In the book, Advantage India: The Story of Indian Tennis, writer Anindya Dutta says, “Between 1983 and 1986, Nandan Bal ruled Indian tennis, winning four successive national championships….Having coached the Indian Davis Cup team for thirteen years and the Fed Cup team as well, Bal now runs his academy at Pune, preparing the new generation of players for a shot at glory.” I don’t think I can give a better introduction than this for coach Nandan Bal. He hails from my home city of Pune and last week I caught up with him at Global Professional Tennis Coach Association (GPTCA)’s C&B Level Course at Modern School, Barakhamba Road in New Delhi. Here’s what we talked about –
On GPTCA experience in New Delhi
It’s been fantastic. I, myself am a Level A GPTCA coach. I’ve been a speaker at the previous event and now they called me back. I’ve worked with International Tennis Federation (ITF) and Professional Tennis Registry (PTR) coaching programmes but this one is different. Being certified by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and getting a chance to be in the company of names like Alberto Castellani, Toni Nadal, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Ivan Ljubičić is special. These guys have been on the tour for many decades, so they know what it takes to perform at the highest level. What GPTCA offers in the curriculum is exceptionally useful for coaches.
On tennis in the 80s
Everyone says today’s tennis world is a lot more professional than in the 80s. So are you telling me we were not thorough competitors? We were! All we didn’t have was money. The quantum of money we got in those days was way lesser than what it is now. But that didn’t make us any less professional. We did the same things as today’s pros. We fought hard battles on the court.
But the huge difference between those days and today is that, after a match, we used to sit down with our opponent, we used to share meals, play cards and go to the movies. That’s how we grew. In our playing times, we never looked at anyone as enemies. Our opponents were our opponents, not enemies. They were in fact friends after the handshake at the end of the match. From the late 70s to the late 80s, we all travelled to tennis tournaments together. We all travelled by train to different parts of the country together. Now the player entourage of parents and coaches does not encourage that. The theory that you cannot be friends with your opponents is wrong. It bothers me.
The guys I travelled with in those days are still my friends. They are the ones who call me up and ask me about my health today. We are constantly in touch. I know what their children are up to. They know what is up with my children. So yeah, we have long-lasting friendships. I doubt modern-day tennis allows for such friendships to flourish.
On what made him a great tennis player and a great coach as well
So that has something to do with my background. I wasn’t one of those players with huge financial backing. I mean we were not poor or anything but we were a typical middle-class family. My father was an officer in the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC). So we had a comfortable living but he didn’t have the kind of money to send me abroad to play tournaments all the time.
Meanwhile, at a young age, a friend of mine suggested I go away and work as a coach. For 4-5 hours each day. And then I can practice playing tennis on the sides. So I started working on one of those summer camps in the United States. There were kids from age 6 to elderly age 70 in the camp. So teaching the young and the old taught me a lot of things. The greatest thing that happened to me was the camp because it was being conducted by Welby Van Horn who was one of the world’s best coaches back then. And somewhere down the line, he saw something in me. I think he saw the hunger in me. So he offered his coaching to me at no cost. Now, this is the man who has coached players like Arthur Ashe and Charlie Pasarell and he said every day he will spend an hour with me to improve my tennis. After I came back to India, I was India No. 1 within three months. No. 1 as per the rankings but I always considered myself No. 2 because even though he didn’t have a national ranking because he didn’t play in India, Ramesh Krishnan was far better than all of us.
But yeah the fact is that trip started changing things for me. This bond with Welby remained. A year later, in 1976 or 1977, I started travelling internationally post his help and then I continued playing until 1986-1987 and then I called it a day on my playing career. That’s when we reconnected, and he asked me to join him for coaching. He said – “I taught you how to play. Now, I’ll teach you how to coach.” And so yeah, I learnt how to play from a Master and I also learnt how to coach from an absolute Master. I still use some of his techniques today because they work! We used to predict who’s going to win matches at Wimbledon every round, and he used to be right 8 out of 10 times. His tennis knowledge was unbelievable.
A couple of years ago before Arthur Ashe passed away, Welby offered me the job of Head Coch of the tennis academy of Port Washington in New York. At that time it was the No. 1 academy run by the United States Tennis Association (USTA). Welby said he recommended my name to Ashe. I don’t know whether I was silly or whatever, but I declined and chose to go back to India. It was ridiculously lucrative but I decided to come back to Pune for two reasons – I wanted to help the next generation of Indian players and my parents were getting older. And we were brought up to take care of our parents in their old age. So yeah, I settled in Pune and started my academy.
On his role as the Chairman of the Professional Selection Committee of the All India Tennis Association (AITA)
I was a member of the committee for the past five years. And last year I was appointed as the chairman. So our job is to pick up the teams for Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup, and other tournaments. The captains of both teams have a say in the selection of course. I am very clear in my theory – you pick up a player based on his ranking, you pick up a player on their current form and you pick up a player on his ability to play on a certain surface. For example – In our last tie against Denmark which was played on grass, we picked up some grass specialists. And we won! Sometimes players do not like our choices, but we must take such hard calls. I’m glad to have a committee that supports me. We do not have any say in the appointment of the captain or the manager for the teams.
On his daughter Namita Bal’s coaching progress
She also started her career as a player. I was fairly certain she wasn’t going to do much in international tennis, in terms of her singles career but I always thought she was a hell of a doubles player. Her knowledge of doubles is phenomenal. She used to play doubles with a close friend of hers. And they were happy. Even today, the other girl is a top player. But then they stopped playing together and went their own ways. And that’s fine – it happens all the time.
Around the time she got her first WTA ranking, she got into a horrible accident. She was hit by a bike. When I saw her at the hospital, her little face had a big head – like an enlarged, blown-up brain. Her skull injury was severe and we didn’t know if she was going to survive. She also hurt her spine in the same injury. This meant she was not able to play tennis professionally anymore.
When she was down with depression, I told her not to make any decisions. I told her to wait for at least six months, a year to decide what to do next. Work on the healing, get into a positive frame and then make the next move. Once she got better and started coaching, honestly saying, she didn’t want to do anything else. She has always been a good student. And that has made her a good teacher.
As a coach, she’s like me. We don’t care about the returns. We want to help our players. We want our players to perform better than yesterday. When our player doesn’t perform well, we say – “Ok! I’m gonna come back and work harder with my player. Help them improve.” She just wants her students to exhibit improvement every single day. Our philosophy is – We will guarantee you are better today than you were yesterday, and we guarantee that you will be better tomorrow than you are today. But we will never guarantee you are going to win a match. Because there are too many factors involved in that outcome.
Namita is truly passionate about coaching. One thing she has done differently and taken things to a next level is by learning and teaching fitness. I know nothing about fitness. But she knows. No other coach in her age category in India teaches both tennis and fitness to that level. She is also empathetic. Her students love her and respect her and vice versa.
At 29, I think she is a far better coach for her age than I was as a coach at 40. This is a fellow coach talking, not a parent.
On the immediate future of Indian tennis
The Indian top players of the 60s, 70s and 80s we produced were brilliant but that was despite the system. Today’s players maybe not be of the same achievements but still on top, are produced because of the system. Nothing happens overnight. We don’t have an icon player in singles who the younger lot can look and aspire to be like. Once we have a player in the top 10 or top 20 of the world, that’s when you will see a rippling effect and you will see many players believe in themselves and get there. I think players like Sumit Nagal, Ramkumar Ramanathan, Prajnesh Gunneswaran, and Somdev Devvarman were knocking in the top 150, top 100 – we were doing well. And then we were hit by COVID-19. So we lost out there a bit.
Now that generation – everyone is doing well in doubles. Now it’s time to look at the next generation. With the selection committee, we made sure to add some new guys to come in for the Davis Cup tie. My condition was they are under 21. They must spend some time with our established men. Hence we included players like Digvijay Pratap Singh, Karan Singh and Chirag Duhan in the training and on the bench.
Another impressive kid is Yuvan Nandal. So these are the guys who will be our players to cheer for in the next few years. These guys have the potential to reach the top 200 and top 100 in the world. After this generation, we can dream of players climbing even higher.
We’ve always had incredible U12 and U14 players of both sexes. We are losing most of them in the 14-18 ages. So hope that changes – it will benefit Indian tennis.
This interview was conducted in person on Saturday, 6 August 2022.