By – Udit Sehgal(@cricketics), 26th August, 2018
Abhijeet Tiwari is a name that only those deeply invested in Indian Tennis would be familiar with. Abhijeet hails from Chhattisgarh and was a professional player until a few years back, with a career high ATP Ranking of around 1100, apart from being a Top 200 ITF Juniors player, before he quit playing and got involved with coaching.
He’s been the coach of Divij Sharan, our very own ATP Top 40 doubles player, who recently won the Asian Games Men’s Doubles Gold Medal playing alongside Rohan Bopanna. Divij has been having a great season on the tour as well, having made the QF at Wimbledon a month or so back.
Udit Sehgal from our team caught up with him during the ATP 500 Citi Open in Washington, where he was accompanying Divij as his coach.
Abhijeet with Divij
How did your journey as a player begin? Raipur does not have as much of tennis history.
My journey began in a smaller town called Jagdalpur. My dad is a sports enthusiast, and he plays many sports to date. In the summer of 1998 and 2000, he used to take me to the Bastar Club in Jagdalpur to watch and play tennis. I started tennis when I was eight years old. The first place where I went for professional training was in Chennai at Krishnan Tennis Centre (KTC). Then I moved to Pune to train with Nandan Bal in 2002. Then I moved back to Chennai to train with Meenakshi Sundaram in 2005 and then moved to the United States for some time. After coming back from the United States, I was training with Adhitya Sachdeva in New Delhi. Soon after I went to train with Paul Dale in Bangkok. Paul Dale helped me a lot when I was a player and even inspired me to become a professional tennis coach.
You were one of India’s best junior tennis athletes. You had very close matches against players like Sriram Balaji, Yuki Bhambri, and others. How was your experience on the Indian Junior Circuit?
Playing Juniors was always fun in India. We had a very good and competitive group in Juniors. In Juniors national events I had encounters with Sriram Balaji, Yuki Bhambri, Vijayant Malik, Prajnesh and many more from similar age group. I feel very lucky myself because I have played in so many different academies that I was able to have a lot of friends. Most importantly, Juniors was very memorable to me because of different kinds of memories that include success, failure, as well as the fun of traveling with friends to tournaments.
You had a few years on the ITF Pro Circuit but were not able to translate the Jr Success onto the Pro Tour – What is your take on it?
The transition from Juniors to Men’s tennis is not an easy thing. I was probably not mentally strong enough. My parents and coaches supported me a lot to go through the hurdle, but I couldn’t cross the mental barrier. Maybe in the planning of tournaments, I could have planned a few more men’s tournaments when I was 16 and 17 years old. That would have given me an opportunity to win few matches in junior to regain my confidence which I lost because of losing matches in men’s level. There was a series of more than 15 matches that I had lost in a row and that happened three years in a row. Even though I felt my tennis was fine, but not winning match broke my spirit as a player. My ATP ranking was around 1100-1300 for three years in a row (not very encouraging). Maybe planning of tournaments could have changed few things.
Abhijeet during his playing days
How did your journey into the role of a coach come about? Did you have to do any preparatory work towards the same?
Absolutely! As soon as I thought of becoming of a professional tennis coach only two people came into my mind Alok Tiwari (my dad/coach) and Paul Dale (my coach). My dad is a visionary, and he was able to connect sports to different aspects of science which a coach usually doesn’t have. Dad’s ideas inspired me to pursue my education in sports science. Paul Dale is one of the coaches I admire and his coaching philosophies. Paul Dale’s tennis teaching concepts were very appealing to me, so I went to learn professional tennis coaching from him. On and off I spent two years with Paul Dale learning how to become a coach. In July of 2014, I requested Aditya Sachdeva (my former coach) to give me a chance to be a coach in his TEAM TENNIS Academy. Adi sir agreed for me to work in his Academy and hence to begin my coaching career in August 2014.
Can you share a bit more detail into your involvement with the University of Southern Mississippi as the Asst. Tennis Coach?
As an asst. coach of the men’s tennis my responsibilities is to take care of the on-court development of all of our athletes. Their technical, tactical mental and physical training and their planning. And one of the biggest reasons for me being able to fulfill my responsibilities effectively is the head coach of the men’s tennis team Zubin Engineer. Zubin has analyzed my strength as a coach and used it at its potential. He keeps me off the boring paperwork because that’s what I am weak at and he lets me handle things that I am good at.
You are also a student yourself at the University – what are you focusing on regarding Uni Education right now?
I am pursuing Sports Coaching Education Major over at the University of Southern Mississippi. The main reason I went to the university was that of my dad’s insight. My dad says to be a world class tennis coach “You either need 40 years of professional coaching experience or four years of good education and knowledge. Which one will you pick?” So, I decided on four years of good education and knowledge (laughs). I didn’t want to wait for 40 years to reach the same point. Some of the subjects I am learning are Kinesiotherapy, Rehabilitation, Biomechanics in tennis, Sports Psychology, and Sports Nutrition.
How did your involvement with Divij begin?
As I mentioned earlier, I was working at TEAM TENNIS Academy in New Delhi. Divij trains there when he came to New Delhi. That is how I got to work with Divij.
Your initial assessment on Divij when you started working with him as a coach?
So honestly speaking, I did learn a lot from Divij on the first go. He was a professional doubles player when we started working, and I was a singles coach. I had to learn a lot of things from him. He helps you when needed. He understands that not many coaches in the world know how to handle doubles stuff in the beginning. He did help me out over there. And slowly-slowly when we got to work together, that is when things got better for us.
Any specific areas of Divij’s game that you are working on during this hard-court season?
Every new season we enter we have few adjustments to make. Divij’s returns and the net game has always been his strength so usually going onto the hard-court season we don’t have to make too many adjustments. Maybe add a few more things in his groundstrokes.
Divij has been playing with different partners on a regular basis. How tough is it to you from a coach’s perspective? The strengths/weaknesses of the partners play a huge role – how do you work around this uncertainty?
We have constantly been trying to find that one player who can set with us, but as you see most of the teams to make these kinds of changes to reach top level but as we speak, they have been changing different partners. Most probably for a coach it is a very dicey situation, but it is also very positive thing because it reveals what all Divij needs to work on and how he can support a different kind of player and how he can support a different kind of player on a different strength basis. Usually, when we train a player who must play with so many different partners, we train the player to be good at all four positions individually. 1. Server, 2. Server’s partner, 3. Returner, 4. Returner’s partner. We divide doubles tennis into four aspects. As a coach, we try to improve a player in these aspects separately, and this elevates the level of a player’s game as a whole.
As Divij looks to make the jump into the Master’s and higher category events, where do you think he needs to improve further, to ease the transition?
Most of the people would also say what I am going to say basically – he has a lot of good potential in his serves. He is amazing at the nets, and he takes care of things well at the nets. So, I am looking into his service as of now. So, maybe would be my concern.
You are one of the youngest Pro Tour coaches out there? You might not have many colleagues in the same age bracket – Pros/Cons of that so far?
Cons – initially players in the locker room use to think that I am just roaming around until they saw me quite a few times.
Pros – since they think that I am roaming around, I can scout so many people that they don’t know (laughs).
Usually, players never think that I am a coach because most of the players are older than me, but I have been traveling for a while now, and everyone in the circuit knows me. People would think I was a hitting partner or something like that. But I never take those things like an offense. It is always more exciting to be the youngest coach traveling and helping players at this level. I am lucky to have this opportunity.
What is the camaraderie that you share with the other coaches out there? Any good friends/contacts?
I do talk to a lot of coaches and learn from them a lot because there are so many experienced coaches out there. As I mentioned earlier, we need 40 years of experiences to be a world class coach. I always try to look for opportunities where I can work with one of the experienced coaches so that I could get some pointers. I am friends with some world class coaches like Nick (Aljaz Bedene’s coach) Jose Luis Aparisi (Guillermo Garcia-Lopez’s coach).
Abhijeet with the U18 Adidas Nationals RU Title
You are known to have a keen eye for Photography. How do you juggle your hobby with your work? Any specific genre of Photography that interests you the most?
Photography is a very important part of my life. It helps me relax from all the work I do otherwise. I am involved in all kinds of photography, but I prefer nature portrait photography to be specific. I have been interested in clicking birds’ portraits. My bird photography caught the attention of Shri Shekhar Dutt Ji (former Governor of Chhattisgarh), and he had decorated Governor’s house of Chhattisgarh by many of my bird’s photos. I had also given my photos to some of the forest department parks in Raipur for decoration and education.
A FEW NOTES FROM ABHIJEET HIMSELF –
My tennis career would not have been successful without my supporters and sponsors. At the beginning of my tennis career, Shri Vivek Dhand uncle and Shri Sanjay Shukla uncle brought tennis racquet to my hands when I was eight years old (Jagdalpur). Dr. Raman Singh uncle (Chief Minister C.G.) has been unconditional support throughout my tennis career and beyond. Soon after Shri Anup Bhalla uncle also started supporting my tennis career. Special thanks to Shri Vikram Singh Sisodia, Dr. K Subramaniyam, S. K. S. Ispat, Jindal Group, Orissa Concrete (Pramod Agarwal), and Indian Oil Corporation Ltd for supporting and shaping my tennis.
Indian tennis is doing great recently. If we compare Indian tennis situation from 15 years ago, there is a substantial development in the number of players playing at the highest level in doubles as well as singles. Credit goes to Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi who set very high standards for all the upcoming stars. Since then India has been producing a lot of world-class tennis players. Since tennis was becoming big India, some of the potential tennis players were receiving scholarships and awards from the government. Since tennis is an individual sport, it can be very expensive as well. So, some of the potential tennis players getting government help has made a huge difference in the Indian Tennis.
In India, if I had to point out one thing that can make a big difference that would be coaching standards. Everyone in India complains about improving infrastructure in India, but I beg to differ. In my opinion, every tennis court has a potential of 4 player occupancy, that means if India has 100000 courts then India should have at least 400000 professional players training. But unfortunately, that is not the case yet. I think the biggest scope for improvement is in coaching standards and the education of coaches in India. India lacks in passionate coaches. As of now, a majority of Indian coaches are working as coaches because they couldn’t get any other jobs (bitter truth). India needs professional coaches who are passionate about what they are doing. If you see all the Indian tennis players performing past ten years, they have been based outside India. The only reason is educated coaches. Indian tennis has so much potential; we have to channelize the potential in the right direction. If we all work together as a team and educate coaches, then a lot can change. We can have several professional groups like Sports Psychologist, Sports Nutritionist, Professional coaches, Traveling coaches, Specific physiotherapist, Specific athletic trainer, etc. If professional athletes get professional help from such a group, then there is a good chance that the athlete will reach its potential. Going back to my older number, if we maximize our tennis court strength up to 400000 and provide them the professional help to maximize their potential, we will have a lot more player playing Grand Slams.
You guys at Indian Tennis Daily are doing an amazing job. And Indian media has taken Tennis and made from nothing to into something on the map. In a country like India, its impossible to know anything in front of Cricket. But if someone is taking care, it is you guys because it’s impossible to know Tennis without you guys.
You must keep posting things, and If possible, keep posting positive things out there instead of negatives. I see so many posts from different news outlets out there which isn’t helping Indian tennis often as they are trying to find controversies over controversies. That does a good job in grabbing attention but that harms the people who are playing the sport. It is good for the people because it is a masala, but it is not good for the players. They are struggling with it, and I have seen a lot of players who are thinking about that masala in the middle of the match and rather than thinking of how to win the match, they are thinking about how I shouldn’t get into any new controversy. And they have lost matches because of that. So, I will suggest every other media outlet if you guys can put out positive things from time to time. If you saw ten years ago, how many Indian players we had on the ATP tour like this. Now we see plenty of players in different parts of the world competing in different events. I am so proud of all these guys. I am so happy that I can be part of all of this and can also help them in their journey. So, it is amazing, and you guys are helping us, and I appreciate that.
Rapid Fire –
|Racquet You Use||Head Prestige|
|Favorite Actor||Akshay Kumar|
|Favorite Food||Mom’s Aloo Paratha|
|Hobbies||Driving luxury cars|
|Most memorable win of your career||As a coach – R2 of Wimbledon. Divij came back from 2 sets to love down
As a player – U18 Fenesta Nationals. I beat Christopher Marquis 7-6 in the 3rd set
|A place that you haven’t been to and would like to visit?||Mauritius|
|Favorite Song||Ajeeb Daastan Hain Yeh by Lata Ji|
|If you hadn’t been a tennis player, you would have been a?||Photographer|
|Most unforgettable travel experience||In Morocco. I almost died there. I was hungry at 11 PM and went down when I shouldn’t have. I got into a huge mess|