“Yuvan`s best tennis matches up against the best. It is about sustaining that level” – Coach Stephen Koon

Top Indian Juniors Yuvan Nandal and Shruti Ahlawat made their Australian Open debut this week in the Juniors draw. Both are trainees under the world renowned coach Stephen Koon at the Impact Tennis Academy in Thailand. 

[R1] Shruti Ahlawat (IND,84) l. Wakana Sonobe (JPN,64) 36 16
[R1] Yuvan Nandal (IND,49) d. Alexander Frusina (USA,34), 26 63 65 (Ret.)

Coach Stephen took time out to speak to ITD Member Balaram Dhulipala about their matches and on topics concerning Indian Tennis. 

On association with Yuvan Nandal

I have known Yuvan since he was around 13 and we worked for a year or so and then COVID-19 happened and we did not see each other for about 3 years. When he came back, he was out of shape and his game needed a lot of work

I had stopped travelling since Indian Wells 2020 and after having  my daughter I don’t want to do as much. I said no to top 100 ATP players but for these two kids (Shruti Ahlawat, Yuvan Nandal) we promised in August that if they make their first Slam main draw I would come. They committed to me and I want to do my best for them and my daughter (and wife)  likes them both. 

This is their first Grand Slam match and naturally everyone gets nervous for the first time. You may not play your best match but you have to compete and fight 

On Shruti Ahlawat

The match went by pretty fast. For sure she had some nerves for her first Grand Slam match and she did not have the most ideal preparation but she got in the draw and you got to go for it. She did not even get one practice slot on site but these are not excuses. She did not play well enough today, not up to her level.

Nerves or lack of experience, sure, but it doesn’t matter in the end, to become a big player, you have to rise up and play your best tennis in these big moments. You need to have that self-belief to keep yourself positive when things are not going well

Her opponent gave us so many chances throughout the match as she is a hit and miss kind of player. Shruti struggled with her first serves and had too many unforced errors at crucial stages. She is extremely capable – I would not be here if I did not think highly of her calibre. I believe in her, her ability and will power.

She doesn’t have an easy life off court and is facing some issues that all young girls do and unfortunately this is affecting her on court. She has to buy her own rackets and strings as Babolat India told her she has to live in India to get any support. She is only 16, she has won B1 Pune and is the only Indian girl playing slams and she can’t even get some rackets??? That’s very unfortunate to me. But again, NO excuses

This is the first step for her to be here and play her first Slam. She has work to do but she is only 16 and this is the first of 8 Grand Slams for her. She has come here, experienced the environment, met a lot of the pro players, and got the vibe for how things are. I wanted her to come on-site early. Thankfully Yuki asked me to help with some doubles and we got her a pass. She had the opportunity to meet Djokovic, Sakkari and many of the pros I know and she knows this is the stage she wants to be at as a player, now she has to  continue to develop and work. I can guarantee that without being told she will be back in the gym tomorrow 

It’s a tough moment for her but this is going to be about how we are going to come back from this, bounce back and continue to improve.  She did not execute the things that we had planned today. I also need to do better to help her. She has some good supporters and we will all meet and get her through

On Yuvan Nandal potential

He has had close matches with top players over the last 3-4 months. In Korea, he lost to the guy who won Osaka and Orange Bowl in 3 sets. Similarly he lost to another player in 3 sets who went on to win the Eddie Herr. Last week in Traralgon, he played the top USA boy and again had chances. 

So we know that with his best tennis, he can compete against the best. It’s all about whether he can sustain this level for the whole match. Coach Skinny, Coach Oliver, his father, his physios from RoundGlass have all been talking and talking but it’s time to do it now. 

Physically he is well ahead of every Asian player in his age group. He has got a man`s body but mentally he has to be better. Yuvan plays a lot with his emotions – it is sometimes good like today he can fire up from 0-5  but many times, it is bad. That is experience, maturity and learning how to stay within range

No one works harder than Yuvan. I am famous for pushing my players hard physically and some coaches even put knives in my back by saying that I injure players. Many players come with big dreams but aren’t willing to do the work (physically and mentally) to achieve it. Whereas with Yuvan, physically he is different. He can handle it. He does not skip sessions. Takes everything that is thrown at him and does extra stuff by himself – like running or going to gym until 9 pm and all that extra was the reason he won today. We have been pushing him a lot mentally and will continue to do so but physically he can go all day with any of these juniors  

On the match

Again, his physicality and fitness won him the match today. Yuvan had a bad start to the 1st set and a terrible start to the 3rd set but that one long rally near the end where he was just hanging in fighting for his life even though he lost that point, it flipped the match. The opponent started to make more unforced errors. He grinded it out and saved 4 match points and Yuvan seized the chance and started really getting back to what worked in the second set. The opponent started to break down physically and unfortunately wasn’t able to continue playing much from 5-5. Yuvan had a world record number of foot faults haha and he was in a losing position so obviously a lot must be better.  But for today all credit to Yuvan and his heart.

He has his next match up against a good player and French number 1 Arthur Gea whom he has played at J1 Bradenton and lost in 3 sets. The key for Yuvan is to keep himself in a good state mentally. Hopefully the win reinforces to him that his best tennis is good enough and that he just needs to be in a good state mentally and the cliche of just playing one point at a time is crucial,  we are proud of him and LFG for Tuesday

Juniors vs Pro tour transition

The big thing in India these days is to skip juniors and go the pro tour route, it’s hard if you aren’t even winning juniors to have players believe that but somehow they manage.  You want to be winning 3 matches and losing 1 on average to develop.

There were 4 Indian Juniors who came over here to watch Murray vs Kokkinakis which lasted till 4 AM, but I can guarantee that they would all prefer playing than being spectators (even though it was one of the greatest matches). You can’t beat the vibe/experience of playing at a Grand Slam. 

When you are grinding it out in those $15Ks in Egypt and Turkey, watching the bank account shrink and losing each week – just having that memory of playing on the biggest stage in the world can motivate you. 

There are barely any players who haven’t won ITF Juniors, been to junior slams and 14/u Les Petits as that make it. There are benchmarks that you need to meet which can help gauge your chance of being successful. But I am all for chasing your dreams and the growth in Indian tennis is great. Players just need to understand the difficulty of making it to the top. 

It’s also been great to have Rohan drop by and support the kids. And to see Jeevan and Balaji get through and the legendary Sania shows Indian tennis has a lot going for it at the moment.  More pro tournaments, more academies than before And ITD is booming! 4 juniors in the main draw of a slam is absolutely fantastic, it must be a long time since India has had that and even better thing is that all 4 of them are great kids Aryan, Manas, Yuvan and Shruti.

For Yuvan and Shruti

Shruti has proven that she can reach QF of these Futures events already and won B1 level at juniors. But she is just 16 and she has to make a strong foundation for pro tennis. No secret physically she has work to do. But she understands and will do the work. She has played with ATP and WTA players at the academy and this year her development is crucial 

Yuvan often hits with top 100-300 players at the academy. If Yuvan can go deep in a Junior Grand Slam – then we can say that he does not need to play the Juniors anymore. Right now, he has the opportunity to play these Junior Grand Slams and hopefully we can talk again on Tuesday. The highest he has won is a J3, he needs to win the higher ones. 

If he is not winning Junior events consistently, why move on? You play the level that matches you. He lost in the 1st round at Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl. He is only in the 2nd round here. Should he directly jump to futures? This is where maybe I am different. Yuvan will follow his father and I even though a lot of people are telling him different things. The key at the moment is a better understanding of strategy and learning to maintain his focus and intensity throughout and being tough in the big moments. 

On the schedule ahead

For both Yuvan and Shruti: There is an Egypt J1, Egypt JA and Thailand J1. I would love for them to play all the 4 Slams this year and go deep in one of them. And with this when they are physically, technically and especially mentally more solid.  Then we can say that they are done with Juniors and then switch to adults. But if the schedule permits (and it usually does) and the tournaments support (which really depends) of course they will play some adults this year 

Today Yuvan came back from being 0-5 down in the 3rd set. Would he be able to make a similar comeback against anyone who is top-300 in the ATP rankings? He can make these mistakes in J2 and J3 and still come back and win and fix things before and in the next match. In Futures, you lose and you are out for 6 days. So a good gauge will be when he can get through these things that we are working on with him, then he can transition. 

Yuvan has lost a lot of time where he played Juniors on his own during the Covid years. There is no real rush. He knows that he can be ATP ranking of say 1000 if he stops juniors now but that is not the goal. It’s a long way to the top. Keep working keep learning keep improving and enjoy it 


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