One might look at the 39 year old Aditya Khanna and mistake him for a 27 year old tennis pro, given how he’s maintained his physique. Khanna is ranked 58 in the world in the ITF 35+ Senior Ranking (career high of #17), and is the captain of the Indian 35+ team. Outside the tennis court, Khanna is a textile/real estate entrepreneur, and has also started working for the betterment of tennis in the country.
An Oxford MBA graduate, Khanna is currently overseeing the National Tennis Center (NTC) project for the AITA, and is in the midst of his assignment as the Tournament Director of the upcoming India-Denmark Davis Cup tie to be held on grass at the Delhi Gymkhana in March’22.
Khanna is extremely passionate about taking Indian Tennis to new heights, and aspires to take up a leadership role in the AITA to act on his passion. In this interview, Khanna elaborates on his vision for Indian Tennis, his history with the sport, his learnings from time spent in the UK, and much more.
PS – Watch out for a fun rapid fire in the end.
Q) Being from a family full of tennis administrators/players, you must have been introduced to Tennis very early. Can you talk a little about your earliest memories of Tennis?
When I started playing Tennis in 1990, there were only two academies in Delhi – DLTA and Modern School Barakhamba Road. I was studying at Modern School Barakhamba Road, so the choice was natural for me. The famous Singh family (Balram Singh,) was heading the coaching program there.
My brother (Ashish, 42) was already playing over there for a year. So that is how I got introduced to the sport. My earliest memory is actually picking balls for my brother for 2 hours and then getting blasted by my teachers for missing classes (laughs)
Q) Did you ever play the sport seriously/aspire to turn pro?
I had stopped playing tournaments by the time I turned 16. So the decision of turning pro never came to me, as that decision usually comes about at 17 or 18. I had to stop playing as I had changed my school to an international school at the time, and the academic demands of the school were pretty high. At that time I was not aware of the US College Tennis system either.
My plan was to go study in the UK and sport in the UK was not really looked at as a criterion for admission, unless you were Top 2 or 3 in the country. It was mostly academic grades. By the age of 16 I had decided that turning pro was not really an option.
Q) Can you talk a little bit about your time in the UK?
My time in the UK was very different from my tennis days. I was studying at the London School of Economics (LSE) and Tennis wasn’t really at the forefront of my life as I was busy with college, networking, and having a college life.
I think that was important because from age 8 to 16, I didn’t look at anything except tennis courts for 8 years. I was constantly playing Tennis 6 hours a day. I did not have a single friend from outside tennis, something which I don’t regret – as some of them are still among my best friends. But I feel I wanted to take some time off the sport to sort out other avenues of my life and get a rounded experience. I did continue to play Tennis, but not with the same intensity as earlier.
But London was an absolutely great experience for me. I met some wonderful people. I worked at CitiBank for 3 years. Then I went to the Said Business School at Oxford University for my MBA. The Oxford experience was amazing and I started playing Tennis very actively again. Oxford had beautiful courts and Oxford/Cambridge had an old & famous rivalry. We got a chance to play on the courts at Wimbledon and Queens Club as well as the Oxford team players had access to them. We also went to HEC Paris to play the MBAT (The MBA Olympics), which was a beautiful experience as well.
Q) How did you get started on the ITF Seniors circuit?
When I came back to India, I wanted to actively play tennis. So I started playing a lot of club tournaments. I really started enjoying the sport, as now there was no pressure of results on me. When one’s playing as a junior, there’s always that pressure to win.
As and when I started playing club tournaments, I started meeting a lot of wonderful people. I believe that even if you don’t make a career out of tennis, it’s a sport that teaches great values – hard work, discipline, motivation, teamwork, leadership, etc. When I started playing the club circuit seriously, I found out about the ITF Seniors Circuit. I was around 30 at the time. I got very excited at the prospect of playing international tennis. For me, it was a new lease of life.
Playing tournaments of different grades around the world – it’s like leading the life of a professional tennis player. Most of the players on the ITF Seniors Circuit are not playing for the money, all of us are actually investing money. It’s all for the love of the sport. The community of seniors tennis is strong both in India and the world.
In the last five years since I started playing ITF, I’ve had the privilege to play at beautiful venues. For instance, I played at the venue where the Australian Open was first played. I’ve played in Belarus, in South Africa at South Africa’s best club, etc. Meeting so many like-minded people in the sport really inspired me. First time I went for the 35+ World Championships, I was amazed at the fitness of 45 and 55 year olds. That really inspired me to work on my own game and fitness a lot. Fitness as a culture in India is required.
Q) How should one go about playing on the Seniors Circuit?
I know people on the Seniors circuit who started playing just five years ago. I believe Tennis is a sport for life. It teaches you values that you can imbibe to your children as well. I really encourage people of all ages, including women, to pick up the sport and keep playing. That’s how the sport will become popular and will reach smaller places. If you see the ITF schedule this year, there’s a tournament in India every two weeks. It’s a great community building exercise and a great way to meet people.
Q) You’re ranked among the Top 100 of the 30+, 35+, and 40+ players in the world. Could you talk about how you manage work and tennis?
In the Seniors circuit, the advantage is you have to play just 4 tournaments. It’s Best of 4 tournaments, unlike the Pros – where it’s best of 18. So we don’t need to play as many tournaments to be in the top ranks. But for me, I was never chasing a rank while playing the ITF Seniors Circuit. I am playing because I love the sport. I’ve played events even when winning the event would mean no change in ranking. I just play because I love playing.
I follow a strict time schedule. Post 6.30 PM, I train 2-2.5 hours, 5-6 days a week. I play Tennis 3-4 days a week, and I go to the gym 2-3 days a week. I identify 8-10 tournaments in a year to play, which is a 40-45 day commitment. I feel I can manage that with my work.
Q) Do you have any aspirations to work in tennis administration?
Absolutely. I’m currently involved with the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association (DLTA) and the National Tennis Center (NTC). I hope to ensure that the NTC, which is our current President Shri Anil Jain’s dream project, is a success. So I’m already involved in tennis administration in some shape or form.
And obviously, I want to follow my family’s legacy, which has been actively promoting the sport. I’ve seen the sport while I was growing up. I was traveling with my grandfather and father, watching Tennis at different venues. The love for the sport kept getting imbibed in me automatically. It’s been an organic process. It’s in my veins and my blood now. For me, I would love to be able to give back and contribute to Indian Tennis, which has given me so much. I am the person I am today because of the sport I play. It would be a dream come true and a massive opportunity if I’m able to contribute to the growth of the sport in a positive way.
Q) What are the gaps in Indian Tennis currently?
Things that can be improved are:
1) More Home Tournaments – We are having a lot of tournaments, which is great. A high number of tournaments, be it Futures, Challengers, 250’s, helps players improve their rankings tremendously. That is why Europeans have been so successful, because they have numerous accessible tournaments happening there every week. They can literally backpack and get to various $15K and $25K events. For an Indian player, it becomes very expensive with the visa process, ticket planning, etc. We need to have more challengers and Futures events,
2) More international coaches – We need to have more international coaches coming in to educate our Indian coaches. India is a very big country, and we have a lot of people playing Tennis. We have good coaches, but not enough. What is required is a better coaching and coaches’ education system. The learning for any player happens at the foundational stage. So if you don’t have good coaching, you can end up learning something completely incorrect.
3) Structured funding approach for top pros/juniors – We need to raise sponsorships for the top juniors and pros. tournament planning, and supporting them with a traveling coach, maybe for the Top 5 or Top 10 players, especially for juniors and 21-22 year olds, as they won’t have that much experience or knowledge.
I feel the Structure of Tennis needs a change globally, beyond the Top 100 players are not making money, a balancing funds is needed with at least top 500 players making money from this truly global sport. The grand Slam nations need to contribute more towards the ITF so that ITF can fund the federations who are hosting number of these 15k and 25k ITF events so that more events can be conducted in and around Asia. These ITFs are feeding players into the system and these need to be supported in a big way, The Grand Slam nations need to contribute more in development of sport and also towards the players outside of top 100.
4) Sports Science and Psychology Support – We need better medical and sports science facilities so that injuries can be prevented from a young age. Mental support/psychology is another big aspect – players need to know how to deal with losses. It’s a lonely and high-pressure sport. I feel we need to have more people who are more in touch with the players to build them up mentally, so that the players know that even if they lose, things are okay. That feeling of being backed needs to be imbibed in the players from the federation side. Obviously everyone is spending their own money, and the pressure to do well can become tough, especially at an early age. We are setting up a state of the Art Sports Science Centre in DLTA
5) Stronger communication with the players – A little more say from the players’ side is required. There should be a players’ body that players can voice their opinions in the executive committee. That’ll help in a positive manner. And the body should be a joint initiative with the federation to achieve a common, positive goal. It should not be a parallel thing. AITA has already set up an Athlete Commission from which Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, Sid Rawat, Sowjanya Bavisetti, Vishnu Vardhan are a part.
Q) How do you plan to make an entry into the big league (AITA) and make a difference?
It’s an organic process. With time, if I do positive work at the DLTA, I would be making a case for myself. If I’m able to convince the management that I have the leadership capabilities and the zeal to do it.
I’m the Tournament Director of the upcoming India-Denmark Davis Cup tie to be held in March, 2022 at the Delhi Gymkhana. My aim is to make sure this tie is a landmark one. Our vision is to make this tie a historic and memorable one. We are trying our best to get it telecasted on one of the top 2 sports channels in India. We have hired a marketing and PR agency. We are not seeing this as a one-off event. Over the next one month or so, we’ll be trying to make sure that the reach of the event popularizes the sport in the country.
If I keep doing good work, it will happen with time.
Q) You’re much younger than other administrators. What’s your camaraderie with players like?
While I was friendly with a lot of ITF Seniors players, playing in the PTL and TPL really helped me get closer to the players. I also knew a lot of Delhi based players, both my age and younger, given I am based there. But I had not had a lot of interactions with players from other parts. I feel these leagues gave me an opportunity to play with the players. That really helped me get closer to these guys.
I am a young administrator, but I’m a player as well. I am a player first and then an administrator. That makes me really sensitive towards players’ needs. I know the hard work that is needed to even get to a certain level. I am able to identify that, and I’m much more accessible to the players, and to the coaches as well. I am also actively playing with the coaches in Delhi, and when I’m traveling I meet a lot of coaches. I’m also part of the International Club of Tennis that has over 200 members. I’m traveling a lot to these events where I meet a lot of Tennis players, coaches, parents, etc. I also make it a point to be accessible to people even whenever anyone sends me a message on Instagram or Whatsapp. I am actively trying to solve people’s problems and I like being approachable. That’s probably a personality thing.
RAPID FIRE –
|Favorite Tennis Player||Rafa Nadal|
|Favorite Indian Tennis Player||Leander Paes|
|One wish for Indian Tennis||Realistically, a Top 50 ATP/WTA player|
|2022 Goal in ITF Seniors Tennis||Win a medal for India|
|Favorite Tournament||Wimbledon to watch|
2021 ITF Seniors World Championships, Croatia to play
|One Indian junior to watch out for||Karan Singh|
|Dream Doubles Partner||Leander Paes|