India's future singles Grand Slam winner: In conversation with Karman Kaur Thandi
Fresh off a flight from London after playing the girls’ singles and doubles, Karman Kaur Thandi still manages to sound upbeat. India’s sole representative at the Championships, the 18-year-old is playing her third Grand Slam.
Speaking to Sportskeeda on her return from the English capital, Thandi spoke about the experience at the grass courts of SW19.
“I’m tired, but it was an amazing experience,” she says. One of the few players to specialise in both, Thandi played in both the singles and the doubles at Wimbledon 2016. “I want to focus on the singles, of course, that is the big dream,” says the teenager, who has already shown flashes of potential grand slam brilliance. “Most of the time, I’m practising singles tactics, or just traveling – everywhere!”
Thandi had an early start to tennis – and now, at eighteen, has already been to four Grand Slams. “I started off with tennis when I was eight, but I didn’t really start off with it as a ‘goal’. I was getting bored at home, and my parents put me into tennis class just to help me stay fit and active. But I really enjoyed the sport, and it stuck.”
She found a coach soon after discovering her love for the sport, and by 11, Thandi was already part of the All India Tennis Association’s Talent Series tournaments. “I started off with TS,” she says, “and by then I already just knew this was what I wanted to do. This was my sport and I wanted to keep at it.”
The following year, Thandi got into the big time. “At 12, I was properly into playing national level tournaments and AITA events.”
That prowess would see her quickly become India’s top-ranked player in her category, a level she has been able to sustain as she grows older. “I got to India No. 1 in the U-14 category, then the Under-16, and now I’m the top-ranked player under-18,” she says. But burnout isn’t a problem for the teen. “This is what I want to do, it’s what I chose, and I’ll put everything into it.”
“But it’s difficult for players who don’t have sponsorships. I started out early, at DDA in Vasant Kunj,” the Delhi native says. “At the time, my parents were financing me, and they were able to, but it’s a lot tougher for players who don’t have financial backing. If you’re a middle, or lower-middle class citizen, it’s quite difficult to self-finance because the training, the travel, they are all expensive.”
“And then, even when you're at tournaments, being there can put a strain on your finances. You’re in a new country, it’s a different language, different atmosphere and it’s not as easy to cope. And the official tournament hotels will also tend to be expensive, so that’s quite hard for players to manage without sponsorships.”
Another thing that she says is difficult is for young players to manage balancing schoolwork and the tour. But schools have been rather supportive of players lately, and this is especially true in Thandi’s case. “My school (Vasant Kunj’s Ryan International School) helped me a lot to balance academics and my tennis career,” she says. “I went to full-time class until the 8th grade, and then my practice and training got much more intense.”
Balancing classwork and a full-time sporting career became difficult, and Thandi’s school made special allowances for her. “I was exempt from classwork, but I had to give exams with the rest of the students.”
As a result, Thandi often has to study on tour. “I don’t have to attend ‘class’ per se, but since I have to write my exams at the same time, I had to take my books with me. When I get time from playing and training, I study,” she explains.
She has also had help from some special quarters, mentored by a Grand Slam winner and one of India’. “Mahesh (Bhupathi) has been extremely helpful, and we are a team now, he is managing all my tours and coaching...plus whenever I need his help or advice,he is always there for me!”
How has she managed to sustain her levels for over six years now? “I do love it immensely, I have a passion for the sport, but I love fighting the mental and physical battle,” Thandi says. “I keep reminding myself that I want to be number one. There are so many who want to play, so many who are playing who want to be the top-ranked player, and I will keep working to ensure that I am.”
Of course there are sacrifices involved, and being a professional sportsperson means Thandi, like other teenage athletes, does not have a ‘typical’ adolescence. “Oh, my diet is quite restricted. I love chocolates, but I’m not allowed them too often. Luckily, my mom takes care of my diet. She’s usually always travelling with me, so she helps me not worry about things like that, and I can concentrate on my game.” Unlike many other teens, Thandi is, by her own confession, “not particularly fond of junk food, so that’s good.”
Many tennis enthusiasts, spectators and analysts have pipped Thandi as a future Grand Slam singles winner. It’s a big onus for her young shoulders to bear, but the teenager is honoured. “You know what Billie Jean King once said, right, ‘Pressure is a privilege’? It definitely is,” she says confidently, quoting the 12-time Grand Slam winner. “It pushes me, it motivates me to be better.”
“And people should also realise how important one’s team is in keeping them motivated. Sometimes when I lose, I get a bit down, don’t trust my performance as much, and that’s when my team comes in. They keep my morale up, they keep me going and keep me upbeat for my performances ahead.”
Thandi stresses on the importance of tactics and strategy in the game. “A lot of players serve powerfully, but strategy is important too. Before games, or on my off-time from playing, I’ll sit with my team and discuss team strategies, and how to combat my rivals.”
She may have played some tough competitors on the court, but Thandi has shared the stage with some of the legends of the game. “That was one of the best moments of my career so far, maybe my favourite,” she explains. “It was when I won the WTA Futures Star title, I got the award from (two-time Grand Slam champion) Li Na, and I got a signed racquet from Serena!”
Thandi has sparred with them on court, too. “Last year, at a tennis clinic at Sania’s academy (the tennis academy run by her father Imran Mirza in Hyderabad), I played with Martina Navratilova! The two of us played against Sania and (WTA Finals director) Melissa [Pine], and she was amazing to me!”
Now, the young sensation is headed to train as the best do, with the best. “I’m moving to France now for a while,” she tells me, “heading to Nice. I’m going to be training at Mouratoglou .”
She is referring to the tennis academy run by Patrick Mouratoglou , the long-term coach of World No. 1 Serena Williams, who has been in scintillating form, and recently broke Steffi Graf’s Open Era Grand Slam record.
“The facilities there are amazing,” she says. The pre- and post-training sessions, the athletes’ bathrooms, the physiotherapists that are available to al of us – the training sessions, equipment – the level of training is high, it’s so professional and the teams are amazing."
When in India, Thandi trains at New Delhi’s Siri Fort.
And who are her favourites? “Novak Djokovic, for sure,” Thandi says. “His game on the court is absolutely brilliant, it’s defensive and offensive, but I also love how he is off the court, and that’s why he’s one of my favourites.”
Among the women? “Oh, Maria Sharapova. When she was playing, I loved how focused she was on her game, and she did not bother about anything else apart from her serve, and her power, and her focus was right there. It’s something I hope to emulate in my game.”
Considering the level of consistency, power and sheer mental strength Karman Kaur Thandi has already displayed, she may be destined for that same greatness.
Most importantly, Thandi has in droves the mental tenacity that a player needs to sustain their level of performance over the years, something she has already done. And that, perhaps, will be the key in her performance as what fans and Indians alike hope to see in a future singles champion.