“I’d rather do it with love than fear.” – Coach Namita Bal

Namita Bal (NB) is a professional tennis player turned coach. At 28, she is already the captain of India’s junior Billie Jean King Cup team (formerly known as Federation Cup or Fed Cup). We sat down yesterday to talk about her coaching experience so far and the importance of both physical and mental fitness in tennis. 

Q. Thanks Namita for joining us today. For those who don’t know, can you please tell us about how you transitioned from a player to a coach? 

NB: It was in 2015 that I switched to coaching. I had been struggling with a spine injury for about 4-5 years before I transitioned from a player to a coach. It was a painful decision, and I resisted a lot. In fact, I did not want to coach. I wanted to do anything but be on a tennis court. I couldn’t imagine watching somebody play and not play myself. So initially, I started with fitness coaching. Then I started hitting with juniors. That’s when I realised that I was pretty good at observing and fixing things. That’s how I got into tennis coaching. Once I let go of the notion that I know what’s best for me and what makes me the happiest, I really started to enjoy coaching and realised I am a million times happier coaching than playing.

Namita Bal has captained India’s junior Billie Jean King Cup team

Q. How has your experience captaining India’s junior Billie Jean King Cup team been? 

NB: Team events are always the most fun. They are high pressure but also so exciting! That’s where I thrive. A place where we are allowed to be on the court, coach on the changeovers, and do so much more compared to an individual tournament. As a coach, the experience has been excellent. To represent your country is every sportsperson’s dream. I have been lucky to work with many extraordinarily motivated and talented kids. I feel like I get along well with kids that age. They also find it easier to relate to me. There is a lot that I can help with that age group. That’s the biggest takeaway – to be able to help kids of that age. 

Q. You’ve been on the courts following up on ITF J3 and JB1 tournaments in Pune (a part of 2021 ITF World Tennis Tour Juniors) these past two weeks. Which Indian players have impressed you the most?

NB: I’ve been here for a while because I’ve been working with the ITF under their Grand Slam® Development Fund (GSDF) scheme. So I’ve been working with Yuvan Nandal, who is somebody to watch out for. He made semis last week and quarters this week. He has a terrific attitude. He is not scared of anyone or anything. That’s not something that you can teach at a later stage. Either you are born with it or conditioned into you at a very young age. Saheb [Sodhi] did very well this week by reaching the final. There is Chirag Duhan, who has immense maturity in his game. Of the girls, Shruti [Ahlawat], of course. She is my top pick. I would like to congratulate her coach Pundreek Chaturvedi for what he has done. Suhitha Maruri is extremely talented, and she can go a long way. She and her sister Resham are now playing the women’s circuit. One of my players, Ruma Gaikaiwari, lost in the second round. But one year from now, she will be much better because she’s got incredible strokes and she’s got the X factor. 

Q. I understand you are a fitness freak and expect your players to push to their limits. How important is being physically fit and healthy to perform on the court?

NB: Exhibit A is this week itself. All the players coming here have played 4-5 weeks straight. Everyone is pushing to get into next year’s Junior Grand Slams’ qualifiers or the main draw. The players who have managed to stay injury-free are the ones who really made it. The ones who got really hurt and did not have anything left in the fuel did not. Fitness always comes first. Fitness isn’t just how hard you hit or how fast you run. It’s about being able to do it day in and day out. No player is going to travel abroad for just one week. It’s going to be 3-4 weeks at a stretch for sure. So they need to have some kind of [fitness] routine that they follow. You can’t just keep it light or easy. They need something to load. It really helps with injury prevention and staying fit for that kind of a stretch.  

Q. What about mental health? Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu made headlines this year for taking a break from the tour to focus on their mental fitness. Many people have spoken on this issue, but I would like to hear your opinion. 

NB: I am a huge advocate of taking care of mental health. I believe when you work on yourself, you attract [good things]. People are only starting to become aware of it now. Why are we playing tennis? Why do people start playing tennis? Because it makes them happy. If that’s not happening, none of it matters. I think therapy is something everybody should go for, not just people who have realised that they are struggling. We’ve been conditioned in so many ways. It’s really sad that some people are not aware that they are conditioned. There are so many fears and habits that they refuse to get out because they think there can’t be any other way. Therapy opens you up to so many different avenues. You can get over your fears or at least learn to understand them and not be scared of them anymore. 

Q. Yesterday, you mentioned players and the need for awareness of their self-worth. Can you please elaborate on that? 

NB: We are watching a lot of players here who are preparing to win the Grand Slam titles eventually. But how many of them really believe that they can win? The major issue I’ve seen for players from the 12-25 age group is that they have a very low sense of self-esteem or self-worth. It has a lot to do with society (we live in) and its conditioning. We are so overly critical. Eventually, this leads to nothing being “good enough”. But what is “good enough”? There is no such thing. So there is a lot of work I do with my athletes on confidence,  self-love and self-worth. Learning to accept yourself for where you are at and still be able to improve and take it from there. I think it’s something I would love more players and more people, in general, to be aware of. Because unfortunately, there is so much self-hatred out there. And it’s all projections amongst people. So when you learn to love yourself, you attract it also. 

Q. I want to talk to you about being a female coach on the circuit. I am sorry for using the term ‘female coach’. It sounds so stupid (we rarely say ‘male coach’). It is unfortunate but common that male players do not take female coaches seriously. Is it changing now? Or is it still the same when you started as a coach? 

NB: Haha, I know what you mean. When I started, it was ridiculous. My size also doesn’t work in my favour [laughs]. People didn’t think I was a coach because of my short stature. Or I didn’t look as old as I was. Things like that. But once they got to know me, it got better. Now that I’ve worked with many players and the more visibility is picking up, the more women coaches they can see, the more seriously they take us. Many of them haven’t had a woman role model, ever. The more visibility there is, the more female coaches will have opportunities. I need to change the way I coach while coaching men and women. I need to be a lot tougher with the boys. And also need to bring the aspect of self-love and things like that. I need to balance that out. And still, maintain a certain boundary which I don’t need to with the girls a lot of times. So there is definitely a difference in coaching. I am also not a coach who yells. That’s not just who I am. I’d rather do it with love than fear. So far, it’s been working, even with male players. And as long as I can maintain that, it’s all good. 

Q: You spoke about the visibility part. So when someone like Andy Murray hires Amélie Mauresmo. Does that help?

NB: Absolutely! Andy Murray is an ideal feminist in the tennis world. One of my role models is his mother, Judy Murray. She has had a huge part to play in her sons’ careers. 

Q. When do you think we will see an Indian player going deep into Grand Slam tournaments and hopefully even winning one [singles]? 

NB: We are definitely on the way. We’ve got more players in Grand Slam qualifiers than ever before, and many juniors are coming up. Tournaments like this (JB 1) will help. Most players pick tournaments according to their budget and not those they need to play – to improve their ranking, which is unfortunate. We’ve got the coaching. We’ve got the infrastructure. We need funding. And an attitude – that winning mentality. 

Q. If you could give one piece of advice to fellow tennis coaches in India, what would that be?

NB: I wouldn’t want to advise another coach because everyone has a different way of doing things. But if I must say one thing, I would say – listen to your players. Empathise and understand where they are coming from. Allow them to open up. It’s important to know what’s happening in your player’s life because anything and everything happening in their life can affect performance on the court.

Rapid-fire (answers in one word or one line)

What’s more difficult? Playing or watching your player from the stands?Playing 
What’s one thing you dislike that players do?Not committing fully
Should on-court coaching be allowed? Yes or No?Yes in juniors, not in seniors
Who’s the best Indian coach you’ve ever come across?My dad, Mr Nandan Bal
Which coach do you think has done the most impressive work on ATP or WTA tours? Judy Murray
Richard Williams or Toni Nadal?Toni Nadal, because of his approach 
Nick Bollettieri or Patrick Mouratoglou?Nick Bollettieri, because he did what he did when nobody else did
Help your player win a Grand Slam title or get them to World No. 1?World No. 1
At which academy have you seen the most impressive tennis facilities?TenisVal Academy in Spain
Who is the GOAT?Roger Federer
Interviewer Abhijeet Dangat, player Shruti Ahlawat and coach Namita Bal at ITF JB1 Pune

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Abhijeet Dangat is a lawyer and writer who loves playing, watching and discussing tennis. He has lived in India, France and the United Kingdom and has travelled across the world, many times witnessing sports history being made.

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