By Sufyan Ibrahim, 21st October 2018.
Just a few months ago, Akanksha Bhan was the top-ranked junior girl of India. With a modest career-high combined ranking of 110, Akanksha has won 3 singles and 1 doubles titles on the ITF Juniors Circuit, with plenty other finals. She has also been the sole representative of our country in the juniors girls section at the Slams this year, playing her first Slam at the Australian Open, and qualifying into the main draw!
She decided to choose the path, not quite often opted by most other Indian girls via The US College Tennis. And as one would have anticipated, the results have already started to transcend at this level! Indian Tennis Daily got the opportunity to interview Akanksha who has already started her ascent in the US Collegiate Tennis Circuit.
Performance highlights of Akanksha in this Fall Season at the US College Tennis:– Columbia Invitational: Flight A winner against Harvard.
– Cissie Leary at University of Pennsylvania: Doubles Flight A winner.
– All-American at Pepperdine: Doubles final round of prequalifiers.
– ITA Regionals: Singles quarterfinalist against top seed from St. John’s;
Doubles quarterfinalist against ultimate winning team from Syracuse.Her doubles partner for all of these tournaments has been – Paulina Ferrari from San Diego, California
Q) When did you start playing Tennis and what got yourself interested to play it?
I started playing at the age of seven, and I was actually inspired by my elder sister, Divya Bhan, who also used to play it internationally. It has been eleven years now since I started playing it. I started it off by watching my sister play, and I used to like the game very much. Initially, I used to play it just for fitness, to keep myself active. But then, I loved the game so much. Even if I do not play tennis for a day, I feel like the day hasn’t been completed.
Q) When did you think of making it your profession?
When I was in 10th standard because that was my deciding year. Since I could not drop my studies, I decided that if I did not reach this particular rank by a stipulated time (2015), I will not play tennis at the competitive level, and continue with my studies.
I did pretty well in that year, and later on as well. I think 2017 was my peak year in terms of achievements. So that’s how we decided that we would like to go forward with it.
Q) Who has been your idol/role model growing up (apart from your sister)? Any other source of inspiration that you have had? Biggest influence on your career so far?
Actually everyone in my family. My mother and father have been athletes before. So, there is kind of like, this determination in our genes to keep going. Even my coaches have been really motivating, so my performance was getting better and better, and my graph was only going higher. Serena Williams and Justin Henin have always been my great sources of inspiration.
My coach, Shrimal Bhat, has guided me through all my losses so far. I wasn’t doing that well during the initial years but I always knew that I had the game as an aggressive baseliner, and I had to keep it going to do better during the later stages in the junior circuit. So, I kept working hard.
I have been with Shrimal sir since the very beginning. He has seen me grow up. He knows my game really well. He has guided me through all these years that I have been playing tennis. He always had the confidence and belief in me. Even Devinder sir and my other fitness coaches, whom I have worked with since the very beginning, know exactly what I can do, and which areas I lack at and I need to work on.
At Shaishya Tennis Academy, I train with Bhakti Parwani, who is 2 years junior to me. But I mostly train with the other boys like Dev Javia, Madhwin Kamath, Aman Patel, etc. We also have a hitter to help us, Jay Soni, whom we have hitting sessions with.
Q) If you were to change any aspects of your game or physical conditioning during your formative years, what would that be?
I would not really like to change anything but I would really like to improve my doubles game. I don’t have very impressive W/L record in doubles. But I would not really like to change anything in singles, I think I am doing very well.
Q) From March 2014, till June 2018, you have played many junior events in so many countries. You’ve won multiple titles at various grades. You were pretty consistent at G3 and even G2 level, but probably not so much at G1 events. What difference do you think might have been the reason for this?
I have played around four-to-five G1 events. It is like you are competing against the best in the world. It is really tough to match their power. They can come back from any point in time during the game. You cannot afford to set loose or relax. They are all very strong players. I feel that their training is much harder. They also keep traveling only with their coaches, which surely helps in the analysis of their performances. Traveling with a parent and traveling with a coach makes a lot of difference.
Q) Tell us about your experience at the Australian Open Juniors 2018, where you won two rounds of qualifiers and played against Garland in the main draw. You were even up a break in the first set. Your thoughts reflecting on your first grand slam experience?
Australian Open was a mesmerizing experience for me. The courts were amazing. My main draw court was a bit slow, the qualifiers courts were even slower. So, it was tougher to play longer matches. We worked really hard. Srimal sir made me work really hard even after my qualifying matches based on my game. The strategy was not only to play and disturb the rhythm. But also to hang in there and try as much as I can. The climate was similar to however it is in India, so that did help.
Q) What do you think are the differences in playing on the Indian soil versus elsewhere. Especially on the European dirt? You have played plenty of tournaments there prior to the French Open. How was the experience like?
The Indian clay is not that good. The European clay is pure red dirt, which is more granular, and really slows down the ball. They really have a very high maintenance. It is very tough to get that quality in India. I prefer playing on the hard courts.
(How is the National Circuit in terms of competitiveness?) The National circuit is pretty good though, at par with some of the international events that I played at. But not many play the game as aggressive baseliner. Most of them go for moonballing, and all are good at doubles. I feel like they lack experience. They should play more on the European Circuit and they can be equally competitive, like the top 100 level.
I feel like there aren’t a lot of foreigners coming to play the G4/G5 events in India. Probably India should organize a lot of higher level tournaments, like G1/G2s, if possible. It would really improve the game of those players who cannot travel internationally. But I do also feel that everybody has to have an experience of the European Circuit, which is the most competitive one out there.
(Best friends on tour?) I don’t really talk much. But I know everyone in the top 10, we have all traveled a lot. Like Mahak Jain, Sama Sathwika, Shivani Amineni, Sabhyata Nihalani. I am friends with everyone.
Q) You were the Fenesta Nationals Junior Champion in 2016 (and Runner-Up in 2017) and the Chennai Nationals in 2017. Probably the biggest title of your career defeating some quality players, like Jennifer Luikham. You had some excellent matches. What would you like to say about that?
I played really excellent matches. And some long ones too. Shrimal sir was traveling with me. We worked on my game continuously, including fitness regularly. I was also in a very good form. I hadn’t played quite a lot on the National Circuit but my experience on the ITF Juniors circuit helped me.
(Sponsorship?) I am sponsored by the Sports Authority of Gujarat. I get international funding by them. My equipments are sponsored by Yonex. And Solinco for the strings. My nutrition is also sponsored. Currently, I am sponsored by Adidas too. But I really feel that if I get a corporate sponsor, it’d be more helpful. I think that is the reason why there is a difference between national and international players, we aren’t able to travel a lot more. Probably that is what is lacking in India.
Q) You have accepted to join Columbia University. Can you tell us more about this decision? When did your college start? What factors contributed to making this decision? Did you consult any of the Indian players before?
I came here in the fall. Classes started in September. I had actually not thought about college tennis. But when I went to play G4 event in Hyderabad, I had been approached by a company called AddedSport. And they said that since I was ranked so high, I can be a part of college tennis, which will also help me go pro. So, that is how we thought about going forward with it because we were anyways planning to go abroad for training. We also wanted a combination of tennis and academics both. I am going to study economics here.
When I was going through the colleges, I spoke to the coach of Texas A&M where Rutuja graduated from. I also consulted Rutuja at that time. I even talked to Kanika. We have been in touch, I have been following her and looking at her performances regularly. So that is how I thought that Columbia was a good option. Because she was also ranked in the top 3 nationally as well.
Also, I want to have an educational qualification as well because you never know about a sport, if it does not work out due to any reason, you need to have backup options. Mainly for tennis but education was a requirement too and Columbia is one of the best colleges in the world, and I couldn’t have asked for more.
Q) How prepared are you to balance the rigors of tennis and education at the same time?
I am used to that actually because I have been doing that since the very 1st std, and especially 10th and 12th. Yeah, college is a different life altogether, with different subjects. But I am mentally prepared for it.
Q) What goals have you set for the rest of 2018? And for the first 1-2 years of your college?
I really want to do well in the regionals and try for the Ivy League Conference title. That would be the biggest achievement if as a team we can do that. I want to play in the top 3 spots for the college and qualify for the ITA regionals that they have and do well there too.
Academically I want to maintain a good GPA as well, yeah.
Q) So, when will we see you back in the ITF Pro-Circuit?
I will try to play tournaments in the winter and summer breaks. I will definitely play tournaments, not very sure about this December though.
|What do you do in your free time?||Watch TV, Drawing Reading, etc.|
|Dream Mixed Doubles Partner||Leander Paes|
|Favorite Tournament||Australian Open (& Nationals :P)|
|Favorite Movie||3 Idiots|
|Celebrity Crush||Shah Rukh Khan|
|A place that you haven’t been to and would like to visit?||Iceland|
|A song that has been on loop recently||Lot of them, but “God is a Woman” by Ariana|
|Cricket or football||Cricket: Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni|
|Best win||Chennai Nationals|
|The loss that hurt you the most||AO R1 against Garland|