“The first thing you need to have between a coach and a player is trust. I know Coach Sanjay believes in me” – Luisa Stefani, Tokyo Olympic Medalist

Fresh off from the historic Bronze medal win at the Tokyo Olympics – Luisa Stefani and Coach Sanjay Singh sir spoke to ITD Member Vinay Venkatesh on the spectacular win and their journey so far. As we know, Coach Sanjay Singh sir had a big win to play in Leander`s bronze medal win in Atlanta as well. 

You recently won Brazils first ever Tennis medal (Bronze) in Women’s doubles at Tokyo. Can you tell us how you feel about this success right now and how was the reaction back home?

Luisa: It was a crazy week in general. Back home in Brazil, everything is blowing up with everyone being very excited about it. It’s huge for Women’s Brazillian Tennis. It was a really inspiring run for us. A lot of our matches were in the middle of the night for people back home and they were waking up to support us. We felt like they were playing with us for every point in every match. We were far away and it was nice to feel that way. We only had the energy from the media, family and friends or when Sanjay called us after practice sessions or matches. 

The whole experience was surreal with every moment being so inspirational. Walking through the Olympics village, meeting and cheering for other athletes especially from other sports was a great feeling. The vibe with our team was very special and we had created a strong bond to achieve our final mission to win an Olympic medal for Brazil. 

Our draw was hard and we had some tough matches. I’m just letting everything sink in and digesting it. It’s new but it’s incredible. I’m just excited to be part of this.

You last played with your partner Laura Pigossi in 2019.  So how did you guys prepare for the event as there was not a lot of tune up before the Olympics.

Luisa: She didn’t even know she had signed up (laughs). The Federation didn’t tell her as they didn’t want to set up unnecessary expectations and mess up her schedule as we were still far off on the list. So when people pulled out and on the Friday before the Olympics, we got a call that we had made it in. I immediately called Sanjay and then spoke to Laura on Facetime. We were so excited. We couldn’t believe we were going to Tokyo for the Olympics. 

From then on we decided now that we are going, let’s just enjoy the moment. We are not going there as tourists, we’ll be there to win a medal for Brazil. We had played twice before, once in the 2019 Fed cup against Germany at home and the other in an ITF event. To be honest, those matches were not really great and not a lot of people had much of a hope for us going into this olympics. 

We had an honest talk with each other about what we are going to do and what our expectations were. It was this responsible talk that started everything as we were on the same page. We were working towards the same goal. So the rest was easy. Once we got on the court, we were motivated, we had the coaches there. They were very experienced, even in doubles as well and they were past champions. So getting their advice on court and in practices and dealing with the specifics and going into matches with a game plan was very important for our run. 

Sanjay sir, you’ve already been part of an Olympics medal victory with Leander Paes in Atlanta and now with another one with Luisa in Tokyo. Is there a secret ingredient in your coaching that brings about these players to deliver their best ? 

No secret (laughs). It’s their hard work and dedication. Leander was an extremely hard worker. No one used to believe how hard he works . In the middle of the night, he would do shadow practicing in front of the mirror. Nobody would know as people are sleeping but he would just go about doing it for hours. 

Likewise with Luisa, I often have to tell her to slow down. Like right now, she has flown in from Tokyo after the Olympics medal straight over here to California to be in this tournament. We just finished our first practice session and she already asked me to book for another session later on today. We just booked another court. So it’s all their hard work and dedication and she is very focused on things which are very important in tennis. The rest we just leave it, we enjoy, we relax and on the tennis court, we are just focused on the yellow (tennis) ball.

Sanjay sir – In the Olympics, what was your game plan in general when the draw was made. Luisa was mentioning that they didn’t have a lot of expectations. But once the draw came out, did you guys analyze it for potential ways to win a medal ?

First of all for this year, that was the target,  to participate at the Olympics. But we were not getting in and she was very disappointed about it. I was too. But then the week before the Olympics on Thursday, we were talking about it that hopefully somebody would pull out. We hoped for that. We prayed for that. And then God answered our prayers and she got in. 

I just told her one thing then: “Go and have fun. Don’t take any pressure and enjoy yourself.” That’s what I would always tell her: “Go and have fun. Keep your smile”. Because I know once she is happy, once she is relaxed, then we can make magic and I always believe in that. She was very happy at the Olympics and the team clicked. Kudos to them.

You guys saved 8 match points at the olympics. Several of them were saved in the Bronze Medal match. How do you strategize during these situations and what goes on in the mind of the players during these circumstances?

Luisa: We don’t really strategise much. We had done all the preparations with our coaches and the team. The entire year I was working for this opportunity. So when it came in as a surprise to enter the draw, it was even more special. Just being there was a bonus. It was a huge accomplishment. 

We were on a mission to get a medal, Gold medal specifically. We were very bummed after we lost in the semis. In those 4 match points during the Bronze Medal match we were serving down 5-9 in the tie breaker.  Nothing was really going on in our minds. We were dialed in. We know what we had to do that we had to play the point out and focus on playing the point. 

Getting through 4 match points in the Quarterfinals definitely helped. So we knew it wasn’t the end if we were down match points as we had done it before. Every point we spoke about what we had to do. I gave her (Laura Pigossi) space and we had full trust in each other and we just played. We literally just played. We didn’t think about what if we lose. We just played every point. We just played with our hearts. We put our hearts out with everything we had. So those last 5-6 points weren’t very different from the rest of the week. 

(Luisa and Sanjay):  You both have been together for close to 4 years now. Can you describe a little bit about your interactions with each other and how you met each other ?

Luisa: We met through a mutual friend. I was in Tampa, Florida. I was in college at that time and I was having trouble coming back to the US due to Visa issues. But once I stopped college and decided to go pro, I reached out to Sanjay. He was already living in Florida and we decided to try it on and start. So we started in 2018. From then on its history. We talked about our plans, our goals, what I wanted to do and I decided to trust him. The first thing you need to have between a coach and a player is trust. I know he believes in me. 

From then on, it was  a matter of getting to know each other. I think we have a similar philosophy in some ways of enjoying life and enjoying the journey which is sometimes harder due to expectations and pressure. Sometimes we have challenges, injuries, disappointments. But the highs are worth it when you get what you want when you work towards it everyday. I love practicing, I love working, I love competing. So it was  a matter of using his (Sanjay’s) experience and learning from him. That is our philosophy. 

It’s not going to change now. It is huge to get rewarded for how much we have worked and what we’ve been through. But at the same time, I know it’s just the beginning and it’s more motivating. I can’t wait to get to Paris (Olympics) in 2024 and qualify and hopefully even play Singles.This reward is amazing. It’s important to celebrate this victory because its so special and also keep our heads down and keep on working.

Sanjay: As Luisa mentioned, we met through a mutual friend. Then her Mom and Dad, they came to me and spoke to me.  And then we started. I should give credit to her Mom and Dad. They sat down with me and said “Sanjay, we want this and how we can go about getting that”. I said “Ok. I am going to help you guys. But I do not want any interference from you guys”. They promised not to get in our way and let me do what I had in mind. Then we started working on it. 

There was a time in April, she was in Europe and I had just gotten married and the next day I had to fly to Prague. My wife Martha then asked me if I was going and I said yes. She immediately said “Good luck. I know you will do good to that girl.” My wife was very proud of me that I was now teaching a girl. And yes, we started working hard. We had our ups and downs and that’s the process. 

Luisa believes in the process and there are no shortcuts . She is a hard working girl and she understands that. So our philosophy, like Luisa said, is to enjoy. But when we step on the court, we work hard. So when she won the Bronze medal, as Monday arrived, we knew it was a new week and we had work to do. I told her to enjoy the wave as its a great moment, but we agreed to start working as it’s a chapter that was beginning. Now our targets are different. Now that we have the Olympics, we have other targets to chase.

With the Bronze medal already with you, a dream come true for many athletes, what are your goals for the rest of the year ?

Luisa: So now I have started a new partnership with Gabby (Gabriela Dabrowski) for the US Swing. I’m very excited about that. It’s been a great year so far. I think it’s good to look forward to the slams. That’s our biggest target.  Sometimes when you give too much importance to something, you’ll be devastated if you don’t get it. So what I learnt the most at the Olympics was that to soak in the current moment. 

Everyday is a new challenge and a new experience. But I try to bring in my vibe day to day no matter what tournament it is.  I play for the sport, I play for other people, I play for myself. I think that’s the main thing. Obviously everybody wants to win the slam, everybody wants to win an Olympic medal. But at the same time, it’s important to know what you’re doing along the way. This victory taught me that we can inspire a lot of kids in Brazil, girl’s and women’s tennis especially. So that’s the bigger goal of mine. To look at the bigger perspective. It’s inspiring for me to keep working harder, enjoying the tour, enjoying with friends, and enjoying my time with Sanjay. 

I believe things will happen. We didn’t expect a medal at the Olympics. This has been, if not the best week of my life, definitely one of the very best in my career. That’s the mindset now. Keep having fun and keep the focus on the next targets.

With Luisa winning the bronze medal, how was the reaction back home ?

A lot of people contacted me. They were calling and congratulating me and Luisa.  I also got a lot of calls from various associations to congratulate me on this moment. Thanks to Instagram, Luisa is becoming very well known in India now and she is growing her fan base. So, In India at least, she (Luisa) has a wild card waiting in Singles. It’s confirmed actually (Laughs). 

It’s teamwork and a lot of hard work. She is dedicated to that. Its very important for us to be good human beings and then comes all our achievements and success.  

Did you ever get a chance to try Indian food ? If so, do you have any favorites ?

Luisa: We had it last night(laughs). We had to celebrate the Olympics medal. The best one is at Sanjay’s house. He cooks for me almost everyday where we are training and I can’t wait to get back there. Since he cooks at home, it’s authentic. I really can’t wait to taste all the spices and flavors. That’s my favorite part.

We would really love to see you guys come to India and play in front of the Indian Crowd. I’m sure people would appreciate that.

Luisa and Sanjay: We would love to do that. Hopefully soon.

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