Naiktha Bains, a British of Indian origin from Punjab, has been gradually making a name for herself on the WTA Tour and cracked the WTA top-200 ranking in the 2019 year-end rankings. Naiktha has also made it to the British Fed Cup team for the tie against Slovakia in Slovakia – a huge accomplishment.
Spotted by Boris Becker via Ariel Tennis Ace competition, the young 22-yr old is coached by her dad Gurnake Bains. Mr Bains moved to the UK from Punjab and was a semi-professional football player himself. He has been the pillar behind his daughter’s rise in the world of Tennis.
In this interview, Mr Gurnake Bains takes us through their journey from Punjab to the UK, Naiktha’s emergence through a talent search by Boris Becker, the role of legendary coach Gary Stickler, the experience on the ITF Junior Tour, the interesting duels against Jelena Ostapenko & Sofia Kenin and an insight into Naiktha Bains – the meticulous planner.
You were a semi-professional athlete yourself.
As a kid, I just played sport like everyone else. There were no video games back then. I was keen on several sports with Football and Tennis being the prominent ones. Football was my first love, I started playing since the age of 6 and played for the school team. I also played at the county level after that and then ended up playing semi-professionally.
I was on the verge of professional status with couple of clubs but I tore a ligament which was unfortunate and so ended up playing in the county leagues in Yorkshire. I used to get a little bit of money, nothing like the professionals earn now. It was more like pocket money.
You are a Punjabi who was born in India and has lived in the UK and Australia.
I was born in a small village called Sagarpur near Nurmahal which is close to Jalandhar in the state of Punjab. I was 2 years old when we migrated from Punjab to the UK. The British had a program then to populate the workforce of UK from its colonies, so my parents came over. My brother and sister were born here and I was the only child born in Punjab, India.
We moved to Leeds when I was around 6-8 yrs old and we have always lived in Leeds from then on. After about 40 odd years, we moved to Brisbane, Australia. We live here now and it was a good decision for us – the weather is nice over here.
Naiktha’s diverse background
She always saw herself as British even though she moved to Australia when she was 8. It is similar to me – I always consider myself a Punjabi having been born there.
She fits in well everywhere – she has got lot of Australian friends, British friends and a lot of Indian friends on the tour too. She plays and gets along with most of the Indian girls, plays doubles with some of them too.
So overall she has managed it well and it hasn’t had any negative impact on her in any way.
Naiktha’s background in Tennis.
She was in school at Leeds and as a family, we were into sports. We were members of the David Lloyd Club and used to go there as a family to do gym, swimming, sauna and also a bit of Tennis on the indoor courts just to be active.
In the winter, there was not much to do in Leeds and so we used to hang out at the club. One day, my wife came home and said that she will put Naiktha in one of the tennis groups at David Lloyds as her friends from school were going. I was against it in my typical Punjabi mentality and said that I know Tennis and I can teach Naiktha how to play Tennis. I don’t need to pay someone to teach Naiktha how to play Tennis. But my wife didn’t listen, went behind my back and enrolled Naiktha into the Tiny Tots tennis group and told me that she is there with her friends – which left me with no choice!
Naiktha’s gradual progression in Tennis
Naiktha came home crying one day, as the squad members who were running her group, wanted to move her up to the higher group with older people because she was skilled enough. She didn’t want to leave the group as that was the reason she joined the group in the first place, to be with her friends.
Then we had a chat about it and convinced her to give it a try because she might actually be good at it. She had done a lot of sports before then from Gymnastics to Ballet to Cross-country swimming and so on at school, so she was pretty athletic. So sports came naturally to Naiktha. It just progressed up from group to group from then on.
Naiktha Bains is a special talent – the first realization
The first time that it clicked to me that she had some innate ability in tennis was when I went over to watch her play in one of those tiny tot groups. There were only 1-2 girls in the group and so she was playing mostly against the boys.
There was a mini-tennis match against one of the kids and I see her drop down and hit a cross-court backhand topspin winner. I remember going like – wow that was pretty good. That was my first memory of getting a sense of what she was doing with her tennis racquet.
It still wasn’t a calling as such that we should do this and that – we just went about it as having fun on the court. She enjoyed competition. She was comfortable hanging out with the guys and was very competitive with them. We are still in contact with some of the guys now in England. They still chat on Instagram or on social media – a couple of them are still playing.
Naiktha Bains – Winner – Ariel Nationwide Tennis Ace competition winner!
We were at the David Lloyd club and somebody shared an update about a competition that is on this weekend and it was a Talent Identification competition with the LTA for the region. It was called the Ariel Tennis Ace competition. The signup deadline had passed but I rang them up and they said, get your daughter along on Saturday. We went and she ended up winning that.
There was a boy and a girl chosen from each region. She was identified as someone who matches the skills they were looking for – hand-eye coordination, speed, ball hitting ability, the fighting abilities, change of direction, and so on which was very fascinating. For example – they looked at what are the qualities of a Professional Tennis Player, went backwards and mapped something like – for a person to show this quality, they need to exhibit this and this in terms of foot speed and similar attributes and worked out how they could test that. They ran the tests on those kids and she ended up not only winning the Yorkshire competition but also the entire Nationwide event with more than 10,000 kids for the age group of 7-10 in 2005.
What happened was that at the final leg of this competition, they took 20 people i.e., 2 people from each region, took them over for the weekend and did some more testing. They took all of them to the Trafalga Square in London on an artificial grass court laid over there. They got Tim Henman and Boris Becker over there and shared with them all the results they had. They highlighted the top 3-4 kids that had scored highest on the testing of which Naiktha was one and had them choose the winner. Naiktha was chosen out of them all! Apparently, they chose Naiktha as she did not look afraid and just stepped up with Henman and Becker and just smashed each ball.
It was cordoned off area with lots of press and TV and about 10,000 tourists walking around. Tim Henman came out to hit with the kids and she was the only one who was unflustered. She just saw it as an opponent. She wasn’t hitting many balls in, probably wild as anything and Henman was stretching all around to keep the ball in. It was more about the commitment that Naiktha showed to keep hitting every ball so hard and that was the actual thing which Boris Becker highlighted as well that he likes the fact that she hits the ball very hard every time!
Then Naiktha and the boy that was chosen had a hit on the practice courts at Wimbledon with Boris Becker and LTA coach Jeremy Bates, who has funnily enough become her case manager after her move to represent Great Britain.
Naiktha to pursue Tennis as her career path
From there on, it was pretty clear that she was going to pursue this as long as she kept loving the sport. She has the same sort of love for Tennis as I had for Football. Even now, I can’t pass a couple of kids playing football without saying ‘Hey, pass me the ball!’ and do a bit of juggling before passing it back to them. It is just in the blood and she has the same passion for Tennis.
I know there is a lot of money in the sport now but once you lose the love for the sport or do not enjoy it then it just becomes another job. It is a sport at the end of the day. It’s not about the money for her but it’s about the enjoyment.
Finding her base in Australia
She couldn’t really follow through on that Talent Identification program with the LTA because right after, she moved half-way around the world to Australia.
When we came to Australia, we sort of looked around to identify the best place for her to train. We ran into Gary Stickler who ran Lifetime Tennis here in Brisbane. It was a godsend because they thought her how to play Tennis properly. She was taught an all-round game that was suited to her skills. They’ve been fundamental to Naiktha’s game along with me, I’ve learnt a lot from them as well. She still trains there as Brisbane is home for her and it’s a bit like give-back for her for what Gary has and continues to do for her. he’s like a second father to her.
On Gary Stickler
Naiktha Bains with Gary Stickler (left)
He has a good eye for Tennis and has been involved in Tennis for a very very long time. Gary was involved with the likes of Pat Rafter, John Millman and several others. He took her under his wing and helped her learn the game.
Back then, we had a look around everywhere and to me, Gary made sense because everywhere else it was just hitting the balls while Gary was actually making Naiktha think about the game which is an area that is overlooked a lot at the junior level. A lot of coaches focus on the technical development, which is fine, but at the end of the day, there’s a lot more to it than that. What you do before the contact point, ensuring your preparation is correct and so on is key but beyond that, it does not matter how your swing looks like after you hit the ball and so on. Too many coaches teach kids to be robots, by trying to manufacture set responses that are uniform to handle a ball that is different depending on who you are playing and what the conditions are on the day. For me it’s about adaptation and adjustment. You just can’t hit the ball the same way every time, so teaching uniform stroke production and finish after the ball has left the racquet doesn’t sit well with me.
Gary had conversations with me when he first started to work with 8-yr old Naiktha Bains about:
– reviewing her attributes both in terms of as a person as well as skill-wise
– the kind of game-style that Naiktha wants to play
– he would aim for 10 yrs down the line when she is likely to break onto the tour
– look where the game will be then and build a game around her attributes to stand up at the pro level
That blew me away. How much foresight was there in this man’s thought process.
Naiktha’s junior career
As a junior, we had done all the big tourneys that are there. She had won multiple Nationals and 3 ITF Junior titles by the age of 13. At U12 & 14, it was the Eddie Herr, the Orange Bowl, Tarbes and so on. She was actually signed up at the Orange bowl by IMG at 13. Along with that, Naiktha won the school, school-state, school-national championships.
2013 Orange Bowl Doubles Champion – Naiktha Bains and Tornado Alicia Black
Photo: U14s Grass Court Champion in Australia in 2011
Her junior ITF career started in Slovenia while playing on the European tour and she lost 0 & 2 to Kristyna Hrabalova.
However, a month later, she went to New Zealand, was unseeded and ended up winning the tourney. Two weeks later, she played her next ITF in Sydney and she won that event as well! Then she played a Grade 4 and she won that as well. So she won 3 singles titles in a row as a 13-yr old on the ITF Tour. At that stage, there was talk that she was the highest ranked 13-yr old in the world. She got signed up by IMG and then Adidas on a 5-yr contract. Dunlop had been supporting Naiktha as well.
Naiktha Bains with her first ITF Jr title – Waikato ITF Grade V championship in New Zealand in August 2011
Naiktha Bains after the hat-trick of titles as a 13-yr old on the ITF Junior Tour
Naiktha at the major tourneys in juniors
Naiktha made the U14 Eddie Herr semis. She did not win a slam but made 3-4 semis in Grand Slams in doubles.
Naiktha also made R16 at the Australian Open and then lost to Jelena Ostapenko. She lost the match after being up 63 52 which was tough. A month before at Eddie Herr, Naiktha lost to Sofia Kenin (playing the Australian Open singles final tonight!) after being up 61 52 (40-15) – These are players who are in the top echelons of the Pro tour now and were great experiences for Naiktha then. She also played Daria Kasatkina (Top-10) in the Junior Fed Cup final. The fact that Naiktha was playing against these girls and competing well against them was pretty good.
Naiktha’s best result in Juniors
Her biggest result was making the final of the 55° Trofeo Bonfiglio, a Grade A event in Milan. This came out of nowhere and on clay which was phenomenal because if you can play on clay, then you can play on most surfaces.
Naiktha lost in the final to CiCi Bellis 3 & 4. I remember the match as Naiktha was serving badly to the point where the crowd started clapping in rhythm, like how they do to get someone over the line, to get Naiktha going. Naiktha had about 16 double faults in that match.
Naiktha’s game at the junior level
Her junior career was very similar to her senior career i.e., steady progress. The reason behind that is probably her size, she is not a massive physical specimen. She hits the ball bigger than many girls out there but physicality and size helps you transition quicker and gets you better results in juniors too.
She has got a lot of aspects to her game like volleying, taking the ball early, coming forward and has a lot of variety in her game. She has a lot of choices on the court. She is putting together a more complicated game and so everyone who has been involved, would mention that it will be a longer journey.
So her trajectory has been nice and steady on both the junior and pro tours now. Naiktha expected the journey to be a bit quicker than that but that’s life.
Tough losses against Sofia Kenin and Jelena Ostapenko. Any psychological impact?
Mentally these kinds of losses tend to stay with you for a bit. In Tennis, we are generally talking about very fine margins and it about how you handle them mentally.
Against Ostapenko, on one of the match points, Ostapenko had smashed one of the balls which landed on the line as per the umpire while Naiktha thought it was out. Naiktha had left the ball hoping it would be out – she could have played and probably got it back in but anyway, that one point just turned the match. Naiktha got a bit angry and frustrated. And Ostapenko, we all know her game, just bang, bang and bang. It was the winner after winner after that. It was an accident waiting to happen but thats Tennis at the end of the day. You can’t really read too much into it. I am a big believer that if you make it an issue, it becomes an issue.
If that call was out, Naiktha would have been in the quarters. It’s all fine margins. You get calls like that in your life going either way and Naiktha had her moments where she came back and won matches like that as well. It’s just part of Tennis.
College Tennis route considerations.
She had a lot of good offers from good colleges. Naiktha was top-20 in the juniors and so she had quite a few chasing her. I actually suggested to her to take it for a year to help her with maturity and the physicality a little bit but she was adamant that she did not want it and it was Naiktha’s choice ultimately.
The dual role of a parent and coach for Naiktha
It is very difficult. It is often very difficult for the kids to understand that you are actually not getting at them but trying to help their tennis. So that line is very difficult. At times, it can cause tension because who likes their parents to go on about a particular thing repeatedly at a time when you don’t want to hear it? We both are aware of it and try to address it too.
Photo credits: Indulge Magazine
We have worked with different set of coaches as well. It’s not like I think of myself as the best coach in the world and know what she needs in her game all the time. We tap into Gary Stickler in Brisbane, Jeremy Bates her case manager at the LTA and when she was growing up, Darren Cahill was involved through the Adidas program. We had a bit of time with Sven Groenwald. I have been the main coach but we tapped into the knowledge of several top coaches and we will continue to do that.
At the end of the day, we’ve got to be open to new ideas and approaches too because it’s all about working towards enabling her to achieve her ambition. I am pretty thorough in this as a businessman. One needs to go and get what he/she needs to enable him/her to achieve the goal. Its as simple as that.
Your transition from being a Football player to a Tennis parent/coach.
The fundamentals between Football and Tennis are very very similar. I was a Football coach as well. In Football, we are playing with a ball – we are using our feet, our chest and head. In Tennis, we are using our arms, wrist and hands. The balls are different sizes. In one sport, the majority of the time, it is about passing the ball whereas in Tennis, you are trying to force through to hit a winner or force an error. In Football as well, you are eventually trying to score a goal.
The fundamentals in the trajectories and the technique involved are very very similar. You put various spins on the ball in Football to pass it. It is similar in Tennis – you put spin, you have different trajectories.
In Football, you have to receive the ball in order to pass it. So the positioning on the ball has to be key. If you don’t receive and place the ball properly, it will not go to the place that you want it to go to. In Tennis, you are receiving the opponent shot and so you have to adjust your body position in order to hit it where you want to.
So the spacing and the preparation is very similar. The fundamentals are similar. I had played Tennis at the Club level as well – so it was not like I did not have any background in Tennis.
The early preparation to be able to release your hands – it is as simple as that. The preparation and the release. You compare it to any sport – even in Baseball, for the pitches and throws, it is about the position behind the wrist to get it to do what you want it to do. Understanding of the basic science is the key here.
Naiktha is the only player that I’ve worked with. So it could be that we both think along the same lines and this approach has worked for us. Other players might find it a bit hard to follow. For me, it has been very simple.
For me, the biggest area of Tennis coaching is making your player feel good and ready to compete. I remember Darren Cahill’s advice very well – his advice to Naiktha was – ‘see the ball, hit the ball’. That’s pretty simple isn’t it coming from one of the best coaches in the world.
I have been fortunate enough to be around top-notch coaches like that and learn a thing or two from them.
Photo credits: BBC
Tennis is a costly sport. How were you and Naiktha able to manage it?
Money was never a consideration as she was being sponsored since the teenage years. Even before that, she was offered a scholarship by Gary Stickler.
Naiktha has been extremely judicious in utilization of the sponsorship money that she has been getting. She puts it in a specific tennis account and is cautious on how to make the best use of that money without any wastage. So far, touchwood, through a combination of Naiktha’s sponsorship and earnings, I’ve not spent any money on her Tennis. She has been self-funding from the age of 12, which is pretty amazing.
I’ve been traveling with her as a coach for several years now – she doesn’t pay me as a coach but she takes care of all the other bills right from the accommodation to the flights. I’m obviously there if she needs me but its been all by herself.
I’ve been lucky with both my kids actually. My son, 26 yrs old, is a musician and is starting to break through now. He’s done it all by himself as well.
On being honest to self as an aspiring Pro athlete
I think it’s important for the parents to give the ownership to the kids. It’s easy for us parents to say that hey I’ll sort it out and so on but the kids need to be realistic. It’s one of those reasons why Naiktha has never spent sponsorship money on herself for things like clothes, shoes and so on because she realized the value of money. She’s got all the calculations in her head on the money she needs, what she has already and where she needs to invest further to move up the rankings and so on.
There are a lot of parents out there who spend a lot of money on their kids for their Tennis. For me, there has got to be a bit of realism. I don’t think we’d be on this Tennis journey if Naiktha hadn’t been ticking the boxes as we’ve been going along. She won the national titles, international titles, reached World Jr rank of No.17 and has been progressing slowly every year on the Pro tour (now within the top-250). If Naiktha was still ranked in the 1200s or something after 4 or 5 years, then there has to be a bit of a reality check. Hang on a minute.
Obviously you do not make much money until you make it to the top-100. Naiktha has probably 2 years more before she cracks the top-100. If she doesn’t, it may not be her thing. I am not a believer in being at the 300s and 400s for years thinking that someday things will work out. You should have figured out why things have not progressed so far and have a plan for how things will change to make that transition. To me, you are not making a living from this sport by being ranked in the 300s or higher. The players and the parents get that feeling themselves and they have to be truthful to it – either have a realistic plan on how to break that barrier or move on.