Aditya Balsekar: “In terms of game we are at par with the rest but…”

The initial days of struggle are always the most beautiful to look back to. 19-year-old Aditya Balsekar is making every effort to pave a beautiful memory lane down the road. Currently raked in the Top 1350 of the ATP rankings, Aditya’s journey amidst the frozen rankings due to the pandemic has already seen him battle ligament tears, come back after getting bagelled, work as a tennis coach while simultaneously excelling in the US Collegiate Tennis. 

“Balsekar excels at M15 Futures Tournament” reads the homepage of Radford University Athletics’ tennis section. In his freshman and sophomore seasons, he has a stunning 15-3 and 15-1 record respectively in singles and is all set to compete in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s Regional competition in October. 

Indian Tennis Daily’s Dr Balraj Shukla got in touch with Aditya Balsekar, the blazing young gun that the tennis world needs to keep a close eye on. 

I would love to know about your journey from the very scratch. 

So I started playing tennis at the age of 6. The main reason for me being put into tennis was exercise.  As a kid I was chubby but very active. My parents wanted me to play a sport. My dad used to play badminton and my granddad was into athletics. So they were like maybe sports runs in our family. My mom wanted me to put into badminton because of dad. But he was like let’s try something different and put him into tennis.

My mom was telling my dad that tennis is an expensive sport. How are you going to support him once he starts liking the sport and if he excels, how are you going to manage the expenses. But my dad said not to worry about that. He said I will do whatever I can. If he likes it, then worst case we will sell things and let him pursue tennis. 

That level of seriousness for a tennis parent is amazing. 

Yeah but for me, it was just for fun initially. I used to go to an academy twice or thrice a week. Play for about an hour. In fact then I used to go to play cricket with my friends. And then one day my coach said let’s try and put you in a tournament. I think it was an U-10 event. It was held in Kalina University in Mumbai. I don’t know how prepared I was. It was just six games to win and I lose the match 6-0. But it felt nice playing that tournament and I felt if there are any more tournaments,  I’ll just play. But there was not much difference in the results in tournaments I next played even though I did improve my tennis. I finished my U-10 category without a win under my belt. 

I then moved to AITA for U-12 matches. I started playing those small Talent series tournaments. When I won a first round match I was on top of the world. After that I consistently managed to get past the first round of every event even though I didn’t have any deeper runs. Then there was one tournament in the Championship series where I go as the underdog and beat the No.5 seed and then lost in the semis to the No. 3 seed in a close match. Now this was the guy whom I lost to 6-0 in my first ever U-10 event. This time around I lost 3-6 4-6 to him which I felt was a good progress in under two years.

Then I went to Indore to play ITC. I was eligible for both U-12 and U-14. I went with zero expectations but I wanted to get my rank up. It was one of the best tournaments I played in. I won the U-12, made the semis in U-14 and also made the doubles finals in U-12.

In U-14 I started travelling more. Because I feel you can’t develop your game being in one place. I won a few tournaments here and there and ended with a Top 10 finish in U-14, No.1 in Maharashtra. Now because I tasted this success, I wanted it even more. I also got sponsorship from Yonex after my U-14 results.

I think it was U-14  when I went through my first ligament tear in my knee. 

Now that’s a progress. 

(chuckles) Yeah I was playing really well. I was at my peak. We were in a tiebreak. This guy pulls me out of the court, I hit the shot, but then I felt a pop in my knee. I was all okay, I played the match, lost 8-6 in the tiebreaker. I told my dad my knee had bee hurting. But he felt I was making excuses like a kid. And then I go home, take a nap. When I wake up my knee was swelling up and I told my dad that look I wasn’t messing with you! So then I consult Dr Anand Joshi, who is a well known surgeon for athletes (has also operated on Sachin Tendulkar). The surgery kept me out for 6 months. 

I didn’t travel much in U-16 because of academics. Because you have to balance both. I was able to manage a Top 10 rank in the country in U-16 even though I played less. Academically I got 94% in my 10th grade and that was also morally boosting.

In U-18 I played some ITF events because if you want to opt for college they consider your ITF junior ranking and UTR. If you have a good UTR, a good ranking, they approach you for scholarship. I didn’t play a lot of AITAs like Nationals. My first ITF was in Kyrgyzstan. I spend about 1-1.5 lakh rupees and after two weeks I had zero points. It was a good learning experience.

Aditya Balsekar

Then I got a wild card in a tournament in Bangladesh where I ended up reaching the semis and got my ITF junior ranking. Then I played a tournament in Singapore and made the quarters, a few more here and there before I went to Bangladesh again for a J5. Here I won my first ever title where in the first round I remember I started cramping in the final set after leading 5-0. I was against Aayush Bhat, a good friend and a wonderful player. I somehow managed to close the match and win the entire thing. 

Then I had my 12th grade exams. Covid hit, and my ranking was frozen at somewhere around 600. I was out for a couple of years. Then I got an offer from Radford Athletics. I accepted it because I thought staying in India I didn’t find enough facilities and opportunities. The coaches and players are good in India but because I wanted to go professional soon after U-18, it requires a lot of money. 

My coach in India, Navdeep Singh, told me that in order to go professional, you have to spent a certain amount of money annually. This amount was two or three times more than how much I am spending here at college. In the summer breaks I could opt for ITF tournaments. So eventually I decided that college tennis is a good path to come through. My dad said that you can go to college and I can save some funds for later and once I start performing I can travel and play more tournaments.

Earlier this year I spent some time in California where I lived with my uncle and also worked as a coach and earned some money. Before coming to college I wanted to have an ATP rank. So this summer I went to Mexico for an ITF where I got into the qualifying draw and made the main draw. In the main draw I play another qualifier. He was playing exceptionally well, I was finding it difficult to put the ball in play. I lost the first set 6-0 and took a bathroom break. I told myself that you are here for a purpose. Then in the second set he held his serve which meant he won seven games in a row now. Then the next game I held my serve for the first time and I screamed as if I had won Wimbledon. I broke him the next game and won the second set 7-5. In the third set I broke him to take a 3-2 lead when he started cramping due to exhaustion and he retired. And that’s how I got my first ATP point. I eventually lost in the quarterfinals to a Top 500 guy. But it was a good run for me winning five matches in a row.

This tournament helped me get into the ITF events of USA. I go to Texas and I play this kid Alex Michelson, 18-year-old in the main draw. 

Indian Wells Champion.

Yeah! He was pretty solid from start to finish and he won the match. I also got my first doubles point in the same tournament. 

So according to you, let’s say if someone wants to stick to India, not take the collegiate path, where do they need to focus and improve more? 

I feel the most important thing is the way you carry yourself mentally. We are strong but we can get stronger. Also fitness wise, on-court. I am not saying we are lacking but we need to look up to players like Sumit Nagal, who is one of the fittest guys on tour. I also feel that in terms of game we are almost there at par with the rest. Its just that we need to play this big points better consistently. That again rounds up to the mental aspect.

Do you feel mentality is the only aspect that might be hindering us from achieving bigger things in singles? 

Mentality is not the only thing for sure. Facilities wise as well, I feel we lack indoor courts. In US there are so many indoor courts. Even if its snowing, raining or windy, you can always go and play indoors. We receive a lot of rainfall which translate into off days for us when people in other parts of the world can still go practice indoors. For me I saw this a lot in Mumbai where we receive a good amount of rainfall. On those days I am simply shadow swinging my racquet. But I am sure we have people who can make this change even though its going to take some time. 

AITA has been doing a pretty good job so far. It has been supporting so many players and also giving recognition to players like me. So I am very thankful to them. Somewhere they are probably inspiring tennis parents to put their kid into tennis that one day he or she might represent the country. 

Your journey has been incredible to listen to. I am keen to know whom you idolize in tennis. 

For me my idol has always been Rafael Nadal. I really like his attitude on court, the most well-mannered person on and off court. Its amazing how he carries himself and he feels there is always a way to win even if you are losing. He has this fighting spirit which has always drawn me towards him. And also Juan Martin Del Potro. He is one of the nicest guys as well.

Your preferred surface is? 

Hard courts. But I also like to play on clay. 

Alright. Quickfire time. You have to build your dream player. 

Forehand: Del Potro

Backhand: Djokovic

Serve: Opelka

Lob: Alcaraz

Mentality: Nadal

Volley: Bopanna

Stamina: Medvedev

Return: Djokovic

Slice: Federer

One tournament you want to win: Maharashtra Open (because its in India). I would like to win the US Open. 

One tennis match you learnt a lot by watching it: Federer Djokovic 2019 Wimbledon final.

You are going to upset a lot of Federer fans. 

(laughs) No but I also like Federer a lot.

Your goals for the 2023 season? 

I would like to break into the Top 800 and transition into Challenger events.

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