Tennis is a battle of wits. Its comparison to chess isn’t a coincidence and no one showed this better than Pranajal Yadlapalli through the entirety of the last week at Bangalore. Shoulder strapped and cramping through the matches, she used her guile and mind to fight through five continuous days of matches to lift the trophy on Sunday at the women’s ITF 15K event hosted by the KSLTA.
She laughs when I ask about being down 3-5 in the first set and turning that around to win 7-5. “Yesterday also I was cramping, so I just decided I am going to hit now because I need to stay in the match and not have this become another three-set duel since Sowjanya is also not going to leave (the opportunity)”. The long three setters she played in the quarters and semis had definitely taken a toll and she used variety and skill as opposed to simply ‘banging the ball in’ as she described it. She regularly mixed up her serves and used a combination of spin and control and power and aggression to draw errors out of her opponents and paint the lines, at her beckoning. In the semis against Shrivalli Rashmika Bhamidipaty, she assesses herself. She giggles when she says, “I saved a match point with a drop shot.”
Pranjala made sure to thank the tournament physios in her on court interview. “This week was really tough – mentally and physically. This pain started a few days before the tournament, so it was all of a sudden. Peak Performance and Dipali helped me a lot. It has been lingering but I just tried to manage it. I didn’t want to take too many risks, so when I had the time, I was just going for it. In the high altitude of Bangalore, you need to be more controlled. Because of their support, I was able to push through and I tried to be smart and play something else so you can hang in there and keep fighting.”
Much needed were matches for our Indian players who had suffered disproportionately through the last 18 months due to the pandemic with no tournaments in sight, harsh lockdowns and severe travel restrictions. Pranjala herself was stuck in Australia for 14 months, having planned a short 3 month trip with ATP physiotherapist, Paul Ness. Paul and his wife graciously helped her throughout when she had to keep extending her visa to stay on.
Pranjala hasn’t seen her coach, Stephen Koon at Impact Academy in Thailand (who she started training with in 2018) during the pandemic. She had been practicing in Hyderabad after she got back from Australia, but there were hardly any players to play with. When the Bangalore tournament came up, “I decided to come to the Rohan Bopanna Tennis Academy 2 weeks ahead of the tournament. Balu Sir, Rohan and Sujith helped me a lot. Bangalore is very high altitude and I have played here before and know how it feels. I also wanted to train here (at RBTA) because here I can work on whatever I need. I also want to thank Go Sports Foundation for their continuous support.”
Affectionately called Balu Sir by the Indian tennis fraternity, Balachandran Mannikkath (the consulting head coach at RBTA) was effusive in his praise for Pranjala. I was curious as to how coaching could be imparted in 2 weeks’ time, but of course as all good coaches must, they understand the player’s psychology first. “She is the kind of player who you don’t need to over-burden with information. She has the ability to take in as much as she needs and use her strategic mind to win on the court.” This is evident in abundance -even to the novice eye.
Heading to Solapur now, followed by Pune and Navi Mumbai, she is looking forward to playing the tournaments announced in Asia. “Having tournaments in India is definitely cheaper with food, accommodation and travel. We don’t need to think about visas. Usually they (the ITF) update the calendar early – 2-3 months beforehand, whereas now they are doing it later. The factsheet only comes out 3 weeks in advance and we need a minimum of 2-3 weeks for visas.” She almost faced a penalty because of a late withdrawal on account of visa challenges for South African tournaments, but she had to write in and explain her situation to the ITF.
The plight of our players is indeed troubling, and we need tennis associations and governing bodies to take a close look at the calendar and build a more comprehensive and competitive environment for our players. Not just Pranjala, but every one of these young athletes deserves that opportunity.