When many professional tennis players thought of quitting the sport during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Sharmada Balu (SB) decided to make a comeback! By 2016, Sharmada had already won 2 singles titles and 15 doubles titles on ITF Women’s World Tennis Tour. In late 2020, she made her comeback, and in 2021, she had many good runs in singles and won a doubles title at ITF W15 Monastir with her friend Sravya Shivani Chilakalapudi. I interviewed her on the last day of 2021, in which we spoke about everything from her love for tennis to her love for dancing. Here’s how the conversation progressed –

Q. Hi Sharmada! Welcome to the Indian Tennis Daily. It’s the end of 2021. How would you assess this year?

SB: It’s been a great year, to be honest, except the end. I felt burnout in the last couple of tournaments (ITF W25 Pune and W25 Navi Mumbai). I had a few good wins before that. The tournaments in India did not go the way I wanted them to go. I had to play Pranjala [Yadlapalli] and Rutuja [Bhosale] in the early rounds of two tournaments in which I lost, and they ended up winning the titles. Apart from those two matches and a few matches here and there, 90% of it is positive. So I am extremely happy with this year.

It’s my first calendar year that I’ve played an entire season in five years. I struggled to complete a year like this even when I was playing competitively back then. So given that I’ve restarted everything, it’s been an excellent year health and fitness-wise. That’s the biggest takeaway.

Also, there were zero expectations this year for me. Because if you are playing after so long, you can’t expect to just win. You don’t know what’s out there. You don’t know the level at which everyone else is playing. So the goal for this year was to see if I could compete and if I still have whatever it takes to get there and if my body could handle it all. It was more about testing the waters. I have surpassed that goal. 

Yesterday, I reflected on the year I’ve had – I have four titles and two finals in one calendar year. And it’s been really long time since that has happened. 

Q. Ten years ago, you started playing professional tennis. Then after many highs, you suddenly stopped playing. And then you made a return to the sport late last year. What achievements are you most proud of when you look back? 

SB: There are a few! My first ITF W10 Lucknow title when I was 17. I was one of the youngest Indians to win. At least among girls of my batch. That started snowballing things for me in terms of the trajectory of the growth on the WTA Tour. That’s one highlight for sure.

Playing the Fed Cup in 2012 was also a highlight. 

Winning the Gold medal in doubles at the 2016 South Asian Games. At that point, I was struggling quite a bit. Before the Games, my ankle was swollen. I played the entire week on painkillers. I was in unbelievable pain that whole week. Winning the Gold for the country matters, but it was more personal because I had to endure so much (to get the win).

Apart from that, winning all the doubles titles (smiles). Playing with friends and winning is fun! My favourite winning doubles title memory is from ITF W25 Fergana in Uzbekistan. I played with a Slovenian girl (Tadeja Majeric). We decided to play together at the last minute. We had no expectations, and we washed out the tournament taking out many good teams. The hospitality of the Uzbek people who love Indians and Bollywood films and music was outstanding. They were chatty and made us feel at home.

Q. Talking about the doubles titles, you seem to be close to many players. But do you have a best friend on tour? Or is it too competitive to have any real friends in professional tennis?

SB: I wouldn’t say I have one best friend on tour. But people from my age group (players born in 1993 and 1994), many of us were from South India who played and travelled together, and we became like a unit. We’ve been hanging out since we were ten years old. And all of us were on the same level too. So we ended up playing the same tournaments and became friends. So yeah, I do have a bunch of friends on tour. It’s nice. I like it. 

So it’s not like you can’t have real friends on tour. Of course, there will be competition; I think that’s only normal with athletes. As long as it’s healthy competition, I think it’s OK. The moment it becomes unhealthy, which sometimes happens, sadly, it’s not very nice. But many people are mature enough to maintain friendships and relationships on tour. 

Q. OK, let’s talk about 2022. What are your goals for the new year?

SB: My priority is doubles at this point. I’ve got a WTA doubles rank now, which is #988 at the moment. I might be being over-ambitious, but I would like to close the year somewhere around my high ranking of #335, which I had achieved when I stopped playing in 2015. I’ll be OK with a Top 500 also. 

In singles, I wasn’t sure if I could compete. But now I feel confident. I think I can do some damage there (laughs). So the priority there is to get a WTA ranking. And then see how it goes. 

Q. Let’s talk about your life outside tennis. You have a bachelor’s degree in Arts. Does that have anything to do with your interest in reading and writing?

SB: I think my interest in reading and writing has something to do with my degree in Arts. It’s the other way around. I have been writing since I was 8. It’s just that back then, it was for myself. I did not tell anyone. I also used to enjoy drawing and painting. And of course, I enjoyed reading books. I was a proper nerd. I didn’t go to school as often as I wanted to, but I enjoyed studying during the exams. I wanted to come first in class. I wanted to know everything. That all translated to my degree, I think. 

I actually hadn’t given much thought. My parents worked on my admission process for the college when I was in Germany. We decided to go for the Arts stream instead of Science. I liked all the subjects – journalism, psychology and English literature. 

Q. So I must ask, who is your favourite author? And what are some of your favourite books?

SB: This is so hard to answer. In poetry, I like Kahlil Gibran. Among the books I read this year, I liked Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. It wasn’t an easy read, but it was different from your usual read, and that was nice. I also like peculiar books that intrigue me; for example, I enjoyed reading Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol by Holly Whitaker. Another book is My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. I finished reading it in a day. I like such gripping books. 

[We went off topic a bit and talked about paperback vs Kindle debate and Goodreads etc. as well].

Q. I feel that you don’t take yourself too seriously despite being a deep thinker. You like to shake it off. Tell us about your love for dancing and viral Instagram Reels.

SB: I don’t think I’m a deep thinker (laughs). I think I am a comedian by nature. It’s not something I need to work on. 

About the Reels, I used to be like – What are these clowns doing on Instagram?! And then I became that person (laughs). To each his own, I guess. Everyone was going through a tough time during the lockdowns, and Sravya and I were stuck at home. We kept seeing this one thing that was popping on Instagram. We both found it so funny. One day we were just having a blah day, and we were like, let’s try making a video – just for ourselves. So we did our first Reel in the span of 7 to 8 minutes. We laughed a lot while making it. And then we sent it to some of our friends, and they all were like – you must post it! So we did post it, and it went viral. Some people said they were having a bad day/evening, and our Reels made them feel cheerful. That felt nice. I was glad people were laughing at my expense (laughs). We kept doing these Reels whenever we had free time or were bored. One Reel got 2.2 million views, and my phone was blowing up for two weeks! And then I wondered – Is this what being famous feels like? (laughs). Now it’s been months since we’ve done one. 

Q. I asked this question to Sathwika the other day. What is that one thing you wish more people knew about you?

SB: I wish more people know that I am a big softy. I look tough and can come across as quite intimidating, which I am in certain terms – I am not apologetic about who I am, but at the same time, I am a sentimental person as well. I am like a proper bear – I like hugs from the people I know well and am comfortable with [That explains her Instagram handle itsbaluthebear].

Q. We’ve just hit 10,000 followers on ITD’s Instagram page. Do you have a message for us?

SB: You guys at ITD are doing a fabulous job! When we see something of ourselves, something related to us or someone we know on your platform, it motivates us. It makes us feel good. It pushes us to do better on-court automatically. It’s like extra motivation. You are covering so many players. We get to know them better through your interviews – it gives us a new perspective (about the person). Thank you for the efforts you are putting in. We all followers, of course, love the content you are putting up. So keep at it. 

Rapid-fire

Favourite City?Bangalore 
Favourite Surface?Hard courts
Favourite Cheat Meal?A well-made burger and fries; not McDonald’s stuff
Favourite Grand Slam?Wimbledon 
Favourite autobiography?Undisputed Truth by Mike Tyson
Favourite non-tennis personalities?Ryan Reynolds, Hasan Minhaj, Lewis Hamilton and Katrina Kaif
What makes you feel more peaceful? Reading or writing?Reading makes me peaceful; writing makes me feel lighter 
Dancing on Bollywood songs or dancing on English or Spanish pop songs?Bollywood any day!
When was the last time you were star truck meeting someone?Roger Federer, ten years ago
Who is the GOAT?Roger Federer

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