“In tense moments during a match, you have to breathe and learn to take it one point at a time. It’s the same thing in life. You just have to learn to take it one step at a time, to calm down and take a deep breath. Things often do sort themselves out. But by panicking, we get nowhere.”
Nirupama Sanjeev (nee Vaidyanathan) was the first Indian female tennis player to win a singles match at a Grand Slam, the 1998 Australian Open. Most recently, after giving birth to her daughter, she returned to compete for India at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010. Her autobiography, The Moonballer, is a fascinating exploration of her career, her cerebral playing style, and some of the challenges that she overcame to triumph at the Grand Slam level.
Ms. Sanjeev currently splits her time between the California Bay Area and Florida. She continues to coach tennis and follow Indian tennis. In this wide-ranging interview, Ms. Sanjeev discusses her career, her life after competing at the highest level, and some of the challenges that she sees facing Indian Tennis today.
Q) How did you get involved in playing tennis?
There was no real plan of action for me as such to start playing tennis. My dad was mainly training my brother. And I had cousins who played like, green field level. So I was just a byproduct of tennis around me. Nobody really expected me to pick tennis up, and my dad didn’t really think about putting any effort into me. I was just a ball girl in the beginning. But I got so competitive that I was like, this is unfair. You have to give me time too, you know?
My dad is just different, he thinks differently. He had a court that he was maintaining just for us, just for my brother, mainly. So my brother, father, and I would go every morning, and I would pick up balls. In the end, my dad would give me five minutes to ten minutes. But I just kept hearing things about tennis in the background. And I picked up tennis like that.
That’s where it started. I was so competitive that I really wanted more of my father’s time. It just so happened that, my dad saw my interest and flare in tennis, and he slowly started giving me a lot more of his time.
Q) How did growing up on clay influence your playing style?
Clay courts present several advantages for learning tennis. One advantage is that clay court tennis helps you learn how to set up the point. You can construct the point, which is very, very important in top level tennis. Compared to a hard court, where you can just blow your way out, clay you can’t do that. A classic hard court game is not necessarily ideal for Indians, especially when we are first learning how to play. We don’t have big bodies. We don’t have a big, muscle-power kind of game. We are more crafty. For our style of gameplay, clay and grass are better. And, of course, training on clay helps you build stamina.
So for my game, starting on clay was very useful. I started to like long matches. Over the course of my career, I evolved to play more at the net, and playing doubles really helped me in that respect. But clay was really good at the beginning stages. Playing on that surface helped me learn a variety of shots. I also learned how to use the angles of the court better.
In India today, I think it’s unfortunate that it is all hard courts now. There are a couple clubs with clay, like the club in Coimbatore. The club in Coimbatore is really wonderful. They hand roll the clay court every day. In Florida, where I sometimes teach tennis now, they have these golf carts, and they have rollers that come with a golf cart. In Coimbatore, they don’t have it as easy. Our guys in India are meticulously rolling the clay by hand! That is tough, tough work.
Q) You mentioned that you are coaching now, both in San Jose and in Florida. What would you say your approach is to coaching?
There are a lot of parts of my coaching philosophy. But I think the most important thing is that I don’t have patience for kids or adults who don’t want to be there. You come to my teaching because you want to. Do not come there because you’re forced to. I love to teach, and I feel that I’m good at it. But my teaching is only for those who want to play tennis. I know it’s a little harsh, but that’s why I like to pick my students. The students who I teach really have to want to play tennis and succeed at it.
My coaching approach is very individual-based. I’m very, very good at making sure that my students are effective on the court. If they don’t have a certain type of game, you have to learn to say, okay, you hit one deep shot, and then you come to the net. Try a different strategy. I’m more about using your strengths and learning your weaknesses really well. I don’t believe that everybody should have the same game style. Each person has to have a tailor-made game.
For example, I was never going to be a serve and volleyer. But was somebody who could set up a point gradually, and then come up to net to finish the point. You can’t make me into a serve and volleyer, but you could make me into a person that that counter punches a little bit and then tries to take advantage of short balls.
Q) What have been some challenges that you have faced in coaching?
I’ve had about five to seven students over the past 10 years who I knew could have made it in top level tennis. Why did it go wrong? You won’t believe it. It’s the parents: either the parents were too pushy, or the parents were super slacking.
There were some situations where the kids were phenomenally talented, really hard working, and everything was there. But then the parents got a little overzealous. What ended up happening was that the parents thought they were going to a better academy or a better situation. At those academies, they didn’t necessarily know the child from when they were young. So often the child came back injured.
Parents need to be patient. Some parents want their kids to do things early. If a child can do what they can do at eight, can they do it at six years old? When approaching the crafting of a tennis player, parents have to think of it as a longer project. We have eight years to make this, not two years or three years.
The other problem that I faced with parents was often the exact opposite situation. They sometimes wanted to cocoon their children and did not teach them how to accept losses. The philosophy for those parents was “My child. I don’t want to put her through that.” Then the kid gets very lazy and ends up not working hard enough.
There’s something that’s in between, and I still want to find that balance. How to parent a tennis player is going to be my next book!
Q) You just mentioned the concept of losing and learning how to lose. Can you talk about that a bit more in the context of parents and coaching?
Unfortunately, sometimes parents cocoon their kids too much from losses. And I feel like you have to lose a lot to start winning. And that’s why I have a problem with kids who are too good too early. When they’re nine and 10, we shouldn’t call them prodigies. I don’t really treat them as prodigies because there are so many elements that have to come together for that person to succeed at 15 or 20. If the kid is doing so well, so early, the child gets so excited, and so do the parents. Everything’s about winning and winning. And when they’re 14, the child ends up losing, and they can’t handle the losses anymore. So I totally believe in letting the kids lose early.
We as coaches and parents are there to show them how to take the loss. It’s okay. It’s not the result that’s important, it’s what we learned from that result. It’s not the what, it’s the ‘why’. Why did you lose? Was it because of your serve? Was it because of the return? Losing allows you to ask questions and try to improve. Losing gives you the best opportunity to confront your weaknesses at a young age.
For South Asians and Indians, to learn that lesson that it is all right to lose is very hard. Our perception is always about winning. That philosophy gets magnified in tennis. As a tennis player, it’s harder because when you lose a match, it’s all on you. You can’t blame the team. You can’t blame anyone. But losing at tennis also gives you that opportunity to introspect and build your character and your skills.
Tennis, and losing in tennis, builds so much character. Tennis has helped me so much in my real life.
Q) How do you think playing tennis has influenced who you are today?
Tennis helps overall in our everyday life. Instead of saying that we failed, we should think about why we failed at something. That is a lesson I learned from tennis. Even if I lost a match, I would always try to come out of the match saying “I played a great match. I did this and this. But I lost.” Sometimes you do the right things but you still lose. What is not ok is when you fail to do the right things and then lose because of that.
Tennis has especially helped me in crisis management. In everyday life, if something is going wrong, everybody’s crying, “fire drill, fire drill.” I’m usually like, “Calm down. What are we going to do next?” It’s easy for me to compartmentalize all these crisis situations. Let’s think about everything with a calm mind.
This is because of tennis. In tense moments during a match, you have to breathe and learn to take it one point at a time. It’s the same thing in life. You just have to learn to take it one step at a time, to calm down and take a deep breath. Things often do sort themselves out. But by panicking, we get nowhere.
Q) What are some of the tennis players you like watching right now?
Wow, there are a lot of them! Men’s tennis is so fun to watch now. I actually really like Medvedev. I find that a guy with nothing to lose is inspiring. He comes out and has a whole stadium against him sometimes. Then he performs so well. Federer, of course, what he is doing at this age is so remarkable. I like Novak, too. Very fun to watch.
On the women’s side, I am not as huge a fan of many players. There’s a lot of monotony in women’s tennis. That said, I do enjoy watching people who have some guile, who have different spins and shots. One of my favorite players used to be Martina Hingis. I played against her, and she would be changing speeds and spins all the time. It was remarkable what she could do.
Q) What are some of the Indian players you like watching?
I watch Prajnesh, and I watch Sumit. Prajnesh has a really fun game. He’s a left-hander, which I love to see. The problem with Prajnesh is that he has had such terrible draws! How bad were his draws in the last two Grand Slams. He had Milos Raonic in the first round at Wimbledon and then Medvedev at the US Open. That is so tough. You do need luck. You need to have a couple of decent rounds and then you get settled. It’s very hard to go in and face a hot player like Medvedev in the first round.
On the women’s side, Ankita Raina, I know her. She is a very, very talented young lady. She and Karman Kaur Thandi are the two female players that I have an eye on.
Q) What is some advice that you would give to Ankita and Karman?
I would love to see Ankita and Karman play on the tournament circuit in Europe. On the European circuit, you may not win much. But you can learn so much from playing there. Sumit has done that. You have to give him credit for it. I feel that it has elevated his game.
I think these two girls need to do that too, if they want to reach the next level. The tournaments in Europe may showcase some of their weaknesses, but that’s how you learn. Ankita and Karman have to do those kind of tough circuits to really get stronger mentally and physically.
They both can share a coach and travel together. I think that’ll really help them get better, and then they can play some doubles together.
In my career, I always wanted to travel with somebody. To travel alone was so difficult. When you have two people who are almost the same level and kind of the same age, we should think about using each other productively.
Q) One thing that I found interesting in reading your book is the comments you made about the importance of diet, nutrition, and food. Can you comment on that?
Diet is such a challenge, especially for us as Indians. Diet brings together professional and cultural factors.
When I was in Europe, I sometimes wish I ate some sort of meat. I picked one dish, I don’t know maybe chicken something. That would have made my life so much easier. And it would have helped me achieve some of my goals as an athlete. My mom will still be mad at me because I’m saying this now! Her whole contention is that a lot of athletes are vegan, why can’t you be vegan?
To be sure, there are athletes who are very successful vegans. Djokovic is one. But these athletes are not hurting for money. When I was young in Europe, I didn’t have money to go to great restaurants and eat vegan food. Instead I ate potatoes for a week in Belgium!
We need to see the diet as a professional necessity. As Indians sometimes, we shouldn’t talk about cultural things. You need to start thinking about it professionally. What would a professional do? What do you need to do professionally to gain the best nutrition and to be able to compete at the highest level?
Ultimately, I am not saying do not go vegan or whatever. I’m just saying you have to get your nutrients to be a professional. Do whatever it takes. If you only get chickens, so be it!
Q) Describe the experience of being a professional athlete while also being a mother. Serena Williams is notably competing as a mother. Can you talk a little bit about what she might be going through?
As a professional athlete, you’re supposed to be selfish. You have to think about your sleep, your food, your fitness, your workouts, and everything. When you have a child, that completely changes. The child that takes over.
I think when you become a mother while still being a professional tennis player, you have to set yourself a goal in your tennis career. You fit that career goal into the context of being a mother first. My goal, for example, was to play for the Indian national team. I wanted to win a medal too, and sadly, that didn’t happen. But I wanted to play for India. I made it happen.
Once that goal was achieved, I found that I either had to find a new goal to fit into my life as a mother, or I had to move on. When you are a parent and an athlete, your career becomes a series of goals that you can set for yourself in the context of your life as a mother.
Serena Williams is really inspiring in coming back after having her child. I think she has set her goal as winning another Grand Slam. I think that will happen. But after that, she will have to think about what’s next. She has to think of her next goal in the context of motherhood. My thought is that if Serena wins a Grand Slam, she may be hanging up her rackets. She’s achieved everything. I may be wrong, but that’s how I felt once I had the chance to compete for India as a mother. I had reached that goal.
Q) How did you handle the funding part when you were competing?
So what happened was when I first went to Europe to train, Indian Bank sponsored me. They gave me a good amount by Indian standards. That’s what we went to Europe with.
When I started living on my own, I had this chunk of money. The people who were training me at that point, they said when you win, you can give us money, which was very, very nice. When I would win a tournament, I would be able to pay them. The money that I had was enough for me to travel and compete.
I was living in Luxembourg at the time, which is so close to so many countries: Belgium, Holland, Germany, and France. These are countries where I would train and compete. Whenever possible, I would try to get the tournaments to host me.
By tournaments hosting players, I mean that there were families in the area that would host me, and other plays like me. These families housed us and fed us. We would be walking distance from the club. And it was quite fun to travel around Europe, compete in a sport that I love, and meet new people!
Q) What advice would you give to players today to address challenges of funding?
In Indian tennis, it is all about securing sponsors who can help fund your career, especially when you are first trying to make it. There are two issues to keep in mind when trying to secure funding.
The first is related to securing the sponsor in the first place. The players need to ask themselves why a sponsor would give them money. So if say Sumit Nagal came to the Bay Area, we need to get him to do a clinic or a program that promotes a sponsor. And then we’ll be able to begin collecting a decent amount for him. I didn’t understand that when I was younger. I would always ask why sponsors were not giving me money, when I was number one in India. I should have asked myself what I am giving a sponsor in return.
Sometimes I think we as players are very naive. I remember my dad typing out letters to all these top companies. Can you sponsor my daughter? Now thinking about it, I’m like, why would they do that? Players need to think about what they can give sponsors, outside of winning, to make the sponsoring worth it.
The second issue related to funding is that I think it would be great if you can get one or two other players that you can share a coach and a physio with. If the schedule can work out, you should travel together and do an entire European circuit or American circuit together. That could really help with saving money. You get the added benefit of building a friendship with a team member!
Q) What other challenges do you think tennis as a sport faces in India with respect to building popularity?
India is a fascinating sports place. Cricket is king, of course, and very popular. Tennis has not been marketed enough in India. Indians, in general, are very knowledgeable people. Everybody is so well-read. Like you go to Chennai, and even the auto-rickshaw guy will know who Federer is. But I don’t think we tap into that enough. We don’t really market our tennis players. I don’t think we have really good events in India that can make our players seen as idols.
We need to have more events in India, even if it’s just an exhibition with some of our players. We also need to go down to cities like Coimbatore or Vijayawada. Smaller cities, where people can begin to really love the sport. We need to market the sport in those places. I don’t think we’re doing enough of that.
Prajnesh Gunneswaran, for example, is the most under-marketed player I have ever seen. I don’t know anything about him. In order to win Grand Slams, these guys need to be heard first.
The other related point is India’s need to build up tennis at the grassroots level in India. There’s a lot of stuff that we can do for children. For example, we can work with primary schools to promote tennis. You can teach young children about tennis, just like what the USTA does. You can have 10 and under tennis, and you teach children on smaller courts, whatever it is. It is not that difficult to build a tennis court at a school, and have some rackets for children to use.
Q) Can you talk a bit about state-level tournaments in India and how that influenced your career?
I think it is too bad that there aren’t as many state tournaments in India as there used to be when I was first coming up as a tennis player. These tournaments used to have several divisions: under-12, under-14, under-16, under-18, and ladies general. When I competed in state tournaments, I could play in a couple categories, like for example, the under-14 and under-18 event as well. I was able to compete against women as a younger player. That really helped me get better.
These state tournaments also had prize money, so it was a way to get an introduction to professional competition. And, of course, performing well would allow you to fund travel to the state tournaments..
Another benefit was that the state tournaments were on different surfaces. Sometimes in the north of India or Bengal, we could play on grass.
These state tournaments also helped me see different parts of India. So, for example, I went to Varanasi for a state tournament. I was there for a week. You go to the club at 10 in the morning and play a couple matches. Then later during the day, you can hang out with friends. Then you travel together for the next tournament. It was really fun!
I am a bit sad that players do not have the opportunity to play in state-level tournaments in India today. We should have such a system. It would help players build camaraderie and also adjust to the life of a professional player.