India’s rising WTA Star Karman Kaur Thandi was hosted by Mukund Sasikumar on ITD Instagram Live. Here is a transcript from the interview.

Karman: Have you touched the racquet since the last tourney you played?

Mukund: Yes I had. I was very optimistic and wanted to prepare for a scenario where if tennis restarts in April or May, then I am prepared. So I used to call up Prajnesh for practice every morning at 6 AM – He hated it as it was so early in the morning but we ended up practicing for 10-12 days. He always comes when I call him – which is very kind of him. 

Karman: I can understand that it must have been hard for Prajnesh – all the Netflix till late night and then waking up. 

Mukund: You were one of the top juniors in the world, competed in the slams, played against some of the best juniors. However, your progression to the Pro tour wasn’t smooth – you had to grind your way up from the $15Ks. 

Karman: Its all a process. Most of the players have to come up through the same process. It toughens you mentally to climb up from the first step – more motivation and confidence for you to continue doing well. 

As you climb up every step, you gain confidence. For me, it was starting at $15K, then moving up to the $25Ks, $60Ks, $80Ks and so on. I remember playing the WTA Guangzhou International Women’s Open where I barely made it to the main draw. I had to play the qualies and was dead tired after winning and making it to the main draw. 

In the main draw, I was drawn up against the Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and I was 63 30 up. You get to experience such highs. 

So I think it is important to experience every step of the journey. 

Mukund: You were stuck around the 500 rank for sometime before making the jump. Did you ever feel let down at those points of time?

Karman: It wasn’t so tricky. When your level is at $15K, you give your best at that level and try to move up. You have to do your best at whatever match you can. There were few matches where I felt, I should be winning this match but I was losing my opportunities. 

There are other matches where you lose and it’s better to forget about them as soon as possible. There is no point in carrying those matches forward along with you. It’s a fun ride with a lot of emotions. 

Karman: How was this transition for you?

Mukund: I was a very average player for a long period of time. I was not a promising junior – so there were no expectations on me to make it big. For a very long time, making the quarters or semis of $15K was a very big moment for me and my family. 

When I was around 15 or so, I was not even qualifying into a Grade 3 Junior event. So there was never any expectation. 

When I started training in Vienna, Austria – that’s when I made the jump into the Challengers unexpectedly. When I made the jump to around 280, that’s when the expectations hit me really hard. Suddenly, I was close to playing the Wimbledon and the US Open qualies. 

For so long when you have not even seen a shadow of anything big and then suddenly getting so close to something big like the Grand Slams which one has dreamt about for so long – That’s when I got tight. That is when I saw a bit of dip in my life. 

I hadn’t seen those expectations when I was young – I hadn’t even been close to any of the Grand Slams at the junior level, so that exposure was never there for me. 

Karman: Yes, it is a lot different than the Juniors. At the junior level, it is only for the exposure. You just want to grow up and experience the real thing in the seniors. 

Mukund: You were always an aggressive player. You tend to play at your aggressive best irrespective of the match situation. Where did that mindset come from?

Karman: Growing up as a tennis player, that was never my match style – to put the ball into play slowly and waiting for an opponent error. Even if I had done it at times to win a point or two, my dad or mom or my coach would get angry and discourage me from doing that. 

My coaches and parents were always like that I should play freely – whatever happens, will happen. They did not put any pressure on me. I as a player should know the various gears in my tennis and I should pace myself accordingly. However, the base of my game is around being aggressive and I play accordingly. 

This approach doesn’t come in one day – it is something that has to be inculcated over a period of time. 

Mukund: You had an interesting Grand Slam debut where you got bageled in the first set and played a competitive second set against a top player like Jennifer Brady. Was that nerves in the first set?

Karman: In the first set, either I was hitting it too long or playing a wrong shot. It was my first slam and Jennifer Brady is a top player with several top wins under her belt, so it was a tough match. 

Karman: How old were you, when you started playing Tennis?

Mukund: I was around 3.5 to 4 years old. 

Karman: How was your experience going to School?

Mukund: I did not go to School. I went to the school till the 2nd standard. Then I skipped and went directly to the board exams at the 7th standard. I was part of a school but they gave me the permission to study from home. My father and others felt that I was good enough to fast-track to the 7th grade. Then I did my 10th grade, 11th and 12th. Then I did my University and was done with the graduation by 15 yrs of age. 

My routine was fitness in the morning, then Tennis from 8 to 11 AM. Then it was too hot and then again tennis from 3 to 6 PM. Then the evenings were all tuition. 

Mukund: You always had your mother travel with you. At any point in your career, did you ever feel the importance of growing up on your own and being independent or did you feel it was important to have your parent beside you at all time. 

It was definitely on the positive side for me. Not just mum but the entire family. They are the ones who guided me to what I am today. If my mom was not traveling, I wouldn’t be how I am today. 

She lets me be independent but she is always there for me. Tennis gets lonely but that never happens for me because of mom traveling. If I had some confusion about anything – whether it is tennis or anything, they were the people to guide me on the right path. 

My mother is a friend and a mother for me. Sometimes when I lose early in a tourney, my mom would just tell me to pack things up and that we go for sightseeing. That helps because you’ve thought about the match, figured out things to improve and you have 1-2 days at the tourney location – no point thinking too much about and just do something else to keep yourself fresh. 

Sometimes the parents are more stressed about the match than us as players. Sometimes my dad would call after a loss and tell us to get out of the room and go for sightseeing when both of us don’t want to go. 

Sumit Nagal: What are your thoughts on the ATP/WTA Player relief fund?

Mukund: I do not think it is the responsibility of the player who is ranked high to help a lower ranked player. Instead it should be the institutions like the ATP/WTA which should take the responsibility based on the money they earn from the slams and other events. The top players work harder than us, if not the same as us. 

I am not in a stage where I fund my own tennis because I play at the Challenger level. Still I am pursuing this dream based on family support. 

Karman: I wouldn’t mind supporting lower ranked player. It should not be forced, it should be by choice. 

Karman: Have you learnt Cooking during this COVID-19 phase?

Mukund: I can cook something more than just Maggi, so yes, you can say that. I am very bad at making Indian dishes. 

I can cook Risotto, Carbonara, Pasta and so on. I can make deserts as well – Oreo Cake, Banana bread and so on. 

Which 3 players do you see replacing the big 3 in the coming years?

Mukund: Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas 

Karman: I agree with the same list. In addition, you also have players like Denis and Felix. 

Favourite tourney locations

Karman: I like Japan as a country and for tourneys as well. Miami was nice, Acapulco was superb. 

Mukund: Jerusalem was very good – to go back in history and learn some facts

If not Tennis, then what else?

Karman: Probably fashion or interior designing. 

Mukund: Average student at College probably. 

How has Mahesh Bhupathi’s involvement impacted you. Did it add more pressure in terms of the weight of expectations?

Mukund: I personally faced it. When I got Lotto as the sponsor and a coach traveling, I felt like I should be performing much better than what I was doing. This pressure sometimes stopped me from performing. Even the Virat Kohli Foundation involvement – it impacted me in terms of expectations till my Mom helped me overcome the expectations. It was an overall learning experience for me. 

Karman: Mahesh Bhupathi came into my career at a very important phase. He is a great mentor and very practical. Pressure is a privilege. I feel that they are the stepping stones. Even with ASICS, the clothing line is good, I look good in them and it makes me feel confident when I go out. More than anything, one has to do good for self. 

I am grateful of the team who are there to take care of all the needs.  

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