"I'm working on the right things" - Karman Kaur Thandi on her plans to return to the top 200, why she idolizes Maria Sharapova, & more

Karman Kaur Thandi
Karman Kaur Thandi
Haresh Ramchandani

India’s Karman Kaur Thandi is on her way back after a few years away from the professional tour.

Thandi won the WTA Future Stars event in 2014 at the young age of 16. She broke into the top 200 of the world rankings soon after that, but injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on her rapid rise.

In recent months, Karman Kaur Thandi has shifted her base to Germany, to work at the Nensel Academy. The move has seemingly paid dividends, as it was followed by her reaching back-to-back semifinals in Tunisia.

Thandi was also part of the Indian team that traveled to Latvia earlier this month. However, India went down 1-3 in what was their first appearance in the Billie Jean King Cup playoffs.

In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Karman Kaur Thandi spoke about what she has been up to over the past two years and how she has been keeping fit and healthy. She also talked about her goals in the future, and why she is inspired by former World No. 1 Maria Sharapova.

Here are the excerpts:

Exclusve interview with Karman Kaur Thandi

Karman Kaur Thandi
Karman Kaur Thandi

Q: Let’s start with the recent Billie Jean King Cup tie against Latvia. You played one of the rubbers against Anastasija Sevastova, who has finished the last five seasons in the top 50 and is a former World No. 11. What was your experience like the whole weekend, especially going up against someone as experienced as Sevastova?

Karman Kaur Thandi: Yes, it was really good. It was nice to be around my teammates, Sania (Mirza) and the team.

It was also helpful with all her inputs during the training, because we arrived pretty early, three days before the competition. So we had training time, and it was good to have such people around.

To play against a top 50 player like Anastasija was a really good exposure and also a realisation for me that I'm able to, for the most part, compete at that level. The intensity was really high in the first set. It was pretty close, and I felt like the game was mostly on my racquet.

I got broken twice myself, and I had my chances there. But that's what you realise, playing these top players - that you have to take and close the chances you get, because they don't give you a lot of free chances.

I felt that I could have done a bit better, but also learned that they don't get loose on the big points, like 30-30 or 30-15. You know, they stick in more solid than they do in the entire match.

In the second set my intensity dropped, and that's where the physical aspect came into play. And that's one of the major areas I'm working on to improve to get to the next level.

Q: You've had a couple of injuries, and you did not play a lot of tournaments in 2019 and 2020. What is your current physical fitness level like, and also, what did you do in your time away besides training and rehab? How did you keep yourself motivated when you were not competing on tour?

Karman Kaur Thandi: Yes, I haven't played much over the last two years. One year was because of my injury. And then another year, because of COVID-19 and the lockdown, so I was home during the lockdown.

Obviously, apart from working on my rehab and fitness, I have done whatever possible in the online sessions with my trainers. I read quite a lot and also spent quality time with my family, which I don't usually get to do.

I've been in Europe for the past four months, and I haven't been back home. So I really appreciate the time I got to spend at home. Also, I got Kiko and I could spend a little time with her. So it was good in terms of staying positive and getting the most out of this situation.

I also worked on the mental aspect, just keeping all the visualization and everything intact to have the feel of being on the court. But it definitely takes time to get back on track in terms of match sharpness and being in that routine of competing in tournaments for four or five days in a row. I think that is one part of the lockdown that, you know, really affects a player.

Sportskeeda: Does your dog Kiko regularly travel with you, or does she usually stay back at home with your folks?

Karman Kaur Thandi: I got Kiko in June last year. She just turned a year old this month (in April). As of now, she has not been traveling with me because of the current situation. But hopefully, things will get better, and probably you will see her traveling to tournaments with me soon.

Q: You have been in Germany at the Nensel Academy for the past four months, and you had earlier also trained at the Mouratoglou Academy in France. What prompted the shift to Europe, and what's the environment there like? How do those academies compare to the setup in India?

Karman Kaur Thandi: I started training in Germany last October; I came around mid-October.

In France, the facilities and coaching were all very good. I'm really grateful to Patrick (Mouratoglou) for all of his support during the time I spent at his academy. It was great to be there with the team. But I decided to shift because I felt it was time for me to have a personal coach who is 100% working with me on my game.

In France, I didn't have that. Every few weeks, I was working with a different coach. So I decided to work with Sascha Nensel, and so far, the experience has been good here.

In India, system-wise at least, I would say we are far behind.

Also, if you're staying in Europe, you have better chances to play against higher-ranked players and in more tournaments, because tournaments are happening all year round. So it’s a better option for me to stay here and compete more.

Even India has some good academies now. But it's also about competing and practising with some top players who are playing at the same level like you - like the ITF 25Ks, 60Ks and players in the top 250, 200, 100 - which is not the case in India as of now.

Obviously, Sania and Rohan have set up great academies and are working on building a system. But as a system in India, we still have some way to go to get good, experienced coaches to build players.

Q: You recently reached back-to-back semifinals in the ITF events in Tunisia. How do you plan to go about playing more tournaments consistently, and possibly getting back into the top 200, where you were earlier? Also, what are some of the aspects that are you are working on in your game to achieve that?

Karman Kaur Thandi: I played Tunisia with my current ranking, which is around 600 (Karman’s ranking as of 26 April 2021 is 618), because that's where I could get in. Although they were $15K events, the level was much higher.

A year or two ago, I would get into a $25K event with this ranking, but because of the current situation, I am getting into $15Ks.

So we decided to play Tunisia to get some matches under my belt since I hadn't played in a long time. And it is important to play matches and tournaments regularly because it doesn't matter how much you practice.

In a match situation, the sharpness is completely different than in practice. The body reacts differently, and it all comes down to the mental pressure and the sharpness and how you want to play a particular point.

I think I did well by playing back-to-back semis. And also, I was happy that my body stayed intact for most days. In the last few matches I was struggling a bit, but I learned more about my body as well. I felt like it was going to break down a little bit, but it didn't really happen because I think I was strong enough.

It's just that after coming back from an injury, you always have a little bit of fear in your head. You don't want to go back into that situation where you have to sit out for a couple of weeks or a couple of months.

To stay away from that was a bit mentally challenging, but I’m very happy to be able to come out of it and believe and trust my body a little better. So I think the plan is to play some tournaments, and I should be back in the top 200 very soon.

Q: You won the WTA Future Stars event at the age of 16, and there were a lot of expectations after that since everyone has been looking for the next Sania Mirza from India. You were able to rise quickly into the top 200 too before injuries stalled your progress. How do you assess your career looking back and also looking ahead? What are your goals for the next couple of years?

Karman Kaur Thandi: Yes, after winning the WTA Futures, which was in 2016, I was in the top 200 by 2019. So I think the progress was quite good. I just lost two years due to injuries and then COVID-19, but that’s part and parcel of being a tennis professional.

I should be back up with my ranking soon because I'm working on the right things. And goal-wise, the immediate goal is to get back into the top 200, and then we’ll take it further from there. I'll mostly look to keep myself healthy and injury-free for the most part.

Q: From your social media account, it seems that your family is a very close-knit one. Can you tell us about that, and what kind of support they have provided you during your career?

Karman Kaur Thandi: Yes, I am actually very close with my family. I mean, they're the most important people in my life. Without their support and their sacrifices, I don’t think I would be where I am today.

I feel really grateful and blessed to have a family like the one I have. My mom usually travels with me most of the time. And my father and my brother are the pillars supporting me from back home.

It gets tough because right now, I’ve been traveling alone for the past four months, and I've been in Germany and I haven't been home.

Sometimes I do get emotional that I'm missing home and my family, but that's how it is. You have to understand the situation with COVID-19 as well right now, that it's not possible to go back home, and you have to just stay strong and know that you're here for a reason. And just keep going with that.

That's what they tell me as well - just stay positive and motivated to keep going.

Q: Financial sponsorship tends to be a major hurdle for many athletes in India. A lot of players have spoken about tennis not being a financially rewarding career until you make it into the top 100. How do you manage that aspect of your career?

Karman Kaur Thandi: You’re right, tennis is an expensive sport. Righ from the coaching part to the traveling, and then there’s the physio and all those other things that need to be taken care of.

It has been difficult, and I'm still struggling, but the Virat Kohli Foundation Scholarship takes care of some of the expenses, which really helps. When you break into the top 200, it gets a bit easier because then you're, at least, in the qualies of the Grand Slams, and you're also getting into other WTA events.

The top 100 is when it actually gets financially rewarding.

When I was in the top 200 and just getting into WTA events, things were starting to get a bit easier. But then the injury happened, and now again, I have to start from the ITF $25Ks and $60Ks and travel for more tournaments.

It does get hard financially, but I am positive and confident that I will be out of this soon.

Q: Growing up, who were your role models in tennis? And who do you think is the GOAT in the women’s game?

Karman Kaur Thandi: Maria Sharapova has been my role model since forever now. I always loved watching her play on TV.

I love her attitude and the poise she has on and off the court and her game style - aggressive and fighting for every point. So that is what I really admired about her, and that also inspired me while growing up.

With regards to the GOAT, for me, it would be Serena Williams because of all that she has achieved in sports and outside sports, which is really inspiring.

Q: From the current players, who are your favorite ones to watch, and what do you like about their games?

Karman Kaur Thandi: In the women’s game, I love watching Naomi Osaka because I think she is a powerful, dominating player and a great athlete on the court. I watch a lot of her matches on YouTube. And I would really like to compete against her one day and share the same court with her.

I tend to watch more women’s tennis, but among the men, I would say Stefanos Tsitsipas is my favorite to watch. Because I have known him since the juniors, and it’s phenomenal to see that he's been doing so well on tour now.

We were at the Mouratoglou Academy at the same time at some point, and sometimes we used to hang out with common friends there. It feels good to see him doing so well; that's why I enjoy watching him.

Q: Having traveled to so many tournaments, what has been your biggest fangirl moment in tennis?

Karman Kaur Thandi: My biggest fangirl moment (smiling). I think that would be when I was playing the WTA Future Stars in Singapore. I think before the finals itself, there was one day where we were at the draw ceremony for the WTA Finals, and all the top eight players were there.

That's when I received an autographed racket from Serena Williams, which she handed over to me; I still have that racket at home.

It was amazing to see all of these players there because I was only 16. I also met Maria Sharapova for the first time in person. It was really special. I was, kind of, awestruck at that moment.

Edited by Bhargav
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