Interview with Kanika Vaidya

By – Vishnu Reddy, 25th May, 2018

Born in the US, brought up in India and Singapore, studied in the US and associated with a French Academy – Kanika is a global citizen in the true sense. Having burst into the scene as a 13-yr old winning ITF titles, Kanika has many accomplishments in her short career so far – played 2 Junior Grand-slams, studied in the elite IVY league college – Columbia University, had a stand-out record as a student athlete and made it to the top-7 in India & won 5 doubles titles within an year of turning professional. All this despite the numerous injuries which have impacted her career so far.

In this interview, Kanika provides insight into her junior tennis, how she juggled tennis and education, experience of playing the US Open, life at the Columbia Univ as a student athlete, the return to Pro tennis and the success so far. Watch out for the rapid fire at the end.

Photo Courtesy: Columbia University Athletics

How did your journey into Tennis began?

I started playing when I was around 7-9 years old. My father introduced me to Tennis. Initially I played lot of sports like Badminton, Soccer and Swimming. I played my first Tennis tournament when I was 9.5 yrs old and did well. Then I kept playing more tournaments and after a period, my dad said you can’t continue to play so many sports together and that I needed to specialize in one. I chose Tennis and the journey continued from there.

It was in Singapore and it was my dad, who coached my sister and I.

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

I was doing well in the tourneys that I was participating in, so it looked like I had some talent. I didn’t know whether I would make it or not but I wanted to give it my best shot. My parents supported me in this decision and so I am very thankful for that opportunity.

As just a 13-year old, you reached the finals of the ITF Grade V event in Sri Lanka (2008) and won the doubles title with Natasha. This was just your 4th event. Any memories from this feat? Not many achieve this feat as 13-yr olds.

It was a long time ago. I was very nervous coming into the ITFs as it was the new daunting stage. It was only my 4th event. I won the tournament and it gave me the confidence to play well later on.

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Young Kanika Vaidya after the finals in singles. Photo credit: The Sunday Times

You hardly played any Tennis in 2009 after such an impressive start in 2008. Any reasons for the break from the ITF circuit?

I had dislocated my right patella and so had to be away from Tennis for a while.

1st title in Brunei as a 14-year old. You were very dominating and didn’t lose more than 4-5 games in each match

It was actually unexpected. Just a week before, my grandmother had passed away and I was very close to her. I was not sure whether I should go and play this event but my grandfather pushed me to go and play for her. My knee was still sore but I ended up just playing for her. It ended up being a special event as it was my first title and also I was able to win it for my grandmother.

 

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Kanika at the Brunei ITF Junior Event. Photo credit: WordPress

US Open 2012 – Q1 against local girl, great player – Louisa Chirico, turned out to be top-50 and was Jr #6. Grand Slams are the pinnacle for any player. How was your experience with GSs (and earlier Australian Open)?

It was an eye opening experience. The crowd and the atmosphere was great. It was what any young player plays for and I am thankful for that experience. I wish I could have done better but it was not meant to be I guess.

I was coming off from the orientation sessions at my college and I did not get to practice much in the lead-up to the event which likely affected my standard of play. But it is what it is and she was a very good player.

Your sister, Ria Vaidya, is a very talented player herself, after a stop-start career made the top-250 within an year or two and played the Aus Open in 2014. Two questions

How was it to have your sister play on the Tennis Circuit around the same time as you? You both signed up in doubles at one ITF event but gave a walkover 😦

We didn’t end up playing any events together unfortunately. We had signed up to play doubles in one event but I can’t remember who got injured which forced us to give the walkover.

She started playing the ITF events a bit later and quickly got close to the top-250. She could have done better but she had given up Tennis for a while.

Did you get to share the moment as a family at the Aus Open?

Unfortunately, I could not make it as I was already in college by then but we definitely talked about it afterwards.

For a girl who showed so much promise as a 13-yr old. You didn’t quite make the transition into the top-100 in ITF Juniors. What were the hurdles that you ran into?

The main issue was the injuries for me. I used to be injured very often. When I used to play the higher grade Junior events, I used to compete and win quite often against the top-50 and top-20 girls in the world. I just could not maintain it with my body breaking down.

ITF Futures Finals run in Delhi (losing to Ankita Raina, came in as a qualifier) in 2013 before the college path. This run must have boosted your confidence. You were coached by Shivang Mishra, pro tennis player himself. Any changes in your game that drove this run? How did this run play into your college tennis plans?

It was after my freshman year in college. I was training a fair amount, got my fitness up and I had confidence from College tennis as well which contributed overall towards that performance.

What made you take the College Tennis route? What were the tennis and non-tennis goals that you had set for yourself.

It was very clear in my family that no matter what, I had to get a college degree. So college was always expected and never not an option. It was important for me to get a school which is not only good in Sports but very good academically too.

I had quite a few options – from the IVYs to UVA too. I went to all the colleges to visit them. When I went to the Columbia university, the campus itself and the people – it just clicked with me and I knew this was the place, I can be for 4 years.

Getting into an IVY League college is tough and then being there – how difficult was it to manage both Education / Tennis in such an elite institute.

It was definitely very stressful at school. However, during my junior days as well, I was used to managing and sticking to a schedule to do well in my education as well as tennis. So it prepared the ground for me. It wasn’t easy in school but I was able to make it work.

Your sister is also at another IVY league institute. Both of you appear to be extremely disciplined and hard-working.

It was hard. My father made sure that we had completed all the school work before we got onto the tennis courts. School done, matches done, trainings done – it was always a very tight schedule and were made to work such that it worked out.

Did you ever run into UPenn when both of you were in the opposing teams?

Our schools played against each other but we were on different places on the line-up.

With-in the first year or two, your college won the IVYs for the first time – must have been a special occasion for you.

During our conference, each college plays each other and the one with the most wins, wins the title. We shared the title with Yale that year and it was an incredible experience. It was the first time in Columbia’s history to win the title and I was a part of that team, which made it really made it special.

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Photo credits: Columbia University Athletics

You also had a great run in your final year with a 21-1 record, including the big win over Stephanie Wagner (Miami). Only loss was against the prodigy – Danielle Collins. Must have been a special occasion for you.

I wanted to go into the last season at the best state I could in both Tennis as well as Academics. It was a great season and I only lost to Danielle Collins.  I beat a lot of very talented girls as well. On the academic side, I was part of the Dean’s list. It was overall a great semester for me.

Given your experience with College Tennis and the initial goals you had set for yourself – How do you assess from your tennis perspective. What worked well and what could have been better.

The injuries could have been better. There was always a niggle here and there which benched me at time – it could definitely have been better. On the academic side, I probably could have chosen some classes over the other.

Overall at the end of the day, one would learn from these lessons as well.

Having a team really worked well as it is a different experience to play in a team environment with you cheering for your teammates and them cheering for you.

The college experience helped me in doubles especially. Our assistant coach was from UCLA and she was approximately #70 in Doubles on the WTA Tour. She taught me a lot and that really helped my game.

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Photo Courtesy: Columbia University Athletics

You had taken your penultimate semester off to prepare yourself for the upcoming Pro tour / IVY League Championship. Based on that stint, how did you feel your game stacked up and any specific aspects that you worked on over the next year?

I was a bit nervous going in as I was away at college while most of the girls on the tour had been playing regularly there. I did quite well in the events that I played. In Navi Mumbai, I got a wild card and won against Nina Stojanovic and she was ranked around the top-200 around that time. It was a great win and gave me lot of confidence to transition to the tour.

End of the day, college tennis and the tour is really very different. There is no team around you, one has to start off from the scratch again, travel from country to the other, live out of the suitcase and so on. So that transition is very important.

As an IVY league graduate, you would have plenty of options in front of you. What made you come back to Tennis?

I always wanted to go to Pro and give it the best shot. It was nice of my parents to support me in this endeavour. It is quite a nice thing to have a college degree, go on tour and sometime down the line when Tennis does stop, I have the option to use my college degree and get a good job. It is a very nice fact to have at the back of my mind knowing that I have a college degree.

You had a rough re-entry onto the Pro tour and you also could not play much due to an injury. Can you shed a bit of light into what caused the injury and how was your rehabilitation program.

Unfortunately, I had tendonitis in my wrist which then went to my elbow and the shoulder. It kept spreading. I tried playing but it got so bad that I couldn’t even open the bottles anymore using my wrist. So holding the racquet was very painful. I was hoping to get back to the tour and the injury kept pulling me back even further. It was very hard mentally, physically and emotionally. Then to keep pushing through it, doing the rehab and hoping that you will be able to get back to Tennis again. The loss of confidence from this had also impacted things fair amount.

Things started to pick up again from last October and I have been doing a bit better, so I am thankful for that.

Over the last 8-9 months, you have had 5 Semis appearances (singles) on the ITF Tour with tough losses against the likes of Tereza and other top-450 players. How do you feel your game is shaping up and specific areas that you are focusing on?

I think everything can improve in every aspect of the game as one is never perfect. The improvements we have been making in my fitness, the shot-making and the little finer enhancements have started showing in my game. This has definitely contributed to the SF appearances listed. It would be better if I could cross the semis barrier and make it to the finals like I did in Delhi a few years ago.

During the same time-frame, you have won about 6 doubles titles. Does doubles naturally to you? What has been the impact of your College coach?

I think the college experience has definitely helped. During my Junior days, doubles was not my strong point. I think once I understood how doubles works and the key aspects around it, it helped me adjust my game. I was able to bring those learnings with me onto the tour and I think that has really helped me succeed in doubles so far.

You are associated with Smash It Tennis Center based in France. What drove this association? Who are the key people from the academy supporting you in this journey?

I travel with two of the coaches, Sebastian and Thomas depending on who is free to travel week to week. I have known Sebastien since I was about 16 yrs old. I needed someone to travel with me and my dad couldn’t do it anymore. I also have a younger sister (8.5 yrs old) and my dad works with her a lot more now. In Singapore, I have not really had any luck with my training. I hit with couple of guys over here (Singapore) but I get no training done in my place as such.

My Dad spoke to Sebastian about traveling and things worked out. Both Sebastian and Thomas are great coaches and really nice guys. I went to their academy in Paris, France and it has a very nice atmosphere and personalized training. I was there for 2 weeks in February and I really enjoyed it. I can’t really complain, I have been enjoying it so far.
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Kanika with coach Seb’ after being finalist at ITF Egypt in October 2017. Photo credit: Smash It Tennis Center

Out of the 20 doubles events since June 2017, you have played with 13 different partners. How difficult / easy it is to find double partners on the tour.

Sometimes it is bit easier than others. Depends on if you know the players before or not. When you message them on Facebook, you hope they check and respond to the message. It is chaotic at times to get things done.

It gets easier after sometime when you had few wins, the girls know you and after you’ve slowly established yourself on the tour.

You have won the most with Rutuja (4) and then Linnea (SWE). As Rutuja has also played US College Tennis, did that help in knowing each other better and complementing each others game?

I think it definitely did help. Having played on the college tour, we knew the formations and the signs on the doubles court. The formations and the signs usually happen more at the higher level and not the $15k and $25K events. It clicked for us much faster as we understood each other and were able to put things together much better.

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Kanika Vaidya and Rutuja Bhosale after winning the doubles title in Egypt in July 2017. Photo Credit: Sportstar

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

Enjoy winning when it happens. Like to see new places. Always hard to live on a suitcase, facing the grind of regular victories/losses and being away from family all affect you mentally a bit.

This experience teaches you a lot, so I can’t complain too much.

You are an Indian, born in the US, living in Singapore and training in France. Truly a global citizen. How has that influenced your perspective as a person and life as a Tennis player?

I don’t think my level of Tennis got impacted as much, as Tennis was one of the reasons, I was a global citizen. When it comes to adapting to different situations / cultures, it definitely helps a bit as I am able to grasp the context a bit easier during conversations / engage with people from different nationalities. Being an Indian, I have the Indian values and beliefs as my Parents instilled them in me and I had grown up a bit in India.

Singapore is very diverse and it has people from everywhere. I was born in the States and went to college there as well. So I am lucky to have this global mindset built into me.

Your daily routines. Some of the routines that you would not like to miss even on holiday?

Its my rehab. I do at least an hour and a half of it every day as you don’t want to miss out on tour due to the injuries again. So I am always on top of that now.  

If you had to change any aspects of your approach to Tennis / Physical conditioning during your formative years? What would that be?

I would have focused more on getting strong and being fast. Tennis will come but early on, getting that strong physical base really helps.

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? You appear to have recently secured sponsorship from Bidi Badu.

I was involved with Babolat for a while and also with Wilson for my racquets. When I was in college, everything got paid for me as I was playing Tennis for my college. I never really had a big sponsor as such.

In terms of my travel and stay, my parents have been funding me for that. So I am very grateful to them to both afford and allow me to do it.

Given your association with both Singapore and Indian Tennis. What are some of the obvious differences in the setup in both the places.  

I hadn’t really trained in India as much, so can’t really comment there. In Singapore, Sports is played in more of a social setting, not much professionally. So I struggle to find players to play with who are at the same level as me. That’s not ideal but it is what it is.

Views on the ITF Transition Tour and the impact of it on the players

I did go through it but not in detail. I guess anyone ranked within the top-750 is WTA and outside of that, is the Transition tour. $25Ks are where the WTA events start and the $15Ks go to the Transition tour. Lot of little rules around it as well.

I understand the theory behind it and it makes sense. After the scrapping of the $10Ks and now the $15Ks, it is not comforting that it just gets harder and harder to actually play Tennis.

Advice for new players entering the college scene in general on how to approach their tennis career. Akanksha is joining the same college this year.

One big thing is to listen to your body as you are playing most of your matches on the weekends after doing the course work during the weekdays. It gets very tiring.

Another very important piece is to manage your time.

Goals for the rest of the year.

Main goal is to stay healthy. Secondary part is to participate in as many higher category events as possible and do well in them. The full schedule is not out yet, which is a bit frustrating.

I am lucky this time as we have 2 $25ks in Singapore for the first time, in June. It will be cool to play at home and I am looking forward to them.  

Rapid Fire

What do you do in your free time? Reading, Baking and Cooking
Favorite Author Jeffrey Archer
Dream Mixed Doubles Partner Del Potro -, first player to have come to my mind, so will go with him.
Favorite Cuisine / Food Indian and Thai. Lot of dishes, hard to name.
Favorite Surface Hard. If Grass was more common then probably Grass too but only played there once.
Favorite Tournament Bahrain – very well put together and organized. It was my first time there as well.
Favorite Sport / Fav player I play sports. I watch sports in general but don’t follow them in a cult way as such.
Favorite country you’ve been to and why? Italy – really enjoyed my experience there. Weather was beautiful, people were nice and the food was great too.
A place / country that you haven’t been to, but would like to visit Maldives and Greece
The song that’s been on loop for you recently Between Machika, O’Child and Love Life
Best win of your career Win against Nina Stojanovic
A loss that hurt you the most All my losses and Semis in general.
Best friends on tour Have lot of really good friends.
If you had to choose another profession, what would that be? Want to work for Nike or Adidas. Basically a Sports company on the brand management side.
Your nickname Kani – In college, everyone called me that and still do
Racquet that you use Wilson Burn 100
Most unforgettable travel experience Stopped a train in Bhopal, on its way to Gwalior! They managed to stop it for me.

 

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