Rising star excites India
by Charles Bricker
Wait a minute. Those are inside-out forehands she's hitting. I haven't seen a female player doing that since Steffi Graf retired.
Neha Uberoi is deep into the backhand corner on a practice court at Rick Macci's Tennis Academy in Pompano Beach, slugging big, flat forehands on a diagonal to the other side.
And then those quick-twitch feet -- dancing feet -- are immediately back to the middle of the court. On the other side of the net, Macci next feeds her a short ball to the forehand side and Uberoi races up, taking it right in stride.
"Be composed," Macci calls out as she cocks the racket. And then she whacks it down the line.
It would be wrong to identify this surprising 18-year-old as the next great Indian-American woman player because there has never been a great female player from India.
"Maybe that's why everyone was so excited," Uberoi explained as she recounted her foray to a Tier IV WTA tournament in Hyderabad, India, last month, where she won three qualifying matches to make the main draw, including a win in the final round of qualifying over big sister Shikha.
A couple days after losing in the first round of the main draw, Uberoi and her sister were being broadcast live to a nation that loves its sports personalities.
The Times of India and the India Express sent reporters to interview them and TV showed them playing an exhibition match. This was the sort of treatment usually reserved for Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes, the leading Indian men players -- not for the No. 396 woman player in the world.
Yes, she's only 396, but before the U.S. Open junior tournament in September she was No. 766 and the past six months have produced the sort of results, including an astonishing runner-up finish at the Orange Bowl juniors on Key Biscayne, that clearly marked her future.
Shikha's career isn't taking off nearly as fast, but it will be surprising if she's not top-100 sometime this year. Top 50 is possible. Can she do better than that so quickly? We'll see. Macci, who spent four years coaching Venus and Serena Williams, knows how fast to push this project.
Neha Uberoi, who lives with her family in Boca Raton, has weapons -- penetrating flat ground strokes, a more than adequate serve, extraordinary athletic ability and a heavy dose of intelligence.
"You're just a Princeton dropout," I teased her.
"No, no," she corrected. "I never dropped out. I'm on a leave. I can go back anytime I want."
She graduated from North Broward Prep after finishing the 11th grade and entered Princeton at age 16, where she played one year on the tennis team before deciding to leave school last May to pursue a professional tennis career.
After she lost in the first round of the U.S. Open juniors, father Mahesh Uberoi, who owns a software corporation, hired Macci to punch up her career and there were immediate results.
Two weeks after her loss at the U.S. Open, she reached the semifinals of a $25,000 challenger in Raleigh, N.C., defeating Canada's Maureen Drake (currently No. 117) in the quarterfinals.
Arriving at the Orange Bowl unranked and virtually unknown, Uberoi upset No. 2 seed Michaela Krajicek (sister of former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek) in the second round to reach the final, where she lost to Nicole Vaidisova, 6-3 in the third set.
Uberoi next plays in the resurrected 12-player junior invitational at the Nasdaq-100, which begins March 24.
She's fun, upbeat and has a perpetual smile. She's one of those young people whom you sense quickly will carve out a successful life, no matter what career she attacks. And she seems to have perfectly handled her dual cultures.
"I have to say I'm very Indian in my morals, my values, my at-home life, family and religion," she said. "But I'm American in my drive for excellence and wanting to attain something professionally in my sport, which is not something many Indian girls do.
"I'm very outspoken, which I think is very American, and I just have a very relaxed attitude."
Her inside-out forehand is not a shot she relies on. There's also a very clean two-handed backhand there. But when she has time to hit the inside-out, she'll go for it.
She was born in Morristown, N.J., which is also where men's player Justin Gimelstob, now of Delray Beach, has his roots. Her father was born in Hyderabad, came to the United States in 1975, earned his citizenship and has raised five children.
One of them is trying to become as famous in the U.S. as she is in India.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams