16-year-old Aryan Shah is currently the best junior player in the country. Guided and coached by Mr Vaidik Munshaw, Aryan is gearing up for the 2023 Australian Open in January. Munshaw has been a strong pillar in Aryan’s rise to the summit of the rankings. As a player, Munshaw himself was a promising player, before he decided to groom tennis players in Gujarat. A recipient of the Eklavya Award and the Arthur Ashe Scholar Athlete Award, Munshaw was the first player from Gujarat to play the junior Australian Open.
Before his departure to the USA for Aryan’s thorough training, Indian Tennis Daily’s Dr Balraj Shukla got in touch with the USPTA Certified Coach to learn about his story and how he shaped Aryan to be the No.1 in the country.
Q. Why tennis?
Well, a good question. The sports background of my family had always revolved around cricket. My grandfather, Mr. Sumant Munshaw was actually the one to have introduced professional cricket to our Gujarat state. As a child, I was exposed to many sport activities and as I had a positive potential for almost all sports, it was decided by my dad to let me pursue any individual sport to avoid the chaos of politics in team sports. Hence my tennis career began at L.D. Arts Tennis Center at the age of eight and I never looked back since then.
Q. And then the ITF path…
Tennis is an expensive sport. So I began initially with few tournaments at National level, the first being at Mumbai at the age of 11. Losing and winning at for about a year and a half my glory began when I was in the U-14 age group.
I continued my winning streak in the Asian Circuit and was selected in the Asian Masters in Australia where I emerged third. That was the beginning of my ITF path.
Q. Who was your coach back then?
Then my coach was Mr. Pramesh Modi. At the age of 16, I was sent to Delhi and was coached by Mr. Aditya Sachdev. That’s when I started my professional international career. Of course he helped me a lot, we had amazing batch that time with all the top players playing. I won my first tournament in Pakistan which was an ITF. We all were happy about it. And yeah, after that I never stopped. My highest ranking in juniors was 6. And then I got the opportunity to play the Grand Slam in Australia. I got an opportunity to play in US as well. I went through the qualifies, but I withdrew because I got food poisoning during my travelling. On my return from Grand slams I got a lot of calls for college tennis and I was 18. I wanted to play for India first. So I started playing the AITA men’s events. My highest ranking in India was 11. And then I played only one or two futures as Finance was tough and there was no help. Right now the government of Gujarat is helping a lot; at that time it was not so.
Q. When you were coming up in your singles career, you must have faced quite some challenges considering how rare tennis was in Gujarat back then. When you see the scenario today, what do you think has changed?
There was no fitness back in the days specific to tennis. Lot of aspects were not considered at all. But that’s 15 years back. Now, most of the gaps have been filled. Just the technology we lack so in that case we are behind but fitness we are doing much better. Lot of books and studies are helping our coaches to develop their skills and increase their knowledge for tennis-specific-fitness.
Q. And then the shift. Playing to coaching.
Yes, that was in US. Initially when I was in college, when I was playing, I could not do official job. So I was still learning to coach. I never liked coaching recreational players. And then I got an opportunity as a coach to work under Bob Ingersoll. He was a pro circuit chair of the USTA. So I started my journey as a coach at the West Side Tennis Club in Forrest Hills where the US Open was played till 1972. We had about 37 to 40 tennis courts – be it clay, hard or grass. I was starting my day at 5 a.m. in the morning and finished by 11 p.m. And whenever I was free for 4-5 hours in between my mentor, Robert Ingersole, was always giving me books so that I could learn more coaching. He gave me 5 kids who were between 4-7 years so I could teach them whatever I wanted to with my methodology. And then he put me to hit with 70-year-old adults so that I could understand the grip patterns, their advantages and disadvantages. He got me involved in the USTA committees, where I was selecting top juniors from USA to play with Canada (they had a lot of internal tournaments like that). And then from the eastern region USTA U-14 and U-12 I was the coach. So whenever the kids go and play I have to go with them just to observe what they do, what they are not doing and upgrade the US team and their coach respectively.
My mentor always added me in meetings or conference calls and put me on mute or Bcc me to try to teach me the way he spoke and trained. He wanted that whenever I come to that position, I don’t fall behind, so I think that was the best way for me to grow. Still If I am stuck somewhere, he is ready to help. He is the best mentor one could have.
Q. When was it when you finally decided, not a player, a coach. I’m sure it was a tough decision.
This is a very tough question. When I started the job at the West Side, my mentor told me that I should still play. So I was still playing for the club. In fact while coaching I won two National Indoor Championships of the USTA, both in doubles. Then there was this tournament that took place before the US Open where every region of the USTA held an event. The winners from each region competed in a final main draw of 16 in Cincinnati. The winner of that event would get a main draw entry in the US Open doubles. So I along with my partner Gustavo Loza who was a Mexican, won the Eastern tournament and we went to Cincinnati but lost there. But it was good to know that I could play at that level. Lack of financial support was there and when you are doing a job it is difficult to manage finances, handling so many leaves, etc. That’s when I thought that I should stick to coaching.
Q. So everything was nicely settled in USA. And then you came back to India.
I always wanted to come back to India. I got a lot of opportunities where I could have settled down. But the only thing was that I have always dreamed and had a vision to develop Indian players and produce single’s players. So that’s why I came back as I wanted to develop players. In fact, when I was playing I got offers from Mauritius and Africa to shift and play for their country. I also got an offer to play for Delhi, but I refused because at that time from Gujarat there was nobody. And the next player behind me had a gap of 10 years. So somewhere there was always this emotion that I never wanted to leave Gujarat. I wanted to develop players here and I think it’s going good for now. Ahmedabad has now established its name and become a tennis hub.
Q. How was the seed of R.H.Kapadia Sports Academy planted?
When I was in USA and was supposed to come back, my investor, Rupak Kapadia, the trustee of The R. H. Kapadia school, told me that he wanted to start such a sports academy. But he had a condition that he would do so only if I run and head the academy. It was the trust he put in me to handle and direct the academy just like he does in education.
Q. So now you are the coach of the No.1 junior player in India, Aryan. So when did you first meet him?
I met him in August 2020. I exactly saw myself in him, playing wise and thinking wise. When I played the first set with him in the first session, I beat him 6-0. I was just doing drops and lobs, nothing else. So I understood what was lacking right there. He knew everything how to play, but he had no opportunity. I didn’t focus on his technical aspects much except the serve and some part of the backhand. I was more focusing on his tactic, shot selection and fitness. Every six months he is growing and giving me challenges. And as a coach that helps me grow as well.
Q. So now he is at a stage where he has to choose whether or not to opt for college tennis.
For him, the parents and I are very sure. He is not going to opt for college. Even he doesn’t want that.
Q. The reason being?
He just wants to stay here and focus on professional career and grow. His mindset is very clear. He is an excellent kid, always attentive. As a coach you don’t want to dictate, so I love it when he or any other student argues with me.
Q. So what principles do you strictly adhere to as a coach?
My pyramid is very clear. Nutrition comes first. Number two is fitness. And then number three is tennis. If my student does not play tennis for a month, its fine. But nutrition and fitness are not to be compromised with.
I always think as a friend or a player. Maybe I am right, maybe I am wrong. I have got mixed reviews for my approach but what I know is that my strictness towards discipline and punctuality keeps them on their toes. So they are scared of me somewhere but also they find a friend in me. Sometimes I know some of their things which even their parents won’t know about! And this is something that I was taught by my mentors – to always be available to the kids and be open to them.
Q. Coming back to Aryan, academically does he have an aspiration?
He studies not more than two hours. He is into tennis completely. He does not go to school. He is home schooled. Because most of his schedule involves his physio and rehab sessions. Before exams he studies and comes out decently. And I think we are fine with that. Because if your career is tennis, I think he is doing a decent job of balancing academics.
Q. So now he is transitioning from juniors to men’s. Now in the past we have seen a lot of promising players just like Aryan who have somehow been lost or disappeared during this transition. What do you think are the main reasons behind this?
First is financial. A lot of parents also don’t see beyond juniors. Then there are some coaches as well who do not have the vision beyond juniors. They will train a player till juniors and then send him for college (tennis). Reasons are many. It can be injury,finance, etc .
As a coach if I know that a certain kid does not have that financial ability, I am never going to show the parents a dream of their kid becoming a Grand Slam champion. My job is to take them at the highest level they can be and then send them to a right place where finance and everything can be managed. After 15, we are going to try for two years to get the financial support. If we don’t, then we should always have a plan B.
Another aspect is that players get distracted a lot during this phase as they travel a lot all alone. Because the group with which the player travels also matters a lot according to me. That’s why I always tell Aryan (when he tells me to travel all alone by himself) that sorry but you are never going to be travelling alone in your life.
Q. Singles is his focus for now?
Yes. But I think he is a much better doubles player. Again he is very introvert, so that’s why he is lacking a good doubles partner. He tunes nicely with Manas. But Manas is younger so he cannot enter every tournament. Manas is a very good baseliner and Aryan is good at the net. I feel this pair can do good. In singles also he is doing very good.
Q. Where do you think we are not clicking as far as the coaches are concerned in the development of a singles player in India?
As coaches I don’t think we cannot do it. We are doing it much better now. I feel that there are some coaches who shy away or do not allow the bar to be raised more. I always felt that when I was a player too. If a player has the ability, then why cannot he play? We are five years behind the Europeans, as simple as that. We have less tournaments, that’s a different thing. In fact, this year we have a lot of tournaments and AITA has done a great job in that.
Even travelling is very expensive. And especially when a coach cannot travel with the player, it makes a difference. But I feel Indians are right there. Its a matter of time now.
Whenever I travel with anyone, I try to talk to a lot of other coaches try to take their inputs in a way that how they run the academy or how their program is running, how much they work in a week, how much is fitness. Every tennis parent in India has the mindset that ‘play more, play more and play more.’ In Europe, they do not play more than 20 hours a week despite the good weather. So that’s the mindset we have and that’s what I want to change. My coaching is more about quality than quantity.
Q. So how is Aryan going to prepare for the Aussie Open?
So our plan for now is, we’re going to make him play the Grade 1 and Grade A in USA. We’ll see how that goes. Once he comes to give him the feel of the Grand Slam environment. I don’t want him to feel any pressure or have a sense of wonder when he enters the Aussie Open. Once he comes back in mid-December our plan is to get his fitness for the Aussie Open.. We are trying to find any men’s tournament before that and play and then go but there is no men’s tournament during the Christmas time. And so we are still deciding on that.
Q. Tennis in Ahmedabad. It’s growing. What more do you think can the Gujarat State Tennis Association can do?
I think since last 2-3 years they are doing a great job of getting tournaments. But I think we should get higher level tournaments. I think they can take more support from the government. I think that’s the part of the association. I don’t care where the money is coming from, the tournament should happen, right? It doesn’t matter who does it.
Q. So is this coming from your experience in USA? Because you have experienced both systems, right?
Honest answer to your question is that I still do not follow the system here. I’m more following the system of the US and I still believe that you know working as a team is always going to help. In the end we want the players from India to go up.
Q. Apart from Aryan are there any other players from your academy you feel are very promising?
Yes we have, Dhruv Hirpara. He was also a top junior. In men’s he is No.19 currently. We want to start him with the Futures but funding is important. We are trying to talk a lot of companies to get us sponsors now. We also have other players like Atharva Sharma, Rudra Bhatt, Shourya Manik, Mohit Bondre, etc.
Q. Has Aryan been approached by any sponsor?
Aryan has not been approached by anybody till now. But yes, from now on we will try to open up and see how they are willing to help. A lot of credit goes to Aryan’s parents. His dad is doing excellent job in managing everything else. So we are looking forward to a bright future for him.