I spent most of my day today watching the U18 qualification rounds at the R. K. Khanna stadium in New Delhi. I’m new in town and know very few people here, so when Srinath Prahlad suggested I join him and Kyra Shroff at the stadium to watch a round or two, I was game.
Walking into the stadium at 11, I desultorily watched a few matches while waiting for Sri and Kyra to show up. I wasn’t following the matches or keeping score, but I could appreciate the young players and their skills as they battled each other. I say young players and their skills because in the three games that I watched, skill counted for a lot, but the composure of the players was what made them winners or losers. A young player of 18 vented his anger and frustration at his game by chucking the racquet, another voiced out loud, her low opinion of herself as she lost point after point.
I observed the winners acknowledging their mistakes and fumbling, but not giving into their doubts. Despite their losses, and errors, they maintained their composure and played on.
Kyra and Srinath joined me towards the end of the second match. Over lunch, Srinath and I enjoyed a delicious vegetarian thali. Kyra was more in the mood for a sandwich, and finding none at the café, declined to eat. They’d been training at the Siri Fort complex and were here to support Kyra’s friend Arancha in her qualifying round. Arancha, and her father, Gary joined us as we wrapped up our meal.
Arancha was excited about her upcoming match. She left us to warm up and figure out the court she’d be playing on. After coffee, we headed to the courts to watch her play. As we walked through the stadium Srinath would stop often to say hello to one person or another, with a big smile. During the game, he commented for my benefit, often calling out encouragement to Arancha, and pointers about how to correct her mistakes and look beyond them. She made her share of errors and in the last 3 games found herself facing her doubts. Her opponent had beaten her soundly in their last match. She had to overcome that failure and believe in herself to move on. Arancha won the best of 17 round (9-3).
Sri chatted amicably about the game, and his current coaching career. Tennis is his passion and he spoke on various topics; the differences in bounces on an open vs. closed court, breathing exercises to lower stress, or boost performance, training regimens of players, the lamentable quality of regular coaching, outdated training methods, the importance of neural training to successfully receive, discipline and more. He seemed to accept my ignorance in good cheer and seemed pleased that I was interested enough to ask, listen and share my observations.
Kyra and I got to chatting at the end of Arancha’s game. I was curious about this 18 year old. She’s charming, laughs easily and loves her sport. As a junior she’d been India’s #1 player. Now she was blazing her trails in the women’s category. Diagnosed with Type-I Diabetes at a young age, she spoke of the lamentable, outdated attitude towards Diabetes in India. “It’s a condition, not a disease,” she stressed. “Your pancreas produce 50 units a day, and my doctor used to prescribe 16 units for me,” she lamented. Her tennis career almost ended when her doctor instructed her parents to keep her out of sports, pronouncing it her death sentence. Her father went along with the advice, but relented when he realized the depth of her depression two weeks into tennis withdrawal. “I was lucky,” she says. She is. But there’s more to her success than just luck. She’s also very determined. And her will’s found her a way and I hope it continues to.
At the age of 10, Kyra moved to Bangalore to improve her game. Her parents stayed on in Mumbai and with the support of her school she swam through her grades till the 8th. 9th and 12th were a challenge and she had to squeeze her studying into her touring schedule, cramming her syllabus in bits and snatches. “I had a choice between the easy life, and Tennis,” she said, speaking about her choice not to attend university abroad. She was offered scholarships at esteemed universities like Northwestern, and Urbana-Champaign. Her choice was reasoned; college level women’s tennis is below par and that would affect her game. It’s not just the “easy life” that Kyra’s had to sacrifice. Speaking of her upcoming 19th birthday, she wasn’t sure she’d be home to celebrate. The last time she celebrated her birthday at home, she was 10. She does get calls from her family and friends, and she’s content with that.
“India doesn’t lack talent”, according to Kyra. Sadly, most promising players drop out opting for the “easy life”, because Tennis is an expensive game. The costs of touring, medical expenses, equipment, coaching fees, and laughable amounts for prize money in India, all can be insurmountable barriers for most players. “Every two and a half weeks, I use a new pair of Nikes worth eight grand. Eye wear’s sponsored by Oakley and my tennis racquet by Babolat,” she explained. The average age of Tennis retirees until recently has been 35. Kyra expects that with the latest trends, that could be pushed to 40, or 45 even. Without sponsorship and support this rising star’s career could come under some fearsome clouds.