“Watching Vijay Amritraj play on TV against the world’s best, an Indian from India, it was almost like he is representing me over there” – Gurnake Bains on the inspiration behind his and Naiktha’s journey into Tennis

This is a continuation of the II-part interview with Gurnake Bains, father of Naiktha Bains.

Read Part-I here: From being handpicked by Boris Becker to making the British Fed Cup team. Gurnake Bains, father of Naiktha, takes us though the young Punjabi’s journey.

In this part – II, Mr Bains takes us through Naiktha’s steady rise on the pro tour, the resurgence in late 2019 to make it to the top-200, the tough calls they had to take and on how Vijay Amritraj inspired their journey into Tennis.

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

Part II and Part III

4. Nikita Uberoi, an Ivy League graduate and now steadily making a name for herself on the Pro tour

5. ‘I chose the name ‘Astra’ which means the weapon of God and she has indeed lived up to that name!’ – Mr Devdutt Sharma shares a brief perspective as a parent on the journey of Astra Sharma

Assessment of Naiktha’s game

Naiktha has a great all-court game. As I mentioned before, she used to like whacking the ball every time. Trying to make her understand that it was not necessary all the time – to have her understand the different shots, the trajectories, the targets she can use to benefit her game and so on took time. She can run all day with her amazing fitness. 

We can make her serve a little bit bigger. It’s not going to be the biggest in the world but we can still make it get a few more free points. Naiktha’s serve strength lies in the serve placement. She was playing T Babos in Taipei and the serve speed difference between both was huge but Naiktha was still winning a reasonable amount of service points. So there are just different ways of cracking the egg. We need to build on that strength. 

Naiktha has got all the strokes and it’s about Naiktha working out how she will utilize those skills. 

Naiktha Bains with Darren Cahill

Naiktha’s performance in 2019. 

When Naiktha has been in the right frame of mind, she has always been competitive at the top level. 

She played Caroline Garcia on the indoor courts at Nottingham and had lost badly. Garcia played really well that day but you could see that Naiktha could match them for skill level and pace and so on. 

The match against Kurumi Nara in the 2nd qualifying round of the Australian Open was the highlight for me. The quality of the ball striking and the way she manipulated the ball around the court in that match was really good. If you want to know, how she wants to play the game – that was the perfect example on how Naiktha wants to play the game. She finished about 60% of the points at the net. She did it by using different trajectories, and different balls. The serve and volleying on set point was completely out of the blue for her opponent. It was a masterstroke at that time and her opponent didn’t read it all, gave her an easy volley to put away.  

Naiktha went through a tough phase in the middle of the year with plenty of losses.

We had decided to do a longer stint in the European season this year given her decision to represent Great Britain. She was always in Europe between April to June/July. This year, we decided to stay longer and she ended up staying till the US Open. We didn’t go back home to Brisbane in the middle at all. 

It was a very very long spell away from her mother, her brother and her Grandparents who live with her. You do these things for various reasons and then you learn along the way. She had got herself into a bit of a rut mentally. The fact that she wasn’t winning matches sort of compounded it. She had just talked herself into a bad place. 

We should not have gone to the US Open. But it’s a Slam and it is the first time you’ve qualified for this Grand Slam. So she made the choice to go straight from the UK. She was mentally fatigued. She lost 3 & 3 to a half-decent player but it wasn’t a performance that we wanted. 

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The retrospection after the US Open

We came home, had rest – we had an evaluation of where things were at, both mentally and physically. Naiktha was physically depleted as well. I suggested to her to have a break and probably call it a year. Naiktha was adamant that she wasn’t done for the year. She wanted to be home but wanted to get back into training again. We discussed about how we want the training sessions to be, not about the tennis aspect but more around the mental approach. 

She wanted to play the Australian circuit. To be fair, again the start wasn’t good as she lost matches early that she wasn’t expected to lose. She wasn’t 100% there but you could see that she was working on it and battling herself through it. She is the kind of player who would rather play and work on it, rather than take time off to work on her game. 

The change in fortunes!

You could see that there were better signs but things didn’t click till she played at Playford. 

She was up against Mari Osaka of Japan in R1 of the $60K ITF event. Mari was in a similar state of having not won much and it was pivotal for both. Whoever won that match, it could have set them on the path for the turnaround. For Naiktha, it was a very positive turn-around. On the scoreboard, the 61 62 win might come across as an easy win but it wasn’t. It was a high quality match. She won another round before losing a tight match in the quarters. She reached the doubles final as well, so she started feeling better about her game. 

It’s amazing how few wins can suddenly turn things around for a player. Of course we need to put in a lot of work to get those wins, no doubt about that. 

The big goal – To play at the Australian Open 2020

We had set out with a goal at the beginning of the W60 in Playford. She wanted to make it to the qualifying of the Australian Open. If we check off all her points that are coming off before the Australian Open, based on last years cut, she needed 60 points. She made 15 in Playford, 18 in Hua Hin.

WTA Taipei – First quarterfinal at a WTA event

Naiktha made the main draw in WTA Taipei. We discussed and said, we should be aiming to win 1 or 2 rounds. 

She got the draw and was up against the Arina Rodionova (Rank: 205), whom Naiktha had never beaten before. She played against Arina several times but has always lost. This match was unbelievable and it went on for about 2.5 hours. You could see that the things we’d been working on like doing what’s necessary on the ball and not what she wants to do, which is a big big change for her. Naiktha finally got through and it was a colossal win for her mentally. 

She was then up against Kaja Juvan (Rank: 126) in R2. Kaja is just pure fight, won’t give up on anything. Lost the first set and came back to win the second set. Naiktha was down 04 and brought it back to 24. In the 3-4 game, Naiktha was on deuce on her own serve. During the point, Naiktha came to the net, made a volley which made Kaja cover a lot of distance. During the process, Kaja lost her footing and twisted her ankle. Kaja had her ankle injured, tried to have it taped and get started again but that was it. She eventually lost in a tight 3 sets to Babos which was a colossal match.

Australian Open spot & the decision to play in India!

She got 29 points for this run in Taipei which meant she got 62 points now. Naiktha was like I am done, I made it to the Australian Open. However, the way the rankings had moved over the last few weeks, if the cut was now, Naiktha would probably move into the Australian Open qualies. But we’ve got 4 weeks left and there are tourneys left and everybody is trying to make their way into the Australian Open. Last year’s cut was 234 initially and then went down to 251. Naiktha ended up at 251 after that Taipei event and will likely make it but we were not sure of banking on it. 

We could not get the Indian Visa online in time to go straight to the Bhopal ITF event. So we had to do a late withdrawal. However it worked out as it allowed Naiktha to come home for 2 weeks to do some physical work, relax a bit, get mentally right and then back to playing in India.

At the end of the day, I had left it up to her as she made it to 249 in the live rankings but it was her decision as  he wanted to guarantee playing the Australian Open. 

Naiktha’s visit and family in India

Naiktha had visited her ancestral home in Sagarpur when she was 10 and also played in the WTA Mumbai Open in the past. 

We have Uncles and distant relatives in India but none that we keep in regular contact with. My dad still has a house there. We see them from time to time but not regular contact as such. 

On the career high ranking and the 2 finals in India

It’s been an unbelievable turnaround since Playford, result wise, but Naiktha has to take full credit for her turnaround. She made a conscious decision to not want to be the person she’d allowed herself to become. She decided she was better than that and made a lot of personal changes and then started to work as the person she wanted to be. We laugh about it now and refer to her as Naiktha 2.2 (signifying 2020 and her evolving into the person she wants to be). The work on the court started after her disappointing run ending in her performance at the US Open, but did not show up in the results until Playford. The results are a product of her decisions and the work she has put in. The mind is an amazing resource once a person learns to engage it. 

Naiktha Bains – Finalist in Solapur

Impact of technology on Tennis

Things like video footage, video analysis, charting of the matches are all useful to have. Stats are good but you’ve got to look at the conditions, whom you are playing, strengths of yourself and so on. It can’t be generalised that easily. There’s a big push to use stats to change how people play the game. I think the stats are useful but to dictate how a federation or academy coaches, everybody is denying the fact that everybody is an individual and that there will always be different types of players and game styles. Assuming that everyone should finish the point in under 4 shots is ridiculous as a philosophy in itself to dictate how you work and develop every player.

The cherished meeting with your childhood icon – Vijay Amritraj!

Vijay Amritraj was my hero as a kid. He was the reason why I played Tennis as a youngster. I saw a brown skinned Indian wearing a gold-chain or cross and matching the greats like Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors for god’s-sake! Watching him play on TV and play those great matches against the world’s best. It was almost like he is representing me over there – an Indian from India. For me, it was massive to just watch him play. That’s how I started playing Tennis, hitting on a wall and so on. I had never known or met him in person though. 

We were in the Hong Kong Airport Lounge after the long flight from Brisbane to Hong Kong. I had gone up to the coffee kiosk – a bit dazed with the long flight. There was a big tall man standing up there. I didn’t look at him or anything. He was so tall that I would only come up to his chest high. I was thinking about the type of coffee to take and so on. Then he spoke and my eyes looked at him and I went like – Oh my God! I just could not believe it. 

He sort of looked at me as if I am alright or not. 

I spoke to him and said that YOU were my childhood hero. We got talking and we spoke for nearly two hours! I was like, hope you are not missing your flight. We talked about Coffee, Tennis and then told him about Naiktha, how we are going to England to play a tourney. Then he told me to introduce him to her. 

I introduced Naiktha and told Naiktha that – ‘You wouldn’t believe who this is, he is my idol from my childhood’. Her initial response was – ‘So you play Football?’. She thought I wouldn’t react like this to a Tennis player as Tennis wasn’t my first sport. She knew who Vijay Amritraj was but hadn’t followed Indian Tennis from before her era. Then I had to tell her that it was ‘VIJAY AMRITRAJ!’. She went like, ‘I am so sorry’. 

Anyway, he was a true gentleman and spoke to her for an hour or so. He was one of the best players in the 1980s pushing the likes of Connors and so on. It was a truly memorable experience.

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