Astra Sharma caught the tennis world’s attention at the Australian Open (2R from Qualifying in singles, Mixed Doubles final). Before that, Astra Sharma was ranked No.2 in singles in the US College tennis. After turning pro, Astra quickly raced into the world top-100 within a span of few months. The Australian, with her name, initially caught some attention from the Indian community which then quickly transitioned into admiration around her game.
Mr Devdutt Sharma, a 2nd/3rd generation Singaporean Indian with roots from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, provides a brief peek into the journey of Astra from a parent’s perspective, the impact of College tennis on her career, their Indian roots and how Astra has lived up to the name he had given her!
Astra Sharma with her parents Susan Tan (left) and Devdutt Sharma (right)
This is a continuation of our series on highlighting athletes of Indian origin while focusing on the Indian players. Read some of the other interviews below
1. Interview with Laxmi Poruri, the player who defeated Monica Seles to win the Orange Bowl and reached US Open R2 as a 15-year old!
2. Govind Nanda – Indian-American making waves in US Tennis
3. Neha Uberoi: On her journey as a South Asian girl into the top-200 WTA ranking
To start off with, Astra comes off from a very diverse genes background with the Australian, Singaporean, Chinese and Indian roots all mixed in. How has all that shaped in the Astra Sharma that we see today?
Both my parents are Indian by the way. It’s all been very positive. She was born in Singapore from Indian and Chinese parents. Grew up in Australia. Educated and trained during her formative years in the US. You can see this influence in Astra – she is extremely flexible. She has only received positive feedback about her agility and flexibility whether it be in Australia or the US. So all this exposure has only benefited her.
Your background, the move from Singapore to Perth – can you share more detail
We moved to Australia when Astra was 8. We were not convinced about the education system in Singapore – lot of pressure on the students, too big an emphasis on learning the second language. I just wanted the kids to have a normal childhood.
Ashwin and Astra’s journey into Tennis – How it did all begin
I love sports myself. I was competitive in track and field in Athletics. I was also a high jumper, triple jumper and also used to run the middle distances. I played every sport that was available i.e., Cricket, Hockey, Football and Basketball. I wasn’t good in any of them but I just loved sports.
Used to play every weekend with my wife before their Swimming lessons. They would see us playing and before the end of our session – they would come by and say that they would want to have a hit too. After that, they would go off for their swimming lessons. Then they went for Football and eventually for the Tennis lessons too. They got influenced to love sports.
When did you first realize that there was serious talent in Astra or Ashwin that they could pursue it more seriously.
We never really thought too far about their sports. The important thing was to study and play. There was no real direction. As they started competing in school in Australia, they started getting better and better results – especially Astra. She started getting called up to represent the state, It just naturally progressed from one level to the other.
One day while she was playing in Melbourne, scouts from the US from the Vanderbilt University scouted her and invited her to college. Till then, we never really thought that she would go to college in the US. It was just a sequence of events taking place at the right time.
Any major accomplishments by then.
She played a few ITFs in Australia, did not do that well. But you know, she was still studying and was also taking tough subjects. In Australia, – she was choosing subjects like Advanced Mathematics which required more time investment in her education. So she was not training as much as the other kids who were playing in these tourneys. Astra had a balanced training given the demands of the education schedule.
The major accomplishments were winning couple of Grade IV ITFs in Queensland but that was about it given the above.
And on Ashwin Sharma
Ashwin is really talented. He has got amazing fitness and hand eye coordination. He just had a bit of setback in college which made him drop out of Tennis and complete his engineering degree in mechanical. The whole period i.e., 4 years of College – he wasn’t playing much tennis. Then he said, he wanted to try it again. So he is also on the tour now.
Ashwin Sharma from a Club Tennis tourney in France
Could you share more detail on her tryst with injuries
Just before she went to college, she suffered a wrist injury while training at the national academy in Perth. That wrist injury became very serious. So when she walked into the Vanderbilt University – she was unable to play Tennis for about a year. So that’s one complete year. Geoff MacDonald was the coach of the team. To Geoff’s credit, he gave a full scholarship to an athlete who turns up and can’t even play for an year but he stuck with her. He gave her a redshirt which means she would be allowed to play a further 4 years. Also on scholarship but not playing which was how much trust Geoff had in her.
During this timeframe, Astra learnt so much about Tennis while she was not playing. She was helping Geoff with the team and learning so much from the coaching staff on how the girls play, what is important, the mental aspects of the game and so on. After that year, her wrists had recovered enough for her to start playing again.
Astra chose a tough specialization as well with Medicine…
Initially she was doing pure science courses like Organic Chemistry but she found that she couldn’t cope because of all the travel as they go off for a whole week. They would play all over the country for that week and then when she came back, she realized that she couldn’t cope with the lab work and so on.
So she moved her specialization away to medical science and health. It is a degree which has a pathway which can lead to a medical degree but its not a medicine degree.
Astra’s stellar record in College Tennis. Did that take you by surprise?
Absolutely! Her development from the time she was in Perth to that one year she spent in Vanderbilt injured and then when she started playing again, we just did not know who that Astra was!
She already had good tennis in her. The coaches in Singapore and the coaches in Perth – mainly Donald Scott and Michael Robinson – they really gave her a solid technical foundation. I think what set her free was coach Geoff Macdonald at the Vanderbilt University.
Then the return to the Pro Tour – within a few months, she has been able to crack the top-100
It has been an unbelievable journey so far. It has been beyond my expectations.
I think the fundamentals that Geoff had emphasized with her. Its all about executing those fundamentals and then the results should fall into place. That seems to be what’s happening.
You travel a bit with both Ashwin and Astra. Any memorable experiences from the past year?
I was with Astra in Mexico. It was pretty memorable. She was pretty sick with a stomach bug, playing at an altitude with the ball flying all over the place and we both had to really support each other.
She stuck to it and ended up winning both the singles and the doubles title in Irapuato which was a very good achievement. In the last 6 months, that was the most memorable event for me.
Of course let’s not forget the Australian Open – that was something else.
Supporting two athletes in Astra and Ashwin. Must be tough in terms of resources.
Astra is winning some prize money on her own now and she also has some support from the community in Nashville in terms of sponsorship. Tennis Australia is also supporting her some. These are all recent developments – prior to that, it was all on us.
We are not rich but we are comfortable. We do not live extravagantly but it’s ok, it’s not been a big burden so far.
As a parent – did you ever think whether it was all worth it?
The only doubt I ever had was if they are pursuing Tennis for the wrong reasons. I was convinced that they were doing it for the right reasons and that it made them happy. So far, no regrets at all.
Astra’s roots in Singapore and India had garnered some additional attention. Your views on it.
That’s great if there is some additional interests from people in Singapore and India. If she can be a role model for anyone regardless of their background, it’s even better. But it’s great, its all inclusive.
Indian No.1 Golfer Shubhankar Sharma tweeting on the final between Astra Sharma and Rajeev Ram
The name ‘Astra’ – It has meanings in few languages but not often a name that one comes across. Can you share some context?
When Astra was born and when my wife told me that it was a girl, I looked up some of the names from the Mahabharata. Ashwin was given that name as his Grandfather insisted and we said ok. For Astra, I got to choose before anyone told me what it could be. I chose the name ‘Astra’ as it was the weapon of God in the Mahabharata. It resonated with me. I told my wife that we should name her Astra and she was cool with it.
She has indeed lived up to that name!