India's future Grand Slam singles star: In conversation with Pranjala Yadlapalli
She’s one of the brightest stars of India’s tennis future, and one of the few to have excelled in both the singles and doubles disciplines. 17-year-old Pranjala Yadlapalli, born in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, has played multiple Grand Slams and hit with the best of the best in India and abroad.
She spoke to us about her own future, Grand Slams, and what it felt like to meet Roger Federer.
Many tennis players have had prodigious skill, or were pushed into the sport by an external influence. Yadlapalli’s start was a bit different. “I was only 5 or 6, and I was in the house all day after school, watching TV, eating, and I was getting fat. I wasn’t healthy. My mom and dad thought I should get active, play some sport. It was just for me to get active initially, and start moving around. And that’s how tennis and I started.”
And there was no looking back then. “I fell in love with the sport myself, which I think is really important. I really enjoyed the game, and the coach just saw me and told my mom and dad I was very talented, so they encouraged me.”
In a cutthroat world where many parents enter their kids into a series of activities hoping for a ‘champion all-rounder’, the Yadlapallis bucked the trend, letting a young Pranjala take charge.
“A lot of parents force their kids to play sports these days, hoping for their kids to become sports stars. I am lucky – my parents did not force me to do anything. I had a number of choices, but I liked playing tennis, I enjoyed it the most, and so I stuck with it. And the rest is history.”
Yadlapalli was born more than halfway through 1999, when some of the oldest in the sport today ruled the roost – Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi among the men, and Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport in the women’s draws.
Three of those four players have since retired, with the prodigious Martina Hingis still riding the wave of a mammoth doubles comeback last year.
Pranjala was in diapers back then – and now, she’s a fan of Hingis as well.
But the teenager’s favourite is another former World No. 1 – Belgian ace Kim Clijsters. “I love her style of play,” Yadlapalli tells me, referring to Clijsters’ iconically powerful forehand. “She’s such a powerful player, such a big hitter.”
There are other aspects of Clijsters’ game that Yadlapalli hopes to emulate too. The Belgian was known to be proficient across every playing surface – and could slide along each one of them, and the 17-year-old has been practicing on each.
“India mostly has clay courts,” she says. “But it’s not like regular clay, like European clay.” And here’s where the experienced teenager, with a number of national series titles under her belt, becomes the teacher. “Indian clay is different than European. The European kind is slower, stickier, it’s more difficult to get the ball moving and it sticks more. You need to be very proficient to deal with it.”
But she’s comfortable across surfaces. “I really enjoy clay,” she says, “and India has very few grass courts, although I like playing on grass too. Up north, in Chandigarh, there are some grass courts, I have played and won there. They are fun to play and I like all surfaces, but I play a lot of the domestic tournaments on hard courts. I can adapt to all! And I hope to get even better on each one,” she says, knowing there is always scope for improvement.
She’s played at the Australian Open, the French Open and at Wimbledon, and one of the highlights of her 2015 Wimbledon visit was meeting Roger Federer – who has been her favourite player since she was still in the single digits.
“I love Federer, he’s the best. Amazing to see him play,” she says.
Now that Novak Djokovic is gone, does she think he will take Wimbledon? “Of course, I hope so! Murray is amazing but I think because it is grass and he is also doing so well, that Federer will win. But Murray is British and he’s used to the grass courts so let’s see...but I am still rooting for Federer!”
And she met her idol last year. “It was an unreal experience! I got to shake hands with him, and he wished me good luck!” she says, the excitement in her young voice palpable.
The crowds at every venue are extremely supportive, she tells us. “There are so many Indians in the US Open, in Australia, in Wimbledon! They are all there and they are so awesome! They are so encouraging, they come and shake hands with me, wish me good luck, and ask me for autographs. It’s a very good feeling.”
That isn’t the only avenue Yadlapalli has received encouragement from. Many former and current top players have, too. Yadlapalli was part of the 2015 Champions Tennis League, and she relates her experiences there.
“That was amazing,” she tells me. “I played with (Tommy) Robredo, Alize Cornet, Leander Paes. It wasn’t during a match, but they hit with me, watched my game. I returned Robredo’s serve,” she says excitedly.
Cornet appears to have a special impact on the youngster. The French ace, who has taken multiple wins over Serena Williams in the past, advised the then 16-year-old on her game. “She told me to get more footwork into my game, even Paes did.”
Leander Paes is another figure who gave her some invaluable pointers. “He told me I had good strokes but I needed to work on footwork and shot movements and service, and I did! I think it is definitely getting better.”
She’s been to Grand Slams before – and the feeling of finding out she had made the draws the first time was unforgettable. “That was my first ever Grand Slam, the 2015 Australian Open. It was crazy. I knew on the basis of my rankings, and my parents had sent in my entry, but still, that feeling was amazing.”
“This year’s Grand Slams were amazing, so many upsets,” she chirps! Although she caught the Australian Open, Yadlapalli, who was playing a tournament in Egypt, was unable to catch up with much of the French Open. “But Muguruza won,” she says excitedly, “and she’s so sweet!”
For her immense talent and humble nature, Yadlapalli is still young and happy. “I love coming home and watching tv, sometimes movies, sometimes TV serials. I’ll just have the TV on in the background, songs and stuff. I like Telegu and Hindi movies,but Deepika Padukone is my favourite!”
And the youngster is fond of her food. “I have a big team, I have my nutritionist and all, but I really love biryani – Hyderabadi style!” the Hyderabad native smiles. Perhaps a good time of year for that, with Eid just around the corner.
But she’s not short on the exercise. “I love playing baddy (badminton) and I absolutely love swimming,” the active youngster says. “Swimming is brilliant to relax muscles too, and I feel mentally calm after it.”
Appreciative of her entire team, the 17-year-old repeatedly mentions her gratitude to her parents, her coaches, and her sponsors. “Without them, I would definitely not have been able to reach where I am,” she tells me, stressing on the importance of every form of backing. “Every time I was tired, they kept me going, they kept me moving. My sponsors too, they saw all the equipment I needed, what I needed for training. And without them helping me out it would be very difficult.”
Support for our youngest talent is the need of the hour, and it is crucial for talented athletes like Yadlapalli to find the support they need early on in their careers, so they have the opportunity to grow from there.
Yadlapalli interacted with the 22-year-old French Open at last year’s Champions Tennis League – and before that at the 2015 Australian Open. "She is super nice! And knowing that I have played and hit around with a Grand Slam winner...amazing!”
If the confidence, humility and perseverance the young teenager puts on display are anything to go by, we are hopefully looking at a future Grand Slam singles winner ourselves.