Interview by Gautam Belday – December 25, 2018
In this part III, Neha shares her journey on her life beyond Tennis, the various areas in which she dabbled herself in and shares detail on SAIS and its future goals.
Indian-American Neha Uberoi: On her journey as a South Asian girl into the top-200 WTA ranking (Part 1 of 3)Indian-American Neha Uberoi: On the joys and sorrows of life on the Pro Tour – A journey which Neha quit at age 22 (Part 2 of 3)
What have you been up to since your retirement from the professional circuit?
I retired very young if you remember. And so I was 21 or 22 when I stopped playing. I had a very difficult time making that decision to stop playing. I went through a lot and deciding to stop was the right choice for me. And it took me a long time to recover from the whole experience. There are a lot of things that compounded for me. My mental health suffered and it was a choice between being happy and trying to do this thing, this tennis thing and I had to make a very tough choice for myself at a very young age and I had to put all of that behind me and it wasn’t something that I wish anyone would go through and I went through it and am stronger for it and it took me a while and I went to Princeton after I stopped playing. Taking a 6 year leave of absence and going to a place like Princeton was not easy and academically it’s a very challenging environment and adjusting to it was hard but I got my groove and it took me some time and also figuring out who I was without tennis.
My whole life I could remember people saying what I do and it was Tennis. I am a tennis girl. My whole life. Even the very fact of my ethnicity was tied into the fact that I was a tennis player. And divorcing myself from that or maybe moving on from that was extremely challenging, very difficult and depressing and I went through quite a down period for a few years before I was able to resurface and say there was more to me, more dimensions to me and much more for me to offer than hitting the ball across the court as a person and to myself. And I think that’s a lot of athletes go through when they are going through retirement. Whether you are uber successful or not, you are always going to ask who am I, what do I have to offer, what is the next thing that I am doing in my life and if that is not clear for you, then it’s very very debilitating and I came out of that stronger obviously but it took a lot to kind of figure that out and Shikha was still on the tour at that time and I was still doing it by myself.
I graduated from college and I was just like do I get a 9-5 job now? How odd is that. What a weird feeling. I was already resisting that idea. I have my entire life ahead of me. I am 25. What do I do? Am I even good at anything besides able to hit a forehand? Yeah and that’s funny that you say that. You graduated from Princeton. You obviously have some brain right but it didn’t feel that way.
Neha as a panelist at the Columbia Business School event
I then said to myself that I will work in a startup environment. There you do a lot of things and you don’t necessarily need one skill and you bring your effort. Entrepreneurship is a lot like tennis. You are just pushing and driving for a goal and you are just trying to figure out, how to get there, find your own solutions, manage your own life etc. As a tennis player, I managed my whole life, career, budget, travel. I was so disciplined. You didn’t have to tell me to eat breakfast, you have to do your homework. I just did it. Everything. So, I gravitate towards that.
But Gautam – I didn’t find that replacement, you know, that next thing that would get me. That tunnel vision that would get me to think. Yes, this is what I am going to do. My whole life, I had a goal, a tunnel vision and these are the steps to go through to get that goal. Life really isn’t like that, right? You just already in the grey area. Unless you have some passion that you are working towards. And I did not have a passion, I never cultivated that. It was all Tennis. When did I have time to cultivate a new passion? When did I have time to do that? What’s funny is that when you are used to having success, it’s really hard to start from zero again. Because you feel like it’s something you are lacking. You forget that you start from zero when you are playing tennis. You just don’t remember because you were 3 years old. Picking up photography and not knowing the right setting and you get frustrated and you are like I should be in national geographic already. It doesn’t work like that.
And it’s very hard at 25 for me to have to digest that. Starting again. What does it mean to fall in love with something? What does it feel like doing something for the pure sake of doing it. The pure process of it. In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna always talks about doing the action without the thought of the fruit of the action. I forget what chapter it was. No attachments. That concept was so foreign to me. We were always dictated by this goal. And so, I tried doing a lot of things. Entrepreneurship, worked in small companies, I worked for Marketing and Digital Marketing for a while, doing my own thing. I can’t work for companies. I do not know how to work for other people very well. I am a good team player but I don’t have time for bureaucracy. And I did a lot of projects. It gave me a chance to explore what else I would like to do. I coached as well. Coaching kind of gave me a nice perspective of what Tennis is because giving the gift of the game and the love of the game to young kids was very healing for me.
I now started a nonprofit called South Asians In Sports (SAIS). These are the kind of things that I have been doing over the past few years to see where my strengths like, what do I give back, how do I spend my time and I was in marketing for a while and now shifted to social work and I am doing a masters in Social work right now.
And I am going to become a clinician essentially. Tennis coach, Masters, Digital Marketing, health and wellness, I made those videos, I kind of figuring out where I want to go in Media.
Neha Uberoi as a speaker at the Consulate General of India. Also visible is Leander Paes. Photo credits: www.nehauberoi.com
I would say this. I am very proud of myself for having explored so many avenues. I don’t think many people will have the guts to do that. They just say I can’t do that. They just stick to one thing maybe. I didn’t care. I said I want to make YouTube videos, I want to do this, I am going to write a blog. I am going to spill my guts, I will give back. Hey I want to do a Startup and I got to do it all. I am happy I went through that process. It was not the most pretty time in my life because I was like knocking everywhere. Where am I going to hit a gold mine, where and when. But I think actually a lot of people go through that process. But I just may have gone through it later, I felt that I was a bit behind, I was catching up to people who were not playing pro tennis. You can’t put yourself into that kind of rat race. Then I realized that I don’t have to get into any rat race. That’s not my kind of life I want. It may work for the other person but it may not work for me. And it was quite a personal growth and journey for me to do that.
Can you talk a bit about SAIS and how did the idea come about? Where do you like to see the organization in the foreseeable future?
I have big visions for that. We have a network, right? We are a network and our mission is to have more South Asians participate in the sports industry. Whether that is on the business side, or as athletes and I want as a former athlete myself, that one thing when I was on tour, I didn’t see a lot of South Asians as journalists, as anchors, as businessmen, as owners etc. We are seeing it now, very successful. In pockets. You can still be an engineer or lawyer and still work for a sports team. And the events that we are doing are really great because I realize that there is a need. There is not much awareness. People didn’t know there was a Khanna that works for Stub Hub. People have got internships and jobs through our events and that’s exactly what I want. I want us to be the premier trade organization. If you are working with South Asians or South Asia or sports, you need to be a member of South Asians In Sports.
And now, leagues in America are taking notice. They are trying to do an MBA event in India. I am not just talking about India. I am talking about the whole South Asian diaspora. We are the most affluent groups here. How come they don’t have a digital marketing strategy directive directed at SA population like they did for the Mexican population in Chicago recently? We have the money. We are the ones who are going to buy your season passes, the Jordans etc. We are doing well. 1.1 trillion by 2020 (12:00).
I don’t want to just see India night, Bollywood dances at half time. I want them to be serving Chicken Tikka pizza. That’s the goal. I am slowly chipping away at that.
Neha Uberoi and Neha Contractor – Co-founders of South Asians In Sports (SAIS)
Results on the junior circuit don’t always translate onto the women’s circuit. What do you suggest junior players do to sustain the success that they see at the junior levels?
I mean, I have been coaching for 10 years now and I think the parents are so overly focused on results in junior tennis. Oh my daughter lost to this girl in 10-and-under tournament. I don’t even remember who I beat or played in junior tennis. I would love for a parent to focus on how is my child’s game developing, Am I just making them hit 100 balls in a row at 60% of their speed so they win the next match or am I making them improve physically and technically to actually hit harder better and stronger, do they have the right fitness levels, am I working on my child’s game and their discipline and pushing them or am I worried about their results.
The issue has also been that USTA has so many awards and wild cards. etc. It’s a rat race and USTA is very good at this rat race. Because they are trying to promote. They are non-profit but there is a business entity behind that. But just be aware that you are part of this rat race and think about how much you want to participate and how much do I want to care? How much stress do I want to go through etc. You also have to work on recruitment. You have to contact college coaches, reaching out to them, making sure academics are sound, SAT scores are good. It’s becoming more and more challenging. I understand that. But I would say up until 14/15, care that the kid is improving and working on things that are important and that they are improving their fitness and not going to breakdown and the wrist is not going to break..etc. Care for that. Nobody cares about whether you beat this girl who won the tournament last year.
What advice do you give to an upcoming junior players that want to play professional tennis?
What matters is game development. I’ve seen so many juniors 12/13 when they are 16 they have no game and they can’t compete at that level. Work on developing their game. By 15/16, you will know as a parent that you know your kid is good enough to play pro or college route.
There is a lot of player intelligence these days (rankings, UTR, tennis recruiting) and I feel that junior players win or lose matches before they step onto the court. I’ve observed this at the sectional and national level. Is all this player intelligence and data a blessing or a curse? If you had all this intelligence during the time you played on the tour, how would you have used this information overload?
If you want to go to college, you have this system that has the star players. UTR rankings etc. Results matter in that case. You beat a blue star player etc.
I want to tell you even if you are top star player, college coaches are looking at who you are playing? Are you challenging yourself? Are you laying up, down, safe? They care about that too. So, it’s not always about the Ws, the wins. It’s also about the quality and you have to remember that. They also want coachable players. That’s a very important quality.
So, I think junior tennis, especially, under 14s…It is frustrating. You are spending money as a parent. You are traveling, you are sacrificing your weekends, your evenings and kids lose sometimes and it’s can be frustrating. I get that sometimes but it’s not of value. If you are doing this, get out of it. Because you are only hurting your child and yourself.
What advice to you have for parents (of junior players)?
Watch what you are saying to your child. Are you building them up one week and pulling them down the next? Or are you consistent if they win or lose do you react differently. Because those things matter to them. Whether they pick up a racquet in their life every again, they take with them through their lives, through every up and down, through every heart break, through every high and low. The more high low you have, the more mental imbalance you have, right? So you want to be very careful to your kids about how you talk about your wins and losses to your kids. It’s all relative at the end of the day and I didn’t do well as a person. I am just recognizing that as a weakness because people have a lot to say. You go to the next Diwali party. I get emails even now about how my forehand was. Play heed as a parent. Talk about the points they played poorly. If the feedback is not consistent, they lose motivation. Everything you say matters. Kids take it to heart. I still remember things that were told to me.
In this age of social media, there are a lot of armchair critics. Based on the comments that I have seen on various sites, it seems like fans want instant results. There is a lot of emphasis on winning and they are ready to criticize when the results are not there. Fans don’t seem to care much about the process and they are too focused on the outcome. We’ve seen that in Cricket and also see that quite a bit in other sports, including tennis. How did you deal with praise or criticism during your playing days?
Oh yeah, especially Indians. I am sorry but our Indians love to sit there and advise. Especially Indian uncles. I am going to say this publicly. You know, betey, your backhand. It’s like I am really trying so hard not to tell you what’s on mind. But you know, I am just going to say yes and thank you. You have to be humble. People like to build you up as well. And one thing I didn’t do well was to handle that. I was very attached to what people thought of me. The criticism and praise. I learned that now. I still get that with other things that I am doing in my life. I don’t care if you praise me now or if you criticize me because I know who and what I am for myself from inside. And I have to say as a culture, log kya kahenge impacts athletes a lot, especially juniors. So if you can try to detach yourself from that, the sooner the better.
You talked about the troubled environment with the coach, the eating disorder and the overall breakdown leading to the decision to quit Tennis. How would Neha Uberoi at 32, guide a young player going through that toxic environment.
I think it I would ensure she knew the following: nothing and no one is worth more than your own self-respect and dignity. That tennis or no tennis, you are enough exactly as you are. You are worthy of happiness, respect. Your mental health is paramount, nothing else matters in this world. You are extremely powerful and have immense willpower. Listen to your intuition especially when you feel something isn’t right. You have nothing and no one to fear and no one to please but yourself. Lastly, you are and never were fat no matter how much people want to convince you otherwise. It was a sorry attempt to control you through attacking your body.
|What do you do in your free time ?||Work on growing South Asians in Sports, cooking and taking pictures of my creations, attempting the New York Times crossword|
|Favorite Author / Artist||Currently it’s Junot Diaz|
|Dream Mixed Doubles partner||Cristiano Ronaldo|
|Favorite Cuisine / Food||Indian|
|Favorite Tournament||US Open|
|Favorite Sport / Fav player||Cristiano Ronaldo|
|Favorite country you’ve been in and why?||Japan, most intriguing and strikingly contrasting culture to USA/India|
|A place / country that you haven’t been to, but would like to visit||Greece and Argentina|
|The song that’s been on loop for you recently||Punjabi nursery rhymes!|
|Best win of your career||E Vesnina|
|A loss that hurt you the most||they were all painful|
|Best friends on tour||Shikha Uberoi|
|If you had to choose another profession, what would that be||Food critic or professional dancer|
|Your nickname||I have too many… family calls me Neju|
|Racquet that you use||Babolat aero drive|
|Most unforgettable travel experience||Recently went to Zimbabwe and got to visit Hwange National Park.|
Way to go Gautam! You are now a journalist – the articles are an easy read and incisive. I saw Neha play at the USO – trying to qualify, I think. Quite an athlete. Met Sheika at a charity event in Spart, NJ, with Wilander – very gracious. Maybe Neha should run for office of some kind in NJ – we sure need brains and passion.
PUNarayan (Indian Uncle!)