By – Vatsal Tolasaria, 4th April, 2019
“The kids are lucky to have access to such a high quality training centre at home. It can enable them to start training early in their lives. And the earlier you start, the higher your chances are to succeed. I wish I had such a facility available when I was a kid.”, said Prajnesh, when asked about what it means to have such an academy coming to India.
The whole setup is going to have 7 rebound ace courts, with 8 layers each, the material for which has been flown in from Australia, along with a high performance, state-of-the-art gym, which is being constructed. Sriram Balaji, who has trained at various academies, both in India and abroad, feels that this kind of setup is exactly what Tennis in India needed. Balaji, incidentally, was the first trainee of the academy, which started 9 years back in Germany. The academy’s come a long way, and is widely regarded as one of the best academies in the world.
Excerpts from the Q&A that followed after the inauguration ceremony –
Q) Alex had mentioned that you(Balaji) have the best timing in all the drills that you guys do back at the academy, which busts the myth that Indians are genetically weak. What is your take on that? Also, what are the other changes you felt after going to the academy in Germany?
Balaji – I don’t believe that Indians are genetically weak. If I can do it, there’s no reason why any other Indian can’t do it. It’s just pure hard work, and smart work. Apart from that, the professionalism that you get to see there is unparalleled. Before going to Germany, I was just a Tennis player. But after I went there, I became a professional Tennis player. I never had anything called a diet, but after going there I learnt how much of a difference diet can make in the long term. In Tennis, even a fraction of a second matters, and the results were to be seen on court.
From the Tennis side of things, it was a massive change. I am from Coimbatore, so I didn’t really have anyone to hit with there. So I had to come to Chennai to play with VSP(Vijay Sundar Prashanth), Ranjeet(Virali Murugesan), and I never really had a coach. So essentially, all of us players used to come together and help each other. But that’s not professional. If your goal is to make Top 100, you need to have proper coaching and training. When I went to Germany, I was the only player there, along with Alex(Waske), another Tennis coach, and a fitness coach. So the first couple of weeks, I felt like they were demanding something out of me, and I didn’t know what it was. I was giving everything I had. It took almost a year for me to understand what is missing. The intensity of training that they demand out of you changes everything. I could feel the difference in my game.
From the results point of view, during my first year there, I played a set of German Futures, about five of them, and lost in the qualies of all of them. And when I played the same set of Futures the year after that, I qualified, and made 2 QFs, and a couple of 2nd rounds. It was not like I was winning Futures, but it was a massive improvement from where I was, especially in just a year’s time. The same year(2011) I came to India and played a Futures, and it was my first Futures final. So it was a long process. It took me a year and 9 months to make my first Futures final. And it was just the start. Another great thing about this academy is that the coaches and trainers take such good care of you, and they’ve become like family members. For me, personally, it’s like a home away from home.
Q) How did you(Prajnesh) end up going to the academy for the first time? Did your friendship with Bala play a part?
It did. Bala was in Germany and asked me to come check out the place in Germany. I was in college in the US at the time(playing for the University of Tennessee in the NCAA Championships), and most of the flights back to India have Frankfurt as a stop. So I decided to take a look, and was there for about a week. And then I later decided to come back. And the rest is history!
Q) Can you(Prajnesh) briefly describe your development as a player under Alex and his team?
Prajnesh – When I went there for the first time, I was injured, and it took me a really long time to get past that injury. Alex has always been very professional, and was always supportive and tried to find every possible solution for me to fix it. I went to multiple physios, doctors, chiropractors, and it’s really easy for someone to say “Okay, I don’t have an answer”. But Alex and his team never really gave up until I got an answer.
But once we found the solution, I could really work with them and put time in on the court. We started to develop my game, which had a lot of holes. In fact, I still do have a lot of areas in my game which I need to work on, which is why the rankings are the way they are. Over time, you trust the team you work with more and more. And I think that they have an extremely good set of coaches and staff, including physical fitness. Everybody evolves over time, and all of us understood how to work with each other. I’ve always been someone who’s able to play with a lot of power, but that’s obviously just one aspect of Tennis.
For example, Alex was a player with a very good serve. So he always used to tell me that I should take time between my serves. I heard his advice, but never really took it seriously. But then when I got to a place where I felt that it is something I need to fix, that advice came right back to me, and I felt like this was something I should have been doing earlier.
This is just one example. I’ve added so many weapons to my game. When I first went to the academy, I could barely put two backhands back in a row. I repeated basket drills over and over again, just for the backhand. It was probably the most boring thing for the coach, but they have so much motivation to fix that. And I am that kind who asks a lot of questions. So everyday, I would have a new question. But they were patient, and they’ve helped me get to the place where I am today.
Q) Alex was a prolific doubles player during his time. And you(Balaji) have also made a decision to focus on doubles going forward. How has the equation changed between the two of you? Given the fact he would have a wealth of knowledge of playing top flight doubles on the tour.
Balaji – It is of immense help. He’s here to help me with the planning. Gamewise also, he’s played at the highest level. He believes that I can get there, and I believe it too. There are things that we have been working on, and we know it’s a process. Myself, Alex, other coaches, and fitness trainers have been working hard on it.
Alex has gone through the same phase that I am going through now. So that helps me a lot in scheduling as well. Alex and Basti(Bastian Suwanprateep) help me out with what tournaments to play, where to play, which conditions suit me.
Also, right now, I am facing issues with finding the right partner as well. I was playing with Vishnu, but he was out for personal reasons. So I had to find a new partner. Alex and Basti are helping me find the right partner to compliment my game as well, so that I can transition to the next level. It’s much easier for me having Alex around.
Q) What are your(Balaji) initial impressions here of the setup in Ahmedabad? And what kind of change are you anticipating for Indian Tennis with this academy being launched here?
Balaji – I have been training here for a week, and it’s been incredible. I have worked on a lot of things, and I have been taken very good care of. I’ve had ice baths for recovery, and all the coaches and the strength & conditioning head(Dusan Stevic) are really knowledgeable and have worked on aspects that will help my doubles game. Simulating match situations in practice, and other such stuff have been helping.
And now that the academy is set up here, I don’t think I would go all the way back to Germany, say if I have a three or four day window between tournaments. I would rather come here and train for that period. Same goes with Prajnesh as well.
9 years back, it was day one of Alexander Waske Tennis University and it’s of immense happiness to see the academy step into my country. It feels like home to have been part of this journey right from its birth. These guys have made me the player I am today, and still continue to help in a big way. I am looking forward to see many more players from India being nurtured here at the Altevol Sports Academy to make it big in the sport.
Special Mention – Mr. Shrimal Bhatt was announced as the Secretary of the Gujarat State Tennis Association(GSTA) at the inauguration ceremony. He is also the Tennis Director of the Altevol-Alexander Waske Tennis University