Why

Why

Friday, 20 November 2015

THE MOONBALLER - NIRUPAMA VAIDYANATHAN

Courtesy - Nirupama Vaidyanathan

Nirupama Vaidyanathan was born a generation early. The kind of facilities and money that is now available to Indian female tennis players cannot be compared to the time when Nirupama started out playing.

Her story comes as an interesting one. A country like India which produces innumerable female graduates and business professionals, still has to struggle when it comes to identifying and nurturing the talent in sports. With globalisation, and digital media, one can self-coach - however Nirupama took to tennis in the 1980's - at a time when India had not yet opened its economic borders to the outside world.

On a global scale, her achievements do not speak much, but when spoken from an Indian context, it is safe to say, she set very high standards and took many roads less travelled in her playing days. She is the first to admit, a couple of choices if she had made (during her playing days) could have helped to extend her career and also improve her singles record. Hindsight is vision 20:20 - Nirupama is ensuring to pass on the lessons she learnt from her playing days to the young tennis players through her academy, her coaching assignments, her public appearances and through her books.

I caught up with Nirupama over a chat in which she recollected her playing days, her raise to number one in Indian women's tennis, her life in Europe, becoming the first Indian woman to win a round at a singles Grand slam event, her academy, motherhood and a comeback at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. 


RT - The first Indian woman to win a round at a Grand Slam in the modern era. Talk us through that match against Gloria Pizzichini in 1998?

NS - "Australian Open 1998 was one of the few occasions where I actually had my coach David O Meara with me. We stayed at our uncle's place in Melbourne to save costs. Before the match, David scouted the player when she (Gloria Pizzichini) was practicing and gave me a game plan, he definitely instilled confidence that I could pull that game off in my favour. It wasn't an easy match, I remember it was a tough three setter, and I was down 1-4 in the second set. Then I came back from trailing to win the set 6-4.  After I won the match (6-7, 6-4, 6-2), I went to the press conference straightaway and the whole experience was really new. I had won a challenger or two here and there, but to be at a Grand Slam press conference was very unique, different than what I was used to. At that point, I realised what I had achieved and until then I had no idea about the records, and all I knew was that I was one of the first women from India to be playing at that level."


RT - You were one of the first few among Indian athletes to sign up with IMG. What was your experience and did the association help you to become a better player?

NS - "IMG came right after the Australian Open. The problem was at that time, there were no events that IMG did in India as far as tennis was concerned (barring the Chennai Open for men). The best part about associating with IMG in United States is that they help you get wild cards in tournaments, since they were not doing that particular thing in India, there was little they could help me with. With regards to sponsoring, the concept was still new in India, as IMG had just come to India and I was one of their first clients. I was more like an experiment, which didn't really go well for them. I got a couple of commentary assignments through IMG, but sponsorship wise, I didn't get any from them."

Nirupama went about talking what the tennis association could have done. Tennis association in India could have been proactive and scout for potential companies that expressed their willingness to sponsor. If association doesn't have money, at least they could try for their athletes and this process of trying itself builds a better relationship between the association and the players. If you are number one in the country, you should get more support from the association. At that time, I didn't get anything.


RT - Let us talk about the season of 2001, wherein you played doubles exclusively and partnered with Renata Kolbovic, Nana Miyagi, Rika Hiraki at the Grand Slams. How difficult was it to find a suitable and a constant doubles partner?

NS - "It was very difficult because I was not in the top 100, I was just in the borderline. And then the fact I was from India, finding a base in United States, it was hard to find a partner who had the same goals and have similar financial issues I had. European players wanted to play only in Europe, and Americans - they played with partners who they knew from a young age; also, I was one of the few to be doing this in India, it was very challenging. I guess, when you are first person to do something, it is always a learning process, nobody tells you what to do, I could have made a career just out of doubles, but there wasn't any guidance for me to understand this is what I need to do, this is how I need to approach, etc. Somehow this was never a part of my plan either as I always wanted to play singles - so it didn't occur to me that I could have played just doubles even though Leander and Mahesh were in front of me."


RT - A lot of them take up sport(s) during the childhood and they continue up until certain point in time. And then when going gets tough, it is the passion for the game that stands out. Can you cultivate passion to keep on playing the game (at the professional level)?

NS - "That's a tough question. Passion actually comes later, passion doesn't come when you are a child. Passion comes when you are in your teens and when you can see what you are capable of and good at a particular field. Of course, there are people who have taken up sport at a later stage and have been passionate - but overall I believe passion is something that is cultivated in the teen years and to a lesser extent inborn."


RT - The trend in tennis, at least in Indian tennis is that.. you start out in singles and then becomes a struggle to hold on your best play for longer duration (injuries/lack of support), and then you switch over to doubles. What is lacking in Indian tennis players to make it big in the singles circuit?

NS - "I think the main problem with the younger crowd like Rohan Bopanna or Sania Mirza, is that tennis today is more viewed as a science. For instance, Kimiko Date, she made a comeback at the age of 38. If you look at her support group, people like a masseur, and other external support staff to help her compete at the highest level. For somebody like me, or our next generation, this is something unheard of, and we lack this kind of support and infrastructure especially in an individual sport like ours. Imagine with a large support group, you have to think about an extra fare ticket, an extra room and other costs, so it comes down to support, financial aspects. Only after so many years in the professional circuit, Mahesh and Leander travelled with a physio. In that aspect, players from Europe and in America, the idea of support staff is more professional. We need more support, that's the basic."

Courtesy: Nirupama Vaidyanathan 
RT - Tennis featured in Commonwealth Games for the only time at the Delhi 2010. You were a mother at that time. What was your motivation behind participating? I was in the audience, you had teamed up with Poojashree and went on to face Sania Mirza and Rushmi Chakravarthy for the bronze medal clash. How was your comeback like? 

NS - "It was a dream come true. When I started teaching at my academy (founded in 2004), somewhere along the line, a thought occurred - these kids do not have the passion and the drive we had. I could not get them to do few things and it was frustrating to find kids not having that interest on the other side of the court. I decided to do something, so this was one of the reasons for me to make a comeback.

Secondly, after my child birth, I was struggling to come back to shape. I had gestational diabetes, issues with cholesterol and honestly it hasn't completely gone away. If I have a goal in mind, I will work harder to go and get it. My comeback  was structured on these two aspects. When I started playing, everything just happened and I was lucky to be selected into the Indian team. To play after eight years of quitting the sport, you see everything from a new perspective. It was like re-living my earlier days. I had a blast and really hoped I could have got a medal at the end of it. But that's the way life goes!


RT - You have played the game and now run an academy. How do you spot talent? How intuitive is this decision, to say, oh, there is a talent?

NS - "Spotting talent is very easy. I am not being proud or crazy about it. There's one gift I have is that I am able to analyse and understand what a kid has or doesn't have just by looking at them play for an hour. Spotting talent is the easy part. The long process after that is the tough one. Kids these days have too many activities and everything is handed to them on a plate. Even for my own daughter, it is a lot easier than what we had. To get them motivated or passionate about something is a lot difficult in this generation. And then, there is the stigma associated with sports with Indian children with many believing sports is going to ruin studies. Unless we get over this stigma, it is very difficult to produce champions."


RT - Coming to the diet part, I know that you are a vegetarian. How much did nutrition play a role especially when you were on the tour? How did you cope with it during your travels?

NS - "You know, I actually regret sometimes that I was a vegetarian especially when I lived in Europe. The vegetarian options at that time when I used to play in Belgium or in Netherlands were so limited, it would have been easier if I had consumed meat. It would have made my life a lot simpler if I had eaten say, chicken. What ended up happening is that - I had insufficient nutrition and I ended up loading on carbs. I was stuck in a village, with no car and the village had just four restaurants with none serving vegetarian food. The concept of vegetarian that time was 'boiled green beans' or potatoes. Definitely, I didn't get the best nutrition when I was playing, maybe because I was stubborn - but I do wish even today, when I was playing I had eaten meat, any meat that would have given me sufficient nutrition. With carbo loading, every three hours I was hungry again and many times I ended up eating cheese or drinking milk, which had more fat than protein. It is totally different now, I can go out and look for options, in those days I had limited resources."


RT -  Since last year, there are two Indian tennis leagues (one by Vijay Amritraj and the other by Mahesh Bhupathi) that has managed to bring in a lot of international stars. In your view, how will that help mould the future of Indian tennis? 

NS - "It doesn't mould anybody. But what it does is, it creates interest in people and following in tennis. Cricket in India just takes over the entire space - so we do need these leagues to keep the interest levels up. Are these leagues going to help the kids? No they are not. They are completely business. I wouldn't say they are detrimental to kids, the leagues create more of an interest as they get to see stars in action up-close. Will it help at the grassroots level, no."


RT - The element of politics is part of sport governance. Hypothetically, if you were to be the next head of AITA for three years, what changes are you likely to bring out?

NS - "If I tell you that, they will bring it in right now and copy it. Laughs. No, they are not capable of copying. Things are so far out of hand that to bring about a change, what it will do is expose them about not doing anything. Even if they bring changes right now, people will ask, why didn't you implement this ten years ago. Unfortunately, they will not do anything right now. Laughs again. The answer to this question is like an ocean and it is almost impossible to explain and articulate it in one go. There are so many things we can do.. number one is to have sufficient tennis courts for public to play in the cities. People should be able to pick up a racquet, rent a tennis court and play. This concept doesn't exist or a rarity in India right now. It is all about clubs and the private members - so actually, the people who have talent may not even get an opportunity to play the sport. Number two, it will be about structure. I wrote an article last year in Hindustan Times and it created a lot of uproar in the AITA. Conducting tournaments is the most important thing is what AITA believes in and they have structured the association that way. My structure would be very different to that of AITA - every level must have the coaching staff, and a person must be held responsible just for the junior development. Sub-juniors, juniors, seniors and tournaments, everything has to be under one roof. And, there is nothing like that in India right now. There are too many things that can be done. But, when there is no one who takes these responsibilities, then little can be expected from the association."

RT - Your book is titled 'The Moonballer', it is an interesting choice. Does the name suggest the type of player you are or the attitude you carry in your life?

NS - "There are two reasons why the name 'Moonballer' was chosen. It sounded good to a layman and it made people curious and moreover my publisher wanted this name as well. The second reason, it is a metaphor. I started out playing tennis as a Moonballer** and by the time I finished my career, I was more comfortable playing close to the net, and enjoyed my serve and volley game."

 ** Moonballers use the high topspin balls to avoid risks in their shots and to prevent attacks from their opponents.


RT - Talking about current set of tennis players...which tennis player can you associate with? In other words, if you were to be re-born and play in this era, who would Nirupama resemble?

NS - "Hmmm.. international player right? Hmmm.. I would like to think that I would like to play like Kvitová (Petra Kvitová) - but I was never a left-handed, so that goes out of the window. With my physical fitness, I would have to be an aggressive player otherwise I could not have survived the tour as I do not have the legs for it."


RT - Pete Sampras recently wrote a letter to his younger self. What would you write to your younger self?

NS - "Takes time...Hmmm.. laughs, Oh my God, you are asking such a deep question. What would I write to my younger self? I would have looked to move out of Coimbatore and find a better place in India to play tennis. I would have definitely encouraged myself to play more doubles. I would have thought about living in Europe more. I lived there for two years, but life was very difficult. I would definitely have looked forward to hunt more sponsors so that I remained in Europe and played tennis. And with regards to aim, and goals, everything came down to support. As a person, I did whatever I could with what I had. But if I had more money, I could have travelled with a coach. In a nutshell, I would have played more doubles and moved out of Coimbatore as I believe, the city was not ready for me."


RT - In one of your interviews you mentioned about your impending second book about tennis parenting. My niece (age 7) has started to learn tennis and few of our friend's children are knocking the junior doors in Switzerland? How passionate should parents be and to what extent? 

NS - "I believe in one thing. If we are thinking about professional tennis, I mean if that's the goal at the back of one's mind, on an average your child is going to be become a professional at the age of twenty. That is peaking period. Now if you start to throw things at her or him at a young age, the body needs to grow and so too mentally. I am against that. I believe the best time they need to be pushed is between 14 and 18 years of age when they are physically and mentally ready. The part of my book is dedicated to it. There is an advertisement I saw which read, learn Nadal fitness regime. So all the parents ran to enroll their kids in the course. This is where common sense must prevail. Nadal is an adult and he is a professional tennis player. If your child who is nine is going to do what Nadal does, do you think the kid's body will be able to take it? There will be kids with back problems, knee problems and it could be end of someone's career. In my tennis parenting book, I will focus on 'Eight Years to Glory' - anything we do is going to take eight years to excel. So, if you do not have the patience for it, then it is better to give up. In those eight years, the learning has to be systematic and ensure the kid never gets injured, as injury is the worst thing that can happen to a child. It is a slow process towards excellence."