Interview by Gautam Belday – December 23, 2018
In the early 2000s, Indian Tennis woke up to a phenomenon called the Uberoi Sisters. Along with sister Shikha, Neha made giant strides over a period of 2-3 years to rise to #107 in doubles and top-200 in singles.
In this part II, Neha shares her journey on the Pro tour, the success with her sister Shikha Uberoi, the tough and lonely journey that followed leading to her quitting the game at age #22.
This is part 2 of the interview. Read the other parts here
Your first WTA event was in Hyderabad in 2004. How was the overall experience? You also had to face Shikha in the final qualification.
Playing in India was so much fun. I love to play in front of my people. Indian crowds don’t give a damn. They are screaming and shouting for you. They just want to see a desi to do well. When South Asians come and watch me in the States or wherever, I get so pumped up. I know what it feels like to see another person out there, another person who is like you and what a fun time we had. In Hyderabad and then later Kolkata.
I don’t remember playing against my sister. Shikha didi and I put our best out there when we played each other. We have fun and we love competing against each other and it is always hard to play her. We had one or two very good battles. Most of them were not. It’s hard, lot of emotions, she is my training and doubles partner and it’s hard to separate that.
The next year, you reached two back-to-back WTA Doubles finals with Shikha against solid set of teams. Can you take us through that phase?
Shikha and I were the most hot and cold doubles team ever. We would lose first round to like nobody or we would get to finals and win tournaments. There was no in between for us. That was very frustrating for us. What are we doing? We were starting on the tour but we thought by year 3 we should have had it all built out. But that’s not the case. We were still understanding.
Working together was fun, irritating, challenging. We had to figure out who was leading, driving. She was older to me. Both of us being reminded of all the times we lost together, compounds. We bring memories of all the matches we played together. It was also such a you playing with her. For a while it wasn’t working. The highs and lows reflected in our results I think. The two back to back was so much fun. We also went to China and got to the finals there. It clicked for us there. As to what our strategy was. I know that we had a good flow going and we were not second guessing ourselves. The energy carries you through.
Across your Junior / Pro tour, you had reached so many singles / doubles finals but couldn’t convert many of them. To your credit, you mostly played the toughest events. What do you attribute this title drought to? If you were given a chance again to be in those situations, what would you do differently (during the match or leading up to them)
That haunted me for a while. I went to so many finals and I lost some to my sister. What’s wrong with me? Why am I not winning? Then I said, it is tennis. If I add meaning to the results, I would be sinking deeper and deeper into a hole. All I kept telling is that it hasn’t happened yet. That’s all. Got close. Mauresmo hasn’t won Wimbledon and then she won it after so many tries. It happens to some people. Whether it is mental or not, I can’t say. I don’t think it was not mental. There aren’t enough finals to see a pattern but it used to haunt me.
Tennis is a very expensive sport. What role did your family play in your overall tennis development?
My father was an entrepreneur and a businessman. We are very fortunate for him to back our entire tennis career. We didn’t need outside funding. It’s an extremely expensive sport and especially as you become better, the coaches charge more and you are traveling all around the world for two players, meals, hotels, coaches, fitness coaches. It’s an extremely costly endeavor. The money that we raise for startups – it’s that kind of money. Big money. And we are fortunate that our father was able to support us throughout our career. I know that’s not true for a lot of players but we had access to the best of the best.
If you are going to do it, you have to do it that way. Otherwise, there’s always something lacking. My Father – I have to give him all the credit. He’s the one who had the vision. I don’t want my kids to just watch the sport. I want them to be in the sport. I want them to be at the US Open, to be at the Ashe stadium. Especially with the immigrant mentality that we have here, that is unheard of. Everyone wants a doctor, engineer, pharmacist, to get married, have kids. They all want it because it’s a very safe thing. They want to build their lives here. My dad didn’t care a lot about all that. That too with 5 children, it was extremely visionary. You may want to call it crazy and it was met with a lot of resistance even within our own family. Your girls will fail, they won’t go to college, no one will marry them, they are going to get dark playing in the sun etc. Everything and anything that you can think of that comes with an Indian stereotype was thrown at us. But then they showed up at US Open to watch us play, right?
I think the credit or the person that you should really be interviewing for these kind – is my dad. How come you dared when others didn’t? I am so grateful and appreciative for that. I see now being a new mom, the kind of risks you have to take to give your kids to give an opportunity that not many people said that they have. Especially in the Indian community.
I said a lot about my father but my mother is also the backbone for us. She kept consistency in our lives. She was our nutritionist, our massage therapist, our therapist, she was the backbone for us. Had she wavered and said we can’t do this, what are you doing etc. My mother sacrificed a lot as well.
Neha Uberoi with her parents – Madhu and Mahesh Uberoi
If you had to choose a sport all over again, what would you choose?
(Long pause) I think I like Golf a lot. Maybe it’s a sign of me getting older. I really do like individual sports and non-contact sports. I like the mental aspect of it. Just like tennis. You are out there figuring out on your own and you can be a tour player until you are 70. With tennis, the body breaks down. I can start my Golf career at 45. I do like soccer and like to watch it but I am not good at it.
How close are you to your other four sisters? Are you all in touch regularly? Do you all meet often and if so, what are the dining table discussions like? Are they tennis centric?
We are very close. We text all day every day. When one of us is at work. I think Shikha and I had experienced that something. We’ve gone through this journey together and our other sisters haven’t. So the level of understanding that we have with each other and the shared memories and journey that we had is something very unique to just Shikha and I. But I have since leaving tennis and coming out of Tennis, I have been able to form stronger relationships with my sisters, especially my younger ones – twins Nikki and Nimmi. There is an age gap of 7 years but we have fun. My sisters are my best friends. I am very lucky.
We are all over the world. Shikha in India, Diya in Europe, Nimmi in Florida and Nikki in DC, so we are all over. It is usually always one sister missing from the hangout but when I had the baby, they all came out to see. We are busy girls ☺
Neha Uberoi with her sisters and parents – Shikha, Nikita, Nimita and parents – Madhu and Mahesh Uberoi
From what I read, your sisters Nimita and Nikita played for Brown University and I believe Nikita still competes. Does she ask you for your advice? If so, what advice do you give her?
Nikki is on tour. She graduated from Brown and said let me see how long I can take my Tennis. She is doing a little differently than us. She graduated and then playing now. There are a lot of girls doing that now. They played college tennis and now playing on the tour. I am very excited for her. She’s loving it. She wants to give it a shot her way. Of course my dad said whatever you need. She calls and tells me this happened, that happened, and I have been through that but you at the end of the day, you have to experience it for yourself. I am sure she learned a lot from us and how to deal with things but it’s her own personal journey. I don’t get too involved in it. It’s her thing and I am very proud of her.
Neha Uberoi with her sisters – Nikita, Neha herself, Diya, Shikha and Nimita
Agassi and Steffi had mentioned that they don’t want their children to take up tennis because of the rigor that they went through during their playing days. Do you feel that way too? Based on your journey, would you want your child to take up tennis (as a profession)?
I know everyone has been asking me this question. Especially with the US Open going on. They ask me if I am going to put Sahiba in tennis and my answer to that is that I am going to expose my child. I have lived a very very privileged life and I got to see a lot of things. I had access to a lot of things. I want my child to have as much access as she can and Tennis will be a part of that. Whether she chooses to take it further or not is completely in her hands because intrinsic motivation is vital for success in anything you do. If you want to be great and you don’t have a lot of intrinsic motivation, no matter how hard you train, how much money you put in, you are not going to get the same results.
So for me I am very excited to see what my daughter gravitates towards, what her passion will be versus maybe in my case it was dictated for me but in her case, I want it to come from her and I’ll back her in whatever capacity I can. Yes, I would love for my daughter to have great tennis strokes and look like she is the daughter of a tennis player. I think there’s some ego involved in that and I hope she enjoys playing with her mom as she gets older but I have zero expectations. I am just happy right now if she sleeps through the night. Baby steps ☺
What is the experience like playing ITFs overseas vs. the USTA tournament circuit. Which did you prefer and why?
To me USTA pro circuit and ITF pro circuit, there is no different between the two. Some are played abroad and some are played here in the US. I should say the US circuit is very challenging. You have top 50 players playing in USTA pro circuit events. You know, 25k in US are very different than the 25k in Nigeria. And all of people do that. They go to Nigeria and Egypt for 4 or 5 weeks and pick up a lot of points. We didn’t do that. Looking back, maybe I should have done that. We could have got easier points. But we were constantly facing tough opponents. Just starting on the tour. The draw is filled.
In the 25k tournaments, I would bump into players who just played US open. It’s very dense on who is playing the challengers here vs other countries. Europe is challenging too, the red clay. The way I played, I didn’t think I could do well having played and trained on hard courts but I had some pretty good results and battles.
It’s a battle ground. It’s very lonely, is very tough. You are losing every week unless you are winning every tournament. It gets to you mentally. You don’t know the country, the language, and the people. In the female circuit, unfortunately, not everyone is friendly. It’s not that you have a group of friends that you can go to dinner with in the evenings. You are just isolated in your own circle. I didn’t always have Shikha but I did have her and that was a huge asset for me, for my mental health to have her. And then we when we started getting better and playing bigger tournaments, we were less together but yeah, it is challenging, it’s lonely, it’s airport, hotel, airport. I didn’t have facebook, smart phones, laptops etc. WiFi wasn’t accessible. We had to use calling cards and it was challenging.
So I’d say that you have to find ways for entertainment, go on and train for the next thing. Sometimes you go there and you lose in the first round and it is 1.5 hr match and you lose in the first round. You travel another 2000 miles and do it all over again. It’s a grind. And I know there have been so many articles covering this aspect but going through it makes you wonder what is this all for. You doubt yourself. Very similar to an entrepreneurs journey in that sense.
Did your parents ever doubt?
Of course. It’s natural. You have to doubt. Are we doing the right thing? Should we go back to Princeton. I mean we have Princeton. That’s a great plan B, a fallback. Is this worth it. Do you guys really want it. So many doubts. So many screaming matches at home. We are human right? You are trying to do something extraordinary. You are going to be met with a lot of resistance. If you are not this ranking by this time, we have to pack it in. All those conversations happened a million times over. Or this wasn’t right on your forehand. This isn’t right. At the end of the day, if you are at that level, then it is not really about the technique anymore. It’s about you developing as a player and for some people that happens earlier, for some people it happens later. And also the assessment – we are spending all this money. Is it worth it? Is there talent there? Is there potential? Or are we wasting time? It’s always the multi-million dollar question. We had so much reinforcement that we were indeed talented, we had the capacity, we had the prowess to do it. It was just a matter of when.
Some people are on the ITF circuit for years. You are not making any money, maybe you should pack it in. There are other ways to make money. What are you doing right now? It’s a very difficult question. Even Thiem, he wasn’t a very good player for a long time. Should he have packed it in? You have to get a gauge and assessment and make a realistic call for yourself.
We had constant reinforcements that we were good and had potential. We were not consistent but we had these huge wins – top 50 players, sets off them 6-0 6-2 win against Elina Vesnina. I am here, I am not getting blown off the court. If anything I am blowing myself off the court. Having that experience and seeing for myself but many people don’t realize and pack it in and focus on doubles.
What do you remember from playing on the professional tour? You talked about how lonely it was at times and depression. Can you touch upon that a bit?
More than depressing and lonely, it’s the team around me. We got into a very toxic situation. I developed an eating disorder and that’s the reason I left tennis. Which is a form of depression and it happens to a lot of athletes, especially female. It’s not talked about. I suffered a lot and it was because of the environment around me wasn’t healthy. And already you are doing something so stressful, trying to compete at the top level and when you have toxic people around you, it can really destroy, you can only be tough and cope for so long. At some point you start cracking. Especially when you are a young woman, coming up in the world and you are trying to achieve something and you have toxic people around you, it can be debilitating. I had to make a tough choice to remove myself from that toxic environment. That’s meant I had to remove myself from tennis.
The sport itself is beautiful and it’s taken me a long time to kind of realize that I love the sport but what was around it was toxic.