Coach Balachandran Mannikath, fondly known as Balu Sir in the Indian Tennis circuit, has mentored many players, including the likes of Rohan Bopanna, Prajnesh Gunneswaran, Sriram Balaji, Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, and many others.
Now the chief coach at Rohan Bopanna Tennis Academy (RBTA) in Bangalore, Balu Sir also plays a key role in the Doubles Dream of India project initiated by KPIT. In this interview, Indian legend Rohan Bopanna shares details of Balu Sir’s contributions to Indian Tennis.
Q) When did you meet Balu Sir? How has your relationship with him evolved over the years?
RB – I met Balu Sir first in the year 1994 when I was in Pune. I learnt tennis in Pune. I was fourteen years old. That’s the first time I met him. When you first meet him, he’s very warm, very welcoming on the tennis, but is also extremely strict as a coach. He brings in a lot of discipline from day one itself.
Initially, players a bit scared on what Balu Sir is going to say. But after getting to know him over the years, I’ve understood that he comes from a place which is totally trying to make you feel what you are capable of.
As an intermediate or professional tennis player, you need a coach to take you to the next level. And I think Balu sir played such an important role in my journey of starting my tennis career. And I think for me, his biggest strength was his work ethic, whether in 1994 or now in 2023, when he’s coaching other players, he’s part of my tennis academy, helping not only the players, but the coaches as well.
What really stands out to me, Vatsal, is that he shows up for everyone. And that is an excellent aspect as a coach. Whether he’s traveling on the tour with some players, whether he’s not traveling with them, he’s always checking up on them. He’s checking up maybe not every single day, but still checking up on them. As long as he has worked with them, he’s checking their scores, talking to them, finding out how they felt on the court, especially if he has worked with the players. Now, since he’s working with the Doubles Dream of India program, he’s working a bunch of players. If tomorrow a player wants to practice at 6 AM or 9 PM, I know Balu sir will be there, because his love for tennis was always there. And he wants the player to get better. He is not bigger than the sport. And this is for me, Balu Sir, in a small way.
Q) You mentioned that he is a part of the Doubles Dream of India as well. So we’ve seen him traveling quite a bit with the players who are in the top 100-200. We have a bunch of them now. So what do you think is his impact on this initiative? And we saw him recently with Arjun and Rithvik. They won the title in Italy last week. So, in a few words, can you explain his impact on this project specifically?
RB – I think it is immense what he brings in to the project, because he’s a coach who does not have a one size fits all approach. Every kind of player, he’s able to pick up something really quickly, especially when they’re playing matches, and to bring in that knowledge and able to share even those small inputs. I think no matter what player is in there, the years of experience and traveling, he can really bring a lot of input to these players.
And I saw that personally, since Balu Sir has traveled with me on Tour as well. And I have a coach called Scott Davidoff, who’s been traveling with me for 12-14 years now. And some weeks, when he can’t travel, Balu Sir has traveled with me. And the minute I tell Scott that Balu Sir is traveling, he’s extremely happy that Balu Sir is traveling, because he has spoken to him, he understands how much of a knowledge he has in this sport and what he brings to a player. That is a huge, significant impact of what Balu Sir brings in for Tennis. And he plays an important role for the Doubles Dream of India.
All these players who are part of this program, sometimes they don’t get to work with him as much as they would like. Like you mentioned, Rithvik and Arjun, who won the title (in Italy) recently – he was meeting Rithvik for the first time. And I’m sure that him being there, he would have not just straightaway gone and said, okay, this has to be done. He would have seen what is really needed, bring out those small points, and be able to adapt to what Rithvik really would have needed there. And those things, I think, takes a real coach with good experience to see that.
Q) You also mentioned earlier that you think he is underrated. So how do you think we can harness his full potential for the maximum possible benefit of Indian Tennis?
RB – In Tennis, managing egos is also extremely important. No matter where or which part of the world, which sport it is, managing egos is something that makes someone go from good to great. And I think Balu Sir knows when to be constructive, when to be sensitive, when to call a spade a spade, I think these are things that a coach really needs to bring in to improve players. A lot of the times it’s not just about teaching the player how to hit a forehand, a backhand serve, etc. He’s just trying to bring in those small, important aspects from sitting from the outside what he can see to improve that player at that particular juncture in time. He is a coach who can make players see what they can be.
For him, now, traveling and talking to the other coaches, being around top coaches, seeing how tennis has been taught, and he’s somebody who’s willing to constantly learn and give back to the sport. I’m really happy that he came on board to help with this program. There have been some difficult moments, I know, when players are there and it’s not easy at times. But still, like I said, he knows when to really call a spade a spade or to bring his constructive side. Sometimes he does talk to me about certain things because I have obviously hired him for the program. So sometimes he can’t directly tell these guys what he feels. But I tell him the best way is to sit with the players, talk to them, because that is where you’ll always improve as a player. And the relationship with the coach builds. That’s where it builds.
Q) He obviously works with professional level tennis players. And you mentioned that he’s working at your academy as well, where I’m sure there are a lot of young kids. So can you tell us a little bit about his approach to like you said, he doesn’t have a one size fits all approach. So how does he deal with kids? Because their requirements are completely different. So can you touch a bit about, on that aspect, his flexibility and adaptability?
RB – I think he has a great eye and a good IQ as well. The young kids, when they came in, what he brought in, was to understand what kind of structure is needed and to constantly make sure that the coaches follow that routine, follow those steps that were really important. And I also got to learn so much from him. I remember we were doing a camp together in Sri Lanka and it was a three day camp and we had about four or five courts, and unfortunately the weather didn’t really hold up that well. It started raining and it was clay courts, and we had to move now to the hard courts after it stopped raining. And we had like almost 60, 70 players. But only two hard courts. But thanks to his experience, he suddenly made sure each and every player got a similar structure. The amount of tennis, the right kind of personal attention, that is something where he really brings in and he sees it immediately.
If somebody’s doing a drill, he is able to pick up what that kid can make a difference by adding so much of value. Whether his feet is not moving at the right time or while he’s serving, the timing is off. Whether the timing is off because the toss is not great or because the racket is dropping quick. So these small aspects come with experience. And I think that is where he really makes a huge difference and a big impact for tennis. I think Indian tennis, we should benefit from having somebody like Balu Sir on board and he’s somebody who has brought so much value to the sport and also value to numerous players across the country in whatever small way possible. So I say underrated because I personally know lot of the professional tennis players. When Balu Sir traveled with me, they were extremely amazed of the knowledge he brought. When I played with different partners or there were some ex tennis players who were sitting there and watching my match and just having a chat with him, they came back to me and said you have a gem of a coach just because of what he brings into the sport.
And to ability – like I said earlier, was to just pick those small things out and give feedback to the player. I mean, at Davis Cup also one year he was the coach in Delhi and I was struggling with my returns a little bit and all he asked me was to take two steps back and then return. But those things, somebody from the outside can see that that is what I feel. What he has learned constantly wants to improve, teach himself and then give back to the students is where I think his value is needed. And today, as we are growing in the country, the sport is growing. A coach like Balu Sir is a significant person who I think Indian tennis really needs.