"I don't think Sania Mirza's career is over just yet" - Trailblazer Nirupama Sanjeev on Indian tennis, the Olympics, and her future plans

Nirupama Sanjeev
Nirupama Sanjeev

Years before Sania Mirza became synonymous with Indian women’s tennis, Nirupama Sanjeev, earlier known as Nirupama Vaidyanthan, blazed a trail for aspiring female players in the country.

At a time when it was unheard of for Indian women to compete on the global stage, Vaidyanathan became the second female player from the nation (after Nirupama Mankad) to feature in the main draw of a Grand Slam in the Open Era.

At the 1998 Australian Open, Coimbatore-born Vaidayanthan became the first Indian woman to win a singles match in a Grand Slam event.

Sanjeev peaked at No. 134 in singles and No. 115 in the doubles world rankings, and also won a bronze medal with Mahesh Bhupathi at the 1998 Asian Games. She also won several national and ITF titles, and represented India at the Billie Jean King Cup (earlier known as Fed Cup).

Having moved to the United States after her marriage, Sanjeev is still connected with tennis, be it through her academy in California, or mentoring her daughter, who is also interested in pursuing a career in the sport.

In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Nirupama Sanjeev spoke about the hurdles she had to overcome in her career, the achievements of Sania Mirza, what India needs to do produce more successful female players on the global stage, and of course, the Tokyo Olympics.

Exclusive interview with Nirupama Sanjeev:

Sportskeeda: You have been based in the United States for the past few years. Can you tell your fans back home what you have been up to?

Nirupama Sanjeev: Well, I founded Niru's tennis academy in 2004 with my brother. Our academy is a comprehensive model that focuses on adult, junior, high performance and peewee tennis. We have programs for anyone between the ages of four and 85.

We have summer camps going on even now, and we teach nearly 50 to 60 kids a week. We have taught more than 3000 kids over the past 15 years. We also conduct USTA and UTR tournaments.

Nirupama Sanjeev
Nirupama Sanjeev

Due to my husband's job, I moved to Florida a few years back, and I was also the director of a country club here in Florida, The Club at Cheval. I just recently quit my job there about three months ago because I wanted to focus more on my daughter who has started playing tennis.

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Sportskeeda: You were the first Indian woman to win a singles main draw match at the Grand Slam level in the Open Era. How proud are you to have broken that barrier for women's tennis in India?

Nirupama Sanjeev: I am definitely very proud to set the bar for other girls to follow. I think one of the problems that I faced when I was growing up in India is that I did not have anybody to look up to.

Everything was really new for me back then since no woman had gone into professional tennis, nobody had lived in Europe. Nobody tried their luck in the professional circuit, starting with satellites and challengers and then moving to the tour events. It's a very long and a very arduous process.

Currently, even though things are happening in India, there is no set system to play three tournaments a month or two tournaments a month. We don't have that possibility in India unless we travel a lot and that proves to be a lot more expensive.

I still feel I did the best I could back then, even though the decisions we made were not from past experiences or based on what people had done before. So yes, I am definitely proud to be the first person to break that barrier and hopefully motivate other girls as well.

Sportskeeda: After your breakthrough and the incredible success of Sania Mirza, India has yet to produce another player in the Top 100 in singles on the women's side. A lot of the Indian girls tend to plateau at the ITF level. What, in your opinion, needs to change for more girls from India to break into the Top 100?

Nirupama Sanjeev: I think we has a lot of things that we have to fight against in India. One of the big ones is culture. For my parents to have been okay for me to live in Europe as an 18-year-old and travel from place to place and go play tournaments and live on my own at that age, they had to have a different mindset.

I think that's a cultural problem we face in India. Even though we are progressing in many ways, I don't think we've come that far in terms of understanding that aspect. Financial support is another aspect. These are the things that we are able to control.

The thing that we cannot control is obviously the system itself. We need to have a system in place at the state level and at the national level to identify some of these top girls. We need to have one coach travel with five or six girls and have a system in place where we need to have at least 10 to 15 girls pushing the threshold.

After that, we will have one girl in the top 100. We can't bank on one person who's like Ankita Raina, or whoever is playing at the moment. We can't bank on just one player to break into the top 100. We need to have a truckload of girls playing and we need to make sure that there is a system in place to support them.

We need to try and get them to travel together, train together, and keep pushing themselves and then there is a possibility that we will make it. I mean, the expectations themselves are not right when we don't have a system for these girls to bank on.

Sportskeeda: Sania Mirza has done incredible things on the global stage, winning Grand Slams and becoming the World No. 1 in doubles. Now, she has returned to the tour after giving birth to her first child. How do you feel she has impacted sports in India?

2020 Hobart International - Day 8
2020 Hobart International - Day 8

Nirupama Sanjeev: Sania Mirza's impact has been tremendous. Before Sania, I don't think there was this much excitement about women's sport in India. As the first person to bring this kind of excitement, she popularized the sport more than anyone else has.

It's sort of like what happened with Saina (Nehwal) in badminton. Sania's comeback story is going to be so amazing because she is single minded, she wants it, and she's hungry and I don't think her career is over yet. I think she will be bringing more excitement in the coming months.

Sportskeeda: Ankita Raina has followed in the footsteps of you and Sania Mirza and played in the main draw at the Grand Slams this year. What are your thoughts on her game and her progress?

Ankita Raina
Ankita Raina

Nirupama Sanjeev: Ankita Raina is doing really well. She has so much heart, so much determination, and is very conscientious. She works hard and can perform at a higher level if she can travel with a physio/trainer.

At this level, if you want to break into the top 100 you're going to need a physio, a trainer, a coach. You are going to need all these things and and honestly, I do not know if she has that kind of support besides having a coach.

By the time it comes to the third round of qualifying at a Grand Slam, your body is so tired, I've been there. I've lost so many times in the final round of qualifying because my body was so tired.

Your feet are not moving the same, your shoulders are getting tight, and I didn't have a coach with me at that time. So I just feel like if she had more support staff around her, I think there's a great possibility for her because tennis wise, everybody at that level is almost the same.

It's about who is able to compete at 100% on a particular day. Raina's just on the threshold of getting to play the main WTA Tour events on a regular basis so a great support team would be a big asset.

Sportskeeda: Have you had the opportunity to interact personally with any of the young Indian girls who are competing on the circuit today such as Ankita, Karman and the rest?

Nirupama Sanjeev: I have been in touch with Ankita a bit recently. Not so much with other girls like Karman (Kaur Thandi) and Riya (Bhatia). I don't know them at all.

Sportskeeda: The trend of players returning to the WTA Tour after becoming mothers has become a lot more prevalent these days. You also returned to compete professionally after giving birth to your daughter. How difficult is it for a player to juggle a tennis career and motherhood at that level?

Nirupama Sanjeev: Honestly, I found it very difficult to juggle so many things. When you're a tennis player, you're like the focus of everything. Being disciplined about eating, getting a good night's rest, basically the spotlight is on you.

When you have a child, they usually become the priority. As a mother, we just have to brush it off and go ahead and do certain things that we were not used to doing when we didn't have kids. So it's a lot harder.

It also gets harder when they are slightly older when it comes to their schooling. Things are okay till they're about five years old. It's not a problem. But after that, you start to think how are they going to get their education if they keep traveling with you and those kinds of things.

So there's a lot of factors in this and it's not easy. But there are those who have been able to do it successfully. I know a player, Rosanna (de Los Rios), who traveled with her daughter till she was almost seven or eight years old. Her husband and daughter traveled with her everywhere and that was not easy at all. So it is tough, but for those who are able to do it, hats off.

Moreover, our bodies change a lot after pregnancy. It's not the same. Some people say it's better for performance, but I don't really agree there. I think it's a lot harder after the pregnancy. Even for Serena Williams, it's not easy right now. So there are a lot of factors and a lot of credit to people who are able to do it.

For me, I was able to do it because I just wanted to play the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. I had no intention of getting back on the pro tour.

Sportskeeda: The environment on the pro circuit has changed since the time you were competing on the tour. With the rise of player entourages and social media, how do you think youngsters, especially young girls, are able to cope with these pressures?

Nirupama Sanjeev: Tennis has become way more professional now. There's a lot more money involved and the stakes are much higher. So naturally there are more people involved and they do it in a more professional manner.

I sincerely think that having a physio with you is very important to make sure you're recovering in time. Mental training is also important. So if somebody is planning to play on the pro tour, they need to have a good support system and there's nothing wrong with that.

As far as social media, it's definitely something that players, and all youngsters, have to learn to deal with. That's why having a mentor will help. I have seen in badminton, many players are asked to switch off their phones etc.

Social media is definitely helpful in many ways but it can also be very detrimental. Hence, players definitely need guidance on what to do and what not to do and they also need to listen to that person. At times, players don't listen to their parents so they need somebody that they respect to tell them what should be done and what shouldn't.

Sportskeeda: The Tokyo Olympics are all set to kick off after months of uncertainty. Sania Mirza and Ankita Raina have qualified for the women's doubles event. What are your thoughts on their chances at the Olympics?

Nirupama Sanjeev: I think Sania and Ankita have a good shot. They are the underdogs since they will be the unseeded team. The key in the Olympics, especially in team events, is to forget who's on the other side of the court and just play tennis.

Forget about the seedings, forget about the opponents, forget about all those things and just go and play your game. Sania is very capable of doing that as she never focuses on the rankings or seedings. I think Ankita will also learn to do that given Sania is on her side.

As long as they believe they can win, I think they have a very good shot in Tokyo.

Sportskeeda: You competed at the 2000 Olympics in doubles. Can you tell us what the experience was like? Any memorable incidents from your time there?

Nirupama Sanjeev: The 2000 Olympics was a great experience. Firstly, it was a surprise because we got in at the last minute. Manisha Malhotra and I got to know like three days before the Games were about to begin that we got in because another team had pulled out. So I wouldn't say we had the best preparation.

Secondly, we played against one of the seeded teams (Rennae Stubbs/Jelena Dokic) in the first round. So tennis wise, it was not the best of outings for us.

But other than that, the whole experience was just amazing. We got to do the march into the stadium filled with spectators. It was really a very emotional moment. We watched the 100m final in the stadium, with Michael Johnson running. We got to mingle with other athletes as well. So it was hugely motivational.

Sportskeeda: Staying with the theme of the Olympics, what are your thoughts on the recent controversy between Rohan Bopanna and the All India Tennis Association about the nomination of the men's doubles team.

Nirupama Sanjeev: First, the acceptance criteria this time around for doubles is very complicated. Now, the question really is why didn't AITA communicate to Rohan that the new nomination of Sumit Nagal and him was a no go?

I can only think of two reasons. Firstly, maybe the AITA did not want the whole world to know that their proposal of Nagal/Bopanna was a moot point and it was actually NOT a grand idea like they had thought.

Secondly, it proves that the AITA has in fact no idea of the rules and it would become apparent to the whole world. Rohan might still not have had a shot at getting into the doubles despite all this sad comedy of confusion caused by the AITA.

The thing is, they could have done a better job of communicating this to him for sure.

Sportskeeda: What's in store for you in the future? Any plans to take up a formal coaching role with a player or within the Indian tennis system? Or perhaps join your daughter on the road if she pursues a tennis career?

Nirupama Sanjeev with her daughter Sahana
Nirupama Sanjeev with her daughter Sahana

Nirupama Sanjeev: As an athlete, there is nothing that makes me prouder than the chance to be able to mentor and guide someone younger. But (coaching) not yet because I'm doing that with my daughter. She wants to pursue tennis, so we will see at what level. She's my priority right now.

But I would definitely be interested in guiding and mentoring many of these girls and I think I have a lot of experience that I can share with them.

The problem also is that I'm very, very straightforward and straight up, and I'm sometimes a little too honest. And that's not really a great combination because people want a little bit more diplomacy. They want us to sugarcoat things and I'm not like that. I just call a spade a spade, and that's the way I work.

So, if you want honesty, and if you want people to tell you like it is, then that's me. I'm not 100% sure right now, but I would defnitely be interested in mentoring and coaching someone in the future.

The Medal Tally for Tokyo 2020 is out now. Check out the Tokyo Olympics Medal Tally.

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