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Indian youngsters Pranjala Yadlapalli and Sumit Nagal aiming for the top
When Sania Mirza was growing up in Hyderabad, she played tennis on clay courts made of cow dung and she recalls how it was “unheard of” for a young girl to pick up a racquet and aspire to be a professional.
Since then, Mirza has gone on to make history for her country as a trailblazer for women’s tennis in India, reaching the highest rankings ever achieved by an Indian female in both singles, No27 and doubles, where she is currently ranked No1 in the world.
Since the success days of Ramanathan Krishnan and his successor Vijay Amritraj, there has never really been a steady influx of Indian talent on the tennis tour but it is the likes of doubles stars Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes, along with Mirza, who have carried the torch over the past two decades and who are inspiring today’s youth to take up the sport.
Two Indian youngsters, who owe a lot to these role models, were spotted on the outside courts at the French Open, fighting their way through the junior draw – Pranjala Yadlapalli in the girls’ event and Sumit Nagal in the boys’.
The pair are the only two Indians ranked in the top 30 in the ITF world junior rankings and they paid tribute to the likes of Mirza and Bhupathi and the influence they’ve had on them. Yadlapalli, 16, has a few things in common with her idol Mirza: they both are from Hyderabad and just like Mirza had the support of GVK Group as sponsors early in her career, Yadlapalli has had them in her corner for the past two years.
Yadlapalli peaked at No19 in the world junior rankings last month and was selected as one of five girls to join the ITF Touring Team which includes the most promising juniors from developing countries. As part of the team, Yadlapalli is competing in a series of European junior tournaments, including Roland Garros and Wimbledon, over the course of the summer.
“If an Indian did that, being world No1, then that means that Indians have the capacity to do it. If you focus and do all the things the Europeans are doing then you can do it,” Yadlapalli told Sport360 at the French Open in Paris. “I think after Sania, it’s me who has been ranked this high. I want to do more and try to be world No1.
“Here in Europe the competition is higher. I usually compete more in Asia so it’s different when I come to Europe. But Indian players have the potential to make it."
Mirza acknowledges the role she’s played in getting more young girls involved in tennis.
“It’s not like how it was 22 years ago when I started. We used to play on courts made of cow dung,” said Mirza. “For a girl to pick up a tennis racquet at that point was unheard of and I never really had a role model in my life so I’m glad that they have someone who they can look up to and say ‘well if she’s done it then we can too’.
“It’s a lot more common for kids and girls especially to pick up a tennis racquet and believe that it can be a profession. And I think that’s very good because our culture is a little different in that side of the world. So it’s great that sport is
becoming a career option.”
While Yadlapalli is based in India and is coached by Ilyas Ghouse, an Indian former player, Nagal is taking a different approach in his attempt to make it as a pro.
The 17-year-old is sponsored by Bhupathi, who advised him to move to Germany and Nagal is now based in Offenbach training at the Schuettler Waske Tennis-University.
Nagal just won the Grade 1 junior tournament in Offenbach and last week captured his first men’s Futures title in Hyderabad.
"I never really had a role model so I’m glad they have someone to look up to" - Mirza
The teenager believes tennis is now the second most popular sport in India, after cricket, but that it is difficult for him to find other players at his level to train with. “I don’t think I would have made it if I had stayed in India. Because no player has made it by training in India,” says Nagal. “Obviously there are older people who play at a good level, but at my age in India, there aren’t many I can practice with.
“Mahesh Bhupathi has been sponsoring me and helping me from a young age. There was a selection in Delhi in 2008 and I was one of 15 kids that got picked. We went to Bangalore and trained there for two years. And from 2010 Mahesh has been taking care of me. It’s very nice of him. He’s helping me know tennis, how tough it is, how professional players act. Not only on court, off court as well.”
While Mirza can see more youngsters taking up tennis, she believes there is still a lot that needs to be done. Most of the effort is done individually by former or current players through their academies or novel concepts like Armitraj’s Champions Tennis League, which gave Yadlapalli a chance to play alongside Sergi Bruguera and Alize Cornet in the Mumbai Tennis Masters team at the exhibition event.
“There are a lot of things that need improvement – facilities, training, coaches,” said Mirza.
“I’m trying to help with my tennis academy but… there is a system that is lacking a bit in terms of trying to help kids understand what’s happening, what to do, what not to do. It’s kind of more of a trial and error right now. I try to help whenever I can and Mahesh tries to do what he can. But it’s not enough, we still need the association to do it.
“Tennis has grown a lot in India but by building a stadium we’re not going to produce players. We still need other things to fall into place.
“Becoming a tennis player doesn’t just depend on having a tournament once every year. You have to have a system in place where people are taught.”