Nobody would have imagined seeing our young Indian Fed Cup team making it to the World Group Playoffs for the first time in history but for the likes of the captain of the team itself. While talking to us at his home in Delhi a week before heading to Dubai for the qualifiers of the Fed Cup, Mr. Vishaal Uppal was extremely motivated and quite confident of putting up a good show.

It is no secret that he has kept the team in good spirits and gave them full freedom to execute their plans in full flow. The results speak for themselves. The belief and the confidence came from his own journey and the ideology & mindset he was brought up with. Read below to find out more about the journey of the man –

Captain Uppal after the team qualified for the Fed Cup World Group Playoffs for the first time ever (Credits – Timmy Thomas)

Initial journey

How did your journey into Tennis begin ?

My journey into tennis began with a bit of an accident in terms of it was very hot to play cricket in the school break and so a couple of my friends decided that we should play tennis. And I went to Modern School Barakhamba road (6 lovely tennis courts there) and since I was the fastest guy in the batch, as soon as the break bell used to ring, I used to run to the court and we used to play. So it started off like that.

My father is an avid tennis player. He plays tennis every day. As a kid, I used to go to his club but I used to ball boy for him. I started playing in school and within one week, our coach Mr. Ramlal saw me and said that he would take me to a tournament and I did really well in that tournament. Somewhere that started my love for tennis. 

Uppal as a kid

Who were the initial set of coaches and academy that you went to ?

My first academy experience was in the National stadium. I was there for about 3-4 months. Then I moved to the academy at Nehru stadium where Mr. Vijay Dhawan was my coach there. From there, I moved to DLTA at the age of 11 and then Mr. Vinod Kumar(son of Mr. Ramlal) used to coach in DLTA and I have just been a DLTA boy. Mr. Kanwaljeet Singh and Mr. T. Chandrashekhar helped in developing my skills. Coaches have come and gone and I have stayed at DLTA. 

Uppal hitting a forehand

When did you realize that you were good at this and can pursue it more seriously ?

Right from my childhood I wanted to pursue sport. My dream was always to play for India, to win for India and it so happened when I was 11/12 years old that I started to love playing tennis. That became my path, that became my passion. Tennis became my vehicle to fulfill my dream to play for India.

What were some of your first set of competitive tourneys and how was the experience of traveling for them?

My first tournament that I ever played was the Father O’ Brien tournament which was at Mount St. Mary’s school. It was a very popular tournament in the Delhi circuit. I reached the SFs there and I beat a couple of top Delhi boys that time and I kind of got interested going that way. When I started playing more and more tournaments, we used to have a summer circuit in Delhi which used to be like 6 weeks of competitions in summer holidays and I lost in the 2nd round of all 6 weeks to the same player 8-1 (all six weeks in a row). He was my senior from school. This guy troubled me a lot and I told him I am going to beat you next year. And yeah I did beat him next year.

Just playing these tournaments and being competitive really got me to wanting to play more so every defeat would spurt me to work harder. That was my initial foundation and I started playing well and I became Delhi no.1 in under-14 but still nationally I was really nowhere. My under-16 year was my breakthrough year in which I reached the final of a national championship playing as a qualifier. I also won my first national championship in my under-16 year. 

The first national tournament that I played, I went to Gwalior and I had taken Rs 500 from Mom,Dad to go for that tournament and the IG of Gwalior was organizing the tournament so everything was free. Food, stay and everything and it was great. The next tournament that we went to was in Lucknow for the national championships and we took Rs. 200 and there we had to pay for everything. We were 5 boys, we stayed in the same room (3 on the bed, 2 on the floor and we kept rotating). We toughed it out.

Uppal during a junior tournament
Intikhab Ali, Y Sandeep, Vishal Uppal, Jahnvi Parekh and Uzma Khan Winners of Shriram Open Junior Nationals 1993 (Credits – Kamesh Srinivasan)

You only played 2 Jr ITF events – how would you summarize your junior career ?

I had a very good junior career. I was ranked no. 1 in under-16 and no. 1 in under-18. That time, there used to be only 2 ITF Jr tournaments in India and I didnt get any funding to play outside of India. Even though I was ranked no. 1 in India and was beating pretty much every guy here, it was quite tough to get funding to go out. I played two tournaments and I did quite well in them. I won doubles both weeks and one finals and one semis in singles. I had a good junior experience.

Uppal as he was starting out on the seniors tour

Pro journey

You began your pro tour journey by playing in the Malaysian Masters event. Was this your first pro tour event abroad ? How was this experience of playing abroad for the first time and probably traveling alone ?

In 1995, we went to the ITF Satellite to Malaysia. That was the first time I had travelled outside of India and that too without my parents. It was an extremely good learning curve. It taught me so much more about my life. I had to make decisions on my own and it really helped me grow up. Today’s kids are too dependent on their parents and the parents are too overbearing on their kids so the personality of the kids is really not coming out.

Tennis is all about decision making and if you don’t have the ability to make decisions then finding success on tennis court is difficult. In that sense, that journey was extremely important. I remember the first person I saw there was this 6 ft 7 inch Dutchman and I said I don’t want to play this guy. I happened to play him in the third week and I happened to beat him 6-4 6-4 in the match. After the match, I got my chair and stood on it to shake his hands. It was quite a funny moment. 

Uppal exults after winning match

You had some of your best moments in 1999/2000 and you played against some quality opponents in Paradorn Srichapan, Arvind Parmar, Aisam Quereshi and so on. Any fond memories of these matches?

I remember my match very clearly with Paradorn. I lost to him 7-6 in the final set. I lost 3-6, 5-7, 6-7. I wasn’t feeling well the day before and I didnt know that I could go out and play. But somewhere I just played so easily and so freely and Paradorn came up with a couple of incredible shots to break me in the second set.

The next year Paradorn went on to become the top-10 in the world. I fought hard against all these guys. Aisam and I played very close matches. I had a lot of close encounters with the British players and I was one of the guys the foreigners didn’t want to play in India because I never had the funding to travel out that much and in India I was quite dangerous.

Uppal hitting a sliced backhand

You had a formidable run in doubles with Mustafa Ghouse during this time resulting in your Davis Cup debut. What do you think contributed towards your success with Mustafa?

Mustafa and I had a great run. We also won our Asian games medal together in 2002 when nobody expected us to win. I think in the QFs we beat Tomashevich and Kutsenko from Uzbekistan who were at that time the hottest players in Asia other than Leander. It was a big shock for everyone that we beat them and won a medal for India.

Mustafa and I made a good combination. He preferred the forehand court, I preferred the backhand court. We both had good big serves. That time playing doubles was much tougher. Because you had to win best of 3 tiebreak sets, so even at deuce if you happen to win a point and get a break point, you knew the good teams are going to come up with a big play. Our doubles matches went down 3 hours that time. So we had a lot of hard work to do to even win a doubles match. We had a good run.

Talk us through your Davis Cup debut in 2000 – how did the call come in, the atmosphere in the team, playing with Leander, winning against Korea. 

That’s the dream I had been waiting for. That’s what I have been working towards all these years.

Before the tie against Korea, I was a reserve in the tie against Lebanon. In the practice sets, I was working so hard that I beat everyone in the team. I even beat Leander a set in practice. For the next tie, Mahesh was injured and because of the hard work I put in over the past few years and the fact that I was good on grass I got the call. I don’t think they expected me to play the tie. Ten days before the tournament where we were assembled and practicing, I was basically practicing the deuce court in doubles because the combinations being tried out were either Leander and Fazal or Leander and Srinath and they really didn’t think that I was ready and I think just the way Fazal played on day 1, they realized that they need to do something dramatic.

I remember our captain Ramesh Krishnan that time calling me in the evening and saying that are you ready to play tomorrow. My answer was if I am not ready today then I will never be ready. That was probably the best match that I ever played in my life in terms of knowing the magnitude of the occasion, knowing that we had to win the doubles because Leander was favourite to win his 2 singles and the Koreans were favourite to win their 2 singles. The rest is history on that because I remember the Korean captain after the match in the press conference did say that I was the reason India won which felt really special because you played with somebody you looked up to, your captain is the person you have grown up admiring.

It was a really special win for us and a very special day for me, for my family since we were working really hard towards it. It was interesting because 9 years before when India played against South Korea on the same court, Ramesh Krishnan and Leander were playing that time and I was a ball boy for that tie and I made my debut against the same country on the same court with Ramesh Krishnan as my captain and Leander Paes as my partner. 

Uppal partnering with Leander Paes

Your next opportunity was in the 2002 Davis Cup tie against Australia facing Lleyton Hewitt and Todd Woodbridge. Any memories of this tie. 

It was a fascinating experience. We could have won the second set against them. I missed an overhead which still haunts me. 5-4 in the tiebreaker, windy Adelaide conditions, I should have let that ball bounce and then hit an overhead but we played a good match, a tough match against them.

Hewitt was world no. 1 in singles and Woodbridge was world no. 1 in doubles that time and Leander was carrying a little bit of niggling injury from the previous day so it made tough for us but we gave them a good fight and the Australian crowd (the fanatics as they say) on day 3, they actually cheered for India. I went and sat in the middle of the fanatics and I made them cheer for India. In the fanatics, the guy who used to play the trumpet Darren Smith, he and I became so close friends that I was the groomsman at his wedding. 

Reflection

As you look back on your pro tour career, were there any aspects that you would have done differently?

Oh yes absolutely! Hindsight is always 20/20. When you look back at your career, you always wanted to look at how I could have done things a little better. That time there wasn’t as much knowledge in India or good enough trainers or enough opportunities to play in international tournaments so growing up was tough for us in terms of getting exposure, a little bit of a challenge.

Would I have done a few things differently ? Absolutely. I think if I could have had a good trainer who could have helped me take care of my injuries. Having said that, I did the best that I could do with the resources that were available to me. I am the guy who wants to look at life as half full and not half empty. Lots of lessons from that journey which I now try to pass on to people whom I interact with and help them in their journey.

Lots of Pro tour players these days talk about lack of funding and sponsorship, how was the scenario for you back then? Did you have any sponsorship support, if not how were you able to manage?

Let’s say if today’s guys get Rs. 100 in funding, we were lucky if we got Rs. 1. We had zero funding. For us to get a racquet contract was a big deal, a clothing contract was an even bigger deal, getting money was a long way away. There was no question of funding, no government funding, nothing. The only time I got funding from the government was when I won the Asian games medal, I got a reward for that.

Funding has always been an issue and I hope funding does not remain a big issue. We have been talking about it for so long and unfortunately people in our country cannot look beyond cricket and it’s a sad thing as a lot of our talent goes begging. People don’t realize in this country how tough a sport tennis is. If you are top 500 in the world in tennis, damn you are a bloody good player. People don’t realize that and what they don’t realize is that tennis is a truly global sport played by players from over 200 countries.

You need to invest in a lot of guys and not just 1 or 2 guys so that a couple of them come out of that system. It was tough for us, today even a 12 year old has a racquet contract so in that sense, the scenario has improved. But when it comes to funding for playing more competitively and being able to go abroad and play and being able to travel with a coach which is very important, I think that still lacks majorly and we really need to get things going on that front.

You had a career high in doubles of 255. If you have to reflect, what do you think were the strengths in your game and what are the aspects that held you back from cracking the top-100 in doubles?

One of the factors was we did not have enough opportunities and money to play tournaments. If you don’t play enough tournaments, you don’t get to move up the rankings. But it was what it was.

But my biggest strength was I had a big heart. I was always up for a fight and a challenge. I think that is a far more important ingredient than having a good forehand, backhand or volley. Having said that, I had a strong serve and a strong volley. But surely, if I had more opportunities to play tournaments, I would have been ranked much higher, both in singles and doubles.

Can you shed a bit more light on your support team back then? Who were the people that were your backbone?

My backbone has always been my family – they’ve never let me slouch my shoulders or beat me up on myself. And they never did that either. Every time I won, they would say “Well done, son”, and every time I lost, they would say “Well done, never mind. Try harder next time”. Their attitude was always so encouraging and positive that I never felt scared playing a match. They treated me the same when I came back home, win or lose. That was a big thing.

Other than that, I’ve interacted with a bunch of coaches that have helped me through my journey. And after 1999, once I was done with my playing career, my coach from the US, Happy Bhalla, helped me out a lot. So I thank him for that. And all my coaches, be it Mr. Kanwaljeet Singh or T.Chandrashekhar, I thank all these guys for the knowledge they gave me.

Did you or your family ever doubt if it was all worth it? What kept you going?

Not a single day. My father, mother and grandfather, brought me up with the philosophy of giving your 100% in whatever you do. 99% is not good enough. When you are brought up with that attitude, it isn’t really about the result, but how you are doing it. It’s about the karma, and not about the fruit that you might get out of the karma.

So my family never said “What are you doing? You are wasting your time.” It was really encouraging. But my folks always wanted me to get my education done as well, as it’s important to have a plan B. Hence I went to SRCC, got a B.Com(Hons.) degree. 

What do you remember from playing on the professional tour. Players talk about how lonely it is at times and depression. Can you touch upon that a bit?

Yes it can get very lonely, especially when things are not going your way. Having said that, you also meet some great people along the way, and make good friends. There are friendships that last through a lifetime. So there are positives and negatives. That’s the nature of the journey. And the more you are accepting and aware of it, the less lonely and depressed you feel.

Like I said, it can get lonely if you are not winning matches, but if you are, it’s a very big high. Moreover, if you are truly, madly, deeply in love with the sport, the journey becomes a whole lot easier.

Journey into the Coaching career

You were employed with GAIL. So what made you quit that path and move into coaching?

I was only in GAIL to get some financial support, as there was absence of any real funding, like I said earlier. But my aim was never to work in an office, or the public sector. I wanted to be attached to my sport and I wanted to see how I could contribute to my sport, by making the journeys of the future players easier than my own.

Just like Tennis happened to me by accident, coaching also happened to me by accident, as I never wanted to become a coach, especially in India. Because in India, we become too used to mediocrity. Somehow, it doesn’t work for me. So one thirteen year old girl (Ambika Pande) convinced me to coach her, and that’s how it began.

Uppal with Ankita Raina
Uppal with Ankita Raina

How was your initial journey into the world of coaching? What was the first center that you started off with?

DLTA(Delhi Lawn Tennis Association) has been my home since I was eleven years old. Till today, I have a training facility there. In the last three years, I built a facility in Gurgaon. It’s now named “The Tennis Project”. So I have these two centres.

My journey into tennis coaching was and is a big learning curve for me. To be a good coach, you need to be a good student of the game. For me, learning doesn’t stop. I need to keep learning, and be aware of what’s going on. I need to constantly keep looking for ways in which I can help my players, or anybody who wants my advice.

Uppal with Rutuja Bhosale
Uppal on the courts as our captain

You are currently involved both at DLTA and The Tennis Project. Can you talk about your engagements at both the places?

I have had some great guys and girls coming through from the systems that I have created. A few of them are Adil Kalyanpur, Tanisha Kashyap, Abhimanyu Vannemreddy, etc. I have had good players come through my system. Them coming through does not make me a good coach, but it makes them good students, as they understood what was being told to them and they were willing to execute it.

My motto with both my places is to “do no harm”. Cause I look at a lot of coaches today who try to project they know a lot, and end up harming a kid’s game. You need to look at players individually, with fresh eyes, to see what you can do to help them. Then you need to create a system for them wherein we ensure that we are not working with all the kids based on one same formula.

Especially with “The Tennis Project”, there are a lot of plans in place which will see the light of the day soon.

Uppal with the Fed Cup Team 2020

The Indian Juniors tend to do well on the ITF Juniors but struggle to translate this success onto the Pro Tour. What do you think is causing that?

One of the reasons our junior tennis is struggling is too much parental interference and lack of quality coaching. A lot of parents are trying to control too much and not allowing the child to develop their own personalities. Once you are on a tennis court, you have to do what you have to do it – not the parents, or coaches. And if you are not given the freedom to figure out who they want to be on the court, it will never work for the child.

I see too many parents talking to the kids in the middle of the matches, coaches trying to coach them in the middle of the match. They are not letting the kid develop into a fighter or a competitor. You have to have the desire within yourself to think. That’s becoming a big, big problem here in India.

Also, I see a lot of juniors skipping to pros at 15-16, which is not the right way to go about it. You need to play the whole junior circuit to develop your game. Play in the Junior Grand Slams, see where you stand amongst your peers, and what your competition is going to be in the next five years. You need to learn how to win matches. Winning is an art, and how are you going to learn that art playing against men who are way ahead of you in it.

Uppal with the Fed Cup Team 2019

Lots of the Indian juniors these days have been taking the college tennis route – right from Akanksha Bhan to Mahak Jain now. What are your thoughts on this as a coach?

The trend really picked up with Somdev(Devvarman), Sanam(Singh), Jeevan(Nedunchezhiyan) and Saketh(Myneni). And now, a lot of players are trying to take the college tennis route, also because of the lack of opportunities here in India.

I think it’s a really good route for players without funding in place. It’s a really good opportunity for players to go and train there, develop as human beings, and then try it out in the pro circuit. The way the game has evolved, what used to be a “17 year old” when I was playing, it’s become “22’ now. You don’t see the Beckers and Hingis’ winning now Wimbledon at 17 or something. The average age of Top 10 players in the mid 30’s. So it gives you that much more time to grow physically and mentally, if they’re getting a good college.

Agassi and Steffi had mentioned that they don’t want their children to take up tennis because of the rigor that they went through during their playing days.  Do you feel that way too? Based on your journey, would you want your child to take up tennis (as a profession)?

First, I have to have a child(laughs). Whenever that happens. I have never been the kinds who has hard and fast rules, rather have an open mind. I’d like to see what the child wants to do. I will look for the best possible options, given the means available to me. Tennis is a really tough sport, and it’s getting tougher and tougher.

Growing up in the 80’s, my parents gave me the freedom to choose what I wanted to do. My father’s a lawyer and my mother’s a doctor. And people used to laugh at them. And they used to say “It’s his life. And he needs to decide.” That’s what I have learnt, and that’s what I am going to follow too.

Based on your experience, If you were to advise any upcoming players, where should be the focus from 8-11, 12-15 and beyond?

I think 8-11 is where you need to allow yourself to fall in love with the sport. Just keep playing. Also, you need to turn yourself into an athlete. It’s a running sport. You can’t survive without running. For me, the biggest point that’s missing is speed. People say you need to have power, but if you’re not going to get to the ball, how are you going to hit the ball with power. And too many people are focusing on just power. Today’s tennis player is a “lean, mean running machine.”

When it comes to 12-15, keeping your athletic journey on is important. But you also need to work on developing your game, and identifying your strengths. That’s a good way to go about it.

15-18, you start getting mature. You need to work on your mentality. As you get higher up, it gets tougher. Every next step you take in your tennis journey, at first, you are going to get beaten up. And then you have to start rising. You have to be able to take the beating, and then rise upwards. Too many players are making the mistake of starting to play men’s at 15-16, and skipping juniors. You have to understand that your junior career as it helps you develop your game, like I said earlier. 

There is a lot of player intelligence these days around rankings, UTR, tennis recruiting and so on. How do you handle all this as a Tennis coach?

I am not one who focuses on rankings too much. I am believer in focusing on your game, identifying the areas to improve and then the rankings will take care of themselves. Focusing on the rankings is the wrong way to go about it. As long as you focus on improving your game, on your tougher aspects, the results and the rankings will follow.  

Take the example of Novak Djokovic – he hired Boris Becker to help him on the mental side of the game. He is World No.1 and is still looking at improving his game. Rankings do not matter as much to these guys as improving their game further. Too many people are getting stuck with rankings which is hindering player development. 

Tennis is a very lonely sport with losses every week. How important it is for one to learn to take the highs / lows in stride?

This is one of the biggest things that Tennis teaches you. That is why they say that Sport is a reflection of life. Tennis teaches you the highs and lows in every minute because with every point – either you are winning or losing. One has to start learning to treat both success and failure in the same way and instead focus on the journey. 

One needs to go out there and put the best foot forward no matter what is happening. Tennis will teach you how to remain balanced. 

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