“You cannot have any glaring weaknesses after crossing top 200” – Coach Bobby Mahal

This is the fifth in a series of articles going in-depth into the journey of Karman Kaur Thandi, who at age 20, became just the sixth Indian woman to crack the top 200 in the WTA Rankings

Previous articles in the series – 

1) Raw talent > Work In Progress > Finished Product – Journey of Karman Kaur Thandi

2) “Karman playing Tennis is like Sehwag playing Cricket” – Coach Aditya Sachdeva

3) “Karman is moving in the right direction every year” – mentor Bhupathi

4) Kerber’s former coach Benjamin Ebrahimzadeh shares his experience of working with Karman

While Bobby Mahal is a very renowned name in Canadian tennis circles, he’s also had a huge impact in the development of two of India’s most promising talents, Sumit Nagal and Karman Kaur Thandi. He was also the Director of Coaching for the Apollo Tyres Program in India, which was headed by Mahesh Bhupathi. The program was designed to identify the top junior talent in the country.

Mr. Mahal is based in Canada, and is the Director of Tennis as Advantage Tennis International(ATI) in Ontario, Canada. Mr. Mahal worked with Karman for a while in her formative years and talks about his time with her, what she needs to do in order to take the next step in her career, how transitioning from juniors to pros can be tough, and a lot more – 

Mr. Mahal working with Karman at the 2015 US Open

Q) When did you first see Karman? Tell us a bit about your initial involvement.

I was in India in January 2011 with Sumit(Nagal) for the U14 National Series(NS) event at Harvest Academy in Punjab. The following month was Mahesh’s(Bhupathi) wedding as well. And Karman had an aunt in Toronto, so that is how we got talking. Then I watched her play, and she was among the top players in the U14 division back in India. I was immediately impressed, as she had a very big game.

At that time, I was doing some coaching seminars at Siri Fort Complex, where Karman trains in New Delhi and she was looking for some advanced training. I knew the head coach there, Mr. Aditya Sachdeva, who was also Yuki Bhambri’s coach and is very well respected in the Indian Tennis community. That was the initial introduction, when she was 13.

After that, I was coming to India in bursts of a couple of weeks in 2012 & 2013, and working with her. In late 2014 or early 2015, when she was 16, her Dad felt that her game needed to be taken to the next level, as she was struggling with exposure and other things. That was when I suggested to her father – “How about Karman comes to Toronto for a month to train?” She had a family in Toronto and had a place to stay. So it didn’t particularly sound like a bad idea. So she came in March 2015.

Around that time, Sumit had just relocated to Germany. And then Karman came. She spent about a month here, training hard. Post that, she went to Germany in the summer of 2015 for a few ITF Juniors tournaments. And that was when herself and Sumit won the Offenbach Grade 1 event, which was a pretty big result right away.

Karman working on her fitness at Advantage Tennis International(ATI) Canada

At that time, she was without any financial support. After these string of junior tournaments, I suggested her name to Mahesh, to add her on to what was called the “IPTL Management” list. There was no government support at the time, so me and Mahesh were looking for funds to support her training and so forth. So we targeted the hard court swing, as hard courts were more like her surface than clay, and she had trained on them in Toronto as well. We planned for Washington DC, Montreal Grade 1 and the US Open, as we thought doing well in these tournaments could potentially attract sponsors for her. There were some issues with her visa, so there was some disturbance in her training. She did well in Washington, where she lost to the 2nd seed, I believe. In Montreal, she had a very good run, and beat a lot of seeded players on the way, and lost 7-6 in the third in the SF to a top 10 girl. That was kind of a breakthrough, as her run in Montreal allowed to her to get a Special Exempt(SE) spot in the main draw of the US Open, as she’d not qualified based on her ranking.

Then she had a good run at the US Open, where she beat a couple of very good wins, beating higher ranked players, before losing to Hungary’s Dalma Galfi, who was the world’s best player at the time. It was a pretty big deal, as back then, there wasn’t array of Indian girls doing well on the tour, as opposed to now. Then Mahesh saw the potential, and I think he signed her on for a management contract. We did the Australian Open in January 2016, and then she relocated to Mouratoglou Academy in France. So that was about my whole journey with Karman.

A short clip from Karman’s time in Canada

Q) What do you think Karman needs to do in order to break the barrier, break into say, the top 100, from 200? 

I think I last worked with Karman in 2016. A lot has happened since then. She’s switched coaches a couple of times – shuttling between Europe and India. But I think each hurdle you cross, you are presented a different challenge. For instance, once you are in the top 200, you need to play the Grand Slam qualifiers and a few WTA 125K events. That is where you meet the big girls.

At that level, you can’t have any glaring weaknesses. You have to have a very solid all round game. Fitness has to be ideal, injuries need to be taken care of. Things have to go your way. You have seen so many Indians break into top 200, 150, 120, and then there is an injury setback – like Yuki for example. It’s all about being healthy and dealing with the demands and the rigors of the tour. You need a plan to do well, making sure you are playing on the right surface, the right conditions that are suited to your game. Also, you need to have a dedicated personal coach, who’s going to be with you for 30 weeks a year, just overseeing you. You need a fitness trainer, physio.

Once you cross the 200’s, you are now known to the other players and these top players don’t want to give any ground to these young kids coming up, you know. It’s very important at that time that you have a very individualised plan and team around you. Once you cross 200, you don’t just want to stay there. You want to be 150, 120, and eventually 100. It’s a full time commitment. Finances are limited, so it gets challenging. 

Mr. Mahal with Karman at the 2015 US Open

Q) This is more of a general question. You’ve trained Sumit and Karman and a few other juniors as well. So you’ve got some exposure to how Indian kids train and play. We’ve seen many Indian kids do really really well on the junior tour but the transition to the WTA/ATP tour is much tougher for them. Why do you think that’s the case and what do you think can be done? Is it mainly fitness/finances or do you think there’s something else as well?

One thing that I always tell parents in Canada is not to get too excited when their kid makes the top 30 in the world in juniors. Because, essentially, making top 30 in juniors means you are somewhere around the top 500 in ATP/WTA, as there are that many generations of players playing the pros together. Federer, who was born in 1981, is still playing. Every year there are going to be 30 people in the top 30.

In the grand scheme of things, there is no guarantee that a top 30 junior, whether Russian, German or Indian, will make it in the pros, unless they’re getting good results on the pro circuit by the time they are 18 or so. You are going to have one national champion in India every year. It’s very common. You see so many players who are junior world number ones or junior top 5, but they never get to ATP/WTA top 20 or 30 at all. I don’t get so surprised. There are always going to be a few kids that break out from a generation. For example, from Sumit’s age group(97-98 born), there are 5-6 kids who’ve broken through, with the biggest name being Alexander Zverev. 

Most of the kids in India struggle with fitness, as their physicality is not there. I think it’s being addressed more and more in younger kids now. But it has got to be approached on a case-by-case basis. But the only way to solve for it is to provide very well rounder from a young age. The 8 year old to 12 year old window is the most crucial phase, as you can correct many technical, tactical things in their game. The older you get, the harder it becomes to change “habits”. In Sumit’s case, it was pretty continuous. And you can see the results. With 16 or 17 year olds, it becomes a big challenge to correct fundamental mistakes.

But I won’t say India is really horrible in transitioning from juniors to pros, because you have Yuki who’s made the top 100, Leander and Mahesh who were top juniors and became really successful professionals. For example – Filip Peliwo from Canada reached all four Junior Grand Slam finals in 2012, and won two of them as well, but has barely managed to make the top 200 in the ATP Rankings. This was a shock for a lot of people – as even Genie Bouchard won Wimbledon in 2012 along with Peliwo, and she made the top 5. So there isn’t really a recipe for transitioning. The girl Karman lost to in the Montreal Juniors event is not even in the top 500, and Karman is in the top 200. 

Everyone is going to have their own path and journey. But going by the Somdev example ,what I really suggest to parents is to try the US College tennis path, as it ensures you have a degree in hand, have become physically developed by the time you graduate at age 22 or thereabouts. We’ve seen so many women who went to college breaking through on the WTA tour now – example Danielle Collins. So if you’re not top 10 or top 20 in juniors, I suggest you should go to college for further development as it gives you a fair platform to make it in the pros once you graduate. 

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