Sravya Shivani Chilakalapudi on her tennis, mental health and representing her colleagues at ITF Players Panel

Sravya Shivani Chilakalapudi

Despite a tough 2022, Sravya Shivani Chilakalapudi (SSC) remains India’s top 20 players in both singles and doubles. Chilakalapudi has been suffering from injuries and mental health issues, but she is brave enough to talk about her struggles and seek help. She is just 22 and has undertaken the important work of representing her fellow players and addressing their issues at the ITF Players Panel. I spoke to her via Zoom a couple of weeks ago and loved the openness and gleefulness of our conversation. Here’s the interview –

Q: Hi Sravya! Welcome to the Indian Tennis Daily. We are in the third quarter of the 2022 tennis season. How would you assess this year?

SSC: Hi! First of all, thank you for inviting me. 2022 hasn’t been as great as I would have wanted it to be. Not a very successful year for me performance-wise. I lost many close, tough matches. My year started with an injury. And I only made one doubles final (at ITF W15 Ahmedabad w/ Sharmada Balu) in the first few tournaments that took place in India. I’ve been struggling with a hip injury for over a year now. On top of that, I had a panic attack on the court in Nagpur. So I took some time off to take care of my mental health. Then I travelled to the United States to play some tournaments after I got my visa. I played some higher-level events. I learned a lot (on the trip). Ranking wise my performance hasn’t been good. But at the end, I look at it as – you’ll have some good seasons and some not-so-great seasons. It’s about learning from not-so-great seasons. I’m going to keep going forward.

Q: I’m sorry your mental health has declined. Thank you so much for openly talking about this. I hope you are feeling better. 

SSC: Yes, I am getting better. I’m going to therapy regularly. It’s helping a lot. To allow yourself not to be okay is one thing but actually putting efforts to get better is a step not everyone takes. You can have bad days and have mental health issues but you should also get help – I think that’s very important. So yeah, I’m getting better, thanks. 

Q: That’s wonderful to hear. My next question – Last year, you won your first title on ITF Women’s World Tennis Tour – the doubles victory at W15 Monastir (w/ Sharmada Balu). What do you remember from that week?

SSC: It was my best performance so far – I made the quarters in singles and won the doubles title there. I was actually ITD’s ‘Performer of the Week’ that week (laughs). That’s a fond memory I have. We were in Tunisia for almost two months because it was one of the few countries where Indian players could go and play during the pandemic. There were many Indians there that specific week so we had a lot of support. I remember it being a gradual process because it was our 4th or 5th week in Tunisia when we won. Our hard work paid off.  

Q: I also want to talk about another achievement of yours. You bagged two medals for India at the 2019 South Asian Games. Could you tell us about your experience playing in Nepal?

SSC: It was a big honour and huge privilege just to be selected to represent India at those Games. Every one of that Indian team, I’ve grown up watching and playing with, so that was special. Winning that medal and our national anthem being played, standing on the podium – it’s a feeling that cannot be matched. I became motivated and more driven there because of my understanding of my potential – what it can be. That’s always a good reminder when I am travelling to play all these tournaments. I always try to remind myself of that feeling. 

Q: You are one of the six players to be elected to the ITF’s World Women’s Tennis Player Panel representing Asia/Oceania. Why did you decide to contest that election?

SSC: It’s very important to have Asian representation in a sport like tennis which is very Europe and Western-centric. An Asian voice was needed in the sport. So when I saw nobody from Asia had volunteered to stand for the elections, I thought I should contest it. I’ve always been passionate about making the sport more accessible. In Asia, we have so much talent. Not just Indians, but also the Japanese, the Chinese and the Koreans, and all of us are so talented and hard-working but we do not get the same opportunities as the players on the other side of the globe. So yeah, I contested the election to make the sport more accessible for people from Asia.  

Q: You got 28 votes – the third most. How did you go about acquiring them?

SSC: Oh gosh, that was so much work! ITD certainly helped me with that. You guys are always helping me (laughs). ITD gave me a list of players to who I can reach out and ask for votes. I personally messaged about 100-150 accounts for the votes. Even though 28 is a small number, it’s difficult for athletes to get to vote, because the process is so inconvenient – finding the email, filling up details and so on. So yeah getting those 28 votes out of 100-150 messages sent is a good ratio. So thanks to every player who voted for me.

Q: As part of the ITF Players Panel, what are you focusing on? What has the progress been like?
SSC: So the panel meets about every two months. The panel advises and makes recommendations to the ITF World Tennis Tour Committee, which in turn reports to the ITF Board of Directors. The players meet among themselves once every month. We discuss the most pressing issues. It’s like a student council that goes to teachers. There is a lot of back and forth that happens. The ITF listens to our problems and offers solutions. 

My main goal has always been to increase the number of tournaments in Asia, especially after the pandemic and China-related issues. There is a big drop in the number of tournaments in this region. It has become difficult for players to travel because of the pandemic. It’s not easy to get visas. If you have a United States passport you can travel anywhere you want but for someone like me travelling with an Indian passport even to a country like Tunisia is also a struggle. Every player who has gone to Tunisia is going to tell you the same. So yeah more number of tournaments but also a higher level of tournaments. AITA did a good job, we had so many tournaments in the past year post-pandemic. We are one of the Asian countries to manage that but the rest of Asia still needs more tournaments. 

The other issue is of making information, rules and regulations more accessible to all players. Many players – the pros don’t know half of the official rules. They are misinformed. They lose out on so much. They get fined for no actual faults. So we must educate the players about their rights. So I’m pushing for better communication from ITF’s side. And also trying to make things easier for players to reach out to the ITF. 

The main reason the panel exists is so that players can come to us and then we talk to the committee but I feel like not enough players are taking that step to come to us in the first place. So yeah I’m trying to improve that channel as well. I can’t provide you with the details at the moment but ITF will be coming up with some solid initiatives in the coming months.

Q: Are you still training at Rohan Bopanna Tennis Academy (RBTA)? What has the experience there been like?

SSC: Yes, I’m still training at RBTA in Bangalore. I’m just taking some time off in Hyderabad to recover mentally. I was away for 3 months and that’s a long time. So I’m happy to be back home. I’ll be going to Bangalore in a week or so. RBTA has got everything – the facilities, the trainers,  the coaches – Balu sir (M. Balachandran) is one of the best coaches in the country. I love it there especially when Rohan (Bopanna) sir is there – the energy and the inspiration are at a different levels. It’s a cool place and we have a lot of fun there. I’m looking forward to going back. 

Q: You’ve mentioned in the past that you like doubles more than singles. Do you work on doubles-specific skill sets?

SSC: Yes, I like playing doubles. I’m quite a chatty person, so I like someone on the court with me. Doubles is so unpredictable though. You can pull off some insane wins, you can lose some very close matches. But that’s the beauty of doubles. I do a lot of doubles-specific skills drills – playing near the net, volleys etc. all year round. But I do train for both singles and doubles, not just doubles. I play both events equally. But doubles is very my passion lies. It’s even more enjoyable when Rohan sir is around.

Q: You also tried your hand at this new sport called Padel sometime back. Did you like it? It’s supposed to be a tennis doubles player’s paradise!

SSC: Padel is a lot of fun! It’s picking up in Bangalore. I tried my hands at it just before the pandemic. The first time I played padel was with Sathwika (Sama) and Adil (Kalyanpur). Jeevan (Nedunchezhiyan) once organised a padel event for all of us in Bangalore. About 15 of us went and played it one afternoon and it was a lot of fun. I wish I could play it more often. 

Q: What are your goals for the rest of the year and 2023?

SSC: Honestly, my main goal right now is to stay injury free and mentally healthy and enjoy the sport.

Q: One last question – What is that one thing you wish more people knew about you?

SSC: I’m an extrovert and my life is an open book. I am a lot more approachable than I seem. I hope more players reach out to me – that’s it (smiles). 

This interview was conducted on Tuesday, 2 August 2022 via Zoom.

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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