans out.

Rapid Fire

What do you do in your free time? Watch and play Football. Like to travel – fortunately, it happens with my profession
Dream Mixed Doubles Partner Sania Mirza
Favorite German Food + Indian Food German – Doner Kebab

Indian – Idli

Favorite Surface Clay
Favorite Actor (Tamil, Non-Tamil) Rajinikanth, Tom Hanks
Favorite city you’ve been to and why? Sweden – Very clean, neat and people were friendly. Very scenic too.
A place / country that you haven’t been to, but would like to visit United States
Best win of your career Somdev Devvarman
A loss that hurt you the most Delhi Challenger in 2015 – Nikola Mektic. Lost to him in 3 tie-breaks. I felt really bad and had to lock myself for few hours after that.
Best friends on tour Many, especially all the Tamil Nadu boys
If you had to choose another profession, what would that be? Footballer
Your nickname on the tour Terminator – Because they think I am fit, not too sure myself though
Racquet that you use

Babolat Aeroport

 

One comment

  1. Amazing… so much goes on in the life of a Pro Tennis player but we get to mostly see only details about lives of Federer & Nadal… Great interview; I now have more respect for Pro tennis players from India. Hope our associations and local clubs/bodies will have much more local tournaments with prize money. Its better to have a larger tennis playing community than to have one or two world class players.

    Like

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