Even if you are the most ardent Indian Tennis fan and have not heard Sahaja Yamalapalli’s name before, you would be forgiven. Such has been the rise of this 21 year old! Having played in just 3 ITF Juniors events, Yamalapalli went to the Sam Houston State University in the US to play in the NCAA College Tennis competition, which is where she claims to have taken massive strides in her game.
Yamalapalli played her first ITF Pro Circuit event only in September 2021 and has skyrocketed to 570 in the WTA Singles Rankings already. She’s won two ITF Futures singles titles, including the big $25K win in Gurugram recently, where she beat a host of solid players, including compatriot Karman Kaur Thandi.
Speaking to ITD, Yamalapalli talks about her journey in Tennis so far, what caused her rapid transformation, her goals for the future, and much more.
Early Days: how she got into Tennis
I took up sport at the age of 10 just to keep my body fit and healthy as my parents were sports enthusiasts. Then as time passed by i started to develop interest and passion for the sport. Then we decided to take it up seriously and i later joined Sinnet Tennis Academy in Secunderabad in the year 2016. There I trained under Mr. Ravichandran sir and Mr. Prahlad Kumar Jain Sir for about a year who helped in improve my game. As I started performing well in the circuit, I got a great opportunity to join in the US for college tennis in Sam Houston State University where I learnt a lot about life and learned how to be independent which also helped me a lot in my game and also to grow as a person.
I was also offered a full scholarship with my constant performance and rankings in which my team mates also played a great role. After coming back from the US, I initially trained just by hitting with players and got back a little with my old coach Mr. Jain. Later I did some research and joined PBI Tennis Academy in Bangalore. Under the coach Cesar Morales, who I was really impressed with because of his method of coaching and understanding of the game, I was able to transform my game to a better level and he also gave a more clear understanding about my own game.
On how US College Tennis happened
Around 16 years old, my game improved and I started doing well. Due to my performance and ranking they offered me a full scholarship along with representing them. I come from a middle class family and I wasn’t able to afford tennis. Dad thought that there’s free coaching, free degree, so why not take this opportunity. So I went to the US for four years that was another big step in my life, because when I went there and after I was done in those four years I was a completely different person both personality and tennis wise. I developed a lot over the four years.
I’ve always wanted to play professional tennis despite going to college. So I thought even after college the whole point of going to college was to build my tennis to play professionally. However there were no funds. I wasn’t able to afford anything even after college and then I called Jain Sir from Sinner Tennis Academy. He loves me and knows that I have passion, so we called him and explained the situation about playing professionally, about the issue of not having help financially. So he said, ‘you go play i’ll help you.’ He’s the main person who helped me start my professional career. He’s still supporting me, he’s been supporting me since day one. So I played, got points and won my first ITF $15K in February in Nagpur.
Then I thought of getting a coach, a new academy to take my game to the next level. So I went and approached PBI Tennis Academy in Bangalore. I loved coach Cesar (Morales) there, I thought we’d get along very well and he would help me improve my level. This is inside the Padukone-Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence in Bangalore. They have all the sports there, their management is awesome. They said they would help me out, be it for training, gym, mental fitness, sports psychology or anything else. It was all huge for me. First it was Jain Sir and now it’s them who play a huge role in my game for me to go to the next level. Here I am with another title. Without PBI-CSE’s help, I wouldn’t be here today.
In between all of this, there’s been my dad and mom’s sacrifices and hard work. I don’t want to get into all that now. My dad gave up many jobs for me.
Reason behind not playing too many ITF Juniors events
It was majorly financial reasons. I couldn’t afford to travel much so I never played many tournaments in India. I would only play mostly in South Indian states like Andra Pradesh and Telangana, and Bangalore. I came to Bhubaneswar once. At Delhi I played the Fenesta Nationals once. My dad never laid much emphasis on Juniors tennis, of course I needed it but didn’t really have the resources to go for it. But just from the limited tournaments I played, I performed really well and that’s what got me into College Tennis in America.
Balance between studies and Tennis
My parents never put pressure on me to get good grades. I don’t know how but I always got good grades. With me, if I take something up I need to give my hundred percent. If I wanted to write an exam I wouldn’t go without studying. I had to do it. It was the same with tennis which is why I was able to give a hundred percent to both because I cannot give less to anything, that’s how I am. It’s all or nothing that’s why I was able to manage both studies and tennis. I got good grades and I was doing well in tennis. I was really good at time management. I would manage my time really well. I didn’t struggle with anything.
For me, it doesn’t matter cause I’m not like one of those who’s into going out or partying. I’m more work oriented. If I’m doing the work with which I’m happy I don’t feel like I’ve sacrificed anything.
Experience with NCAA College Tennis
I was 16 when I went there. I was naturally scared as I’ve never been outside the country. So that was my first time, me going alone and having to figure out everything by myself. First it was tough but gradually I had to adjust with all those things and had to learn my way to figuring out life. I just started doing things on my own and I didn’t feel like I needed somebody to take care of me. So that was a huge thing because it helped me become independent. Also the team environment there was big. We would push each other, there was a team for me, there was a coach. I’ve never had that before. For the first time I had like three coaches, six team players and a seventh one we all worked together. There was everyone taking care of each other on the court, off the court. We built each other that’s how life was, we fed off of each other and after four years I was at a different level.
Recommendation about College Tennis to Juniors
Let’s say if a player is from a middle class family and they cannot afford professional coaching, I’d definitely recommend it because there you get it for free. You learn so much more that you would not learn if you’re not going there. Every weekend you play matches, so the exposure you get is next level. No matter how much you pay, you won’t get the same exposure. I’d definitely recommend going there but you have to be hundred percent focused though because there are variables that are gonna distract you there. You can go either way, it depends on the person. If the player is confident, focused, and motivated then I’ll definitely recommend going there. They would learn a lot on and off the court. As a person they would learn so many things independently.
Difference in level between ITF Juniors and NCAA
It’s pretty much the same level because all the players who compete in the NCAA’s are professional players. Not everyone can get into that though. Only professional players who have rankings compete in that. So it’s the same kind of players competing in the NCAA. Those are the players who play professional and then go there and come back. Some return and some don’t. You see the same mix of players there too. You see the same competition.
In ITF at the higher levels it’s really different. At the level I play, I’d say it’s similar to the NCAA. 15k’s, 25k’s are similar.
Current Training Base and Future Goals
I’m training at PBI-CSE, Bangalore with coach Cesar (Morales) and team. To be honest, I didn’t expect to win this $25K tournament in Gurugram. My goal for this year was to be top 500. But now I’m gonna say I wanna be top 300 by the end of this year.
Strengths and Weaknesses
I feel like I’m very strong mentally. Sometimes I have my days but mostly I keep my composure mentally I’m very strong, that helps me a lot in many matches. On court my backhand is my strength but I feel the forehand is solid. I still use my forehand a lot more than my backhand even though the backhand is my strength. I set up the points with my forehand and then finish with my backhand that’s my strength. I cover the court really well.
I used to look up to Serena Williams. Even now she’s one of the greatest’s. She’s the greatest probably. Now that she’s not that active I love watching Iga Swiatek’s matches. He strength is aggressive gameplay. I kind of copy her style of play and try to implement it on court.
Belief in God/Spirituality
I do believe in God and destiny but I also feel we have to take control on court. I am a spiritual person but I don’t think god really looks into a tennis match. It’s you who has to take that step but yeah I do believe in god or a superior power. I do believe that things happen for a reason.
I don’t believe in luck or bad luck. Luck is just one percent and most of it is hard work. It does happen but 99 percent you’ve to work hard.
|Favorite Dish||Chicken Biryani|
|Best Friend On Tour||None|
|Favorite Shot||Inside In Forehand|
|Favorite Movie||Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani|
|Dream Opponent||Iga Swiatek|
|Indian Tennis Idol||Ankita Raina|
|Favorite Tournament||Wimbledon, it’s really classy|