A struggle at SW19 for Indian juniors

A bunch of four Indian kids —Zeel Desai, Mahak Jain, Mihika Yadav and Siddhant Banthia — showed that success is hard to come by, even in doubles, at SW19.

From left: Zeel Desai, Siddhant Banthia, Mahak Jain and coach Arati Ponnappa Natekar at SW19.

We expect a lot from our junior tennis players. Especially so, when it is at an event like Wimbledon, which is watched by the whole world.

Quite often, it is only the hard lessons, and not trophies and accolades, that these kids carry back to their training centres, as only the best, with a very uncanny ability to adapt, can triumph on the hallowed grass courts.

When Sumit Nagal, diligently groomed over the past few years by Mahesh Bhupathi, won the Wimbledon junior boys doubles title in 2015, with the Asian junior champion Nam Hoang Ly of Vietnam, we dismissed it as, ‘oh, only doubles.’

A bunch of four Indian kids, including three girls, showed that success is hard to come by, even in doubles, at SW19.

Quite thoughtfully, much against the regular practice of a studied indifference, the All India Tennis Association (AITA) opted to utilise the funds of the Union Sports Ministry and attached a coach, a former Fed Cup player, Arati Ponnappa Natekar, with the juniors for suitable guidance.

It was an attempt to maximise the chances of success for the four players — Zeel Desai, Mahak Jain, Mihika Yadav and Siddhant Banthia.

Siddhant Banthia and Mahak Jain had experience on their side after winning the UK under-14 titles on the grass courts of Wimbledon in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Mihika Yadav was the newly crowned Asian junior champion.Yet, it was Zeel, who had the best credentials to make an impact, as she had made it to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, under the guidance of coach Todd Clark, with whom she has been training for about two years.

After her inadequacies were exposed on the clay courts of the French Open in Paris, that left plenty of hard lessons to digest for the 18-year-old Zeel, Todd opted to focus on the academy back in Ahmedabad and left Zeel to tackle the intricacies of grass court-tennis all on her own.

Of course, with Arati on hand, there was support readily available. But Zeel ran into the top seed, Kayla Day of the US, in the pre-quarterfinals and bowed out, albeit after a good fight. The American won 6-4, 6-4, but, contrary to the scoreline, Zeel made a good impression.

Zeel did very well to make the pre-quarterfinals in doubles as well, with Lulu Sun of Switzerland, and the duo was stopped by the second seeds, Taylor Johnson and Claire Liu of the US.

There is no shame losing to the best, and it may be quickly mentioned that Zeel has already made the transition to the women’s professional circuit by winning a few titles, albeit in the lower rungs. After the demoralising first round exit for the juniors in the preparatory grade-1 junior event in Roehampton, Zeel and company had done much better on the slippery grass courts.

“Overall, I was happy with Zeel’s performance in both the singles and doubles. The most pleasing aspect was post her third round, when Zeel commented that the tactical aspects we had worked on prior to her departure had proved effective. Zeel has taken away some valuable experience and confidence from this Wimbledon. As with every match, areas of Zeel’s game that need to be addressed have also come to the fore,” said coach Todd Clark, who was in constant touch with his ward, throughout the fortnight.

“We have the skill, but the kids need to get physically strong. We are very good at running, from side to side, but the challenge is to move forward and backward on court. Luckily, at least two of the players have age on their side, and can compete in the juniors for two more years and build on this experience,” said Arati.

Except Mihika Yadav who lost in the qualifying event, and the first round of doubles, everyone got to taste victory on the grass courts.

“They need guidance about fitness, nutrition and a whole lot of other things. If the players get physically strong, and develop a more all-round game, they have the potential to go deep into the draw,” opined Arati.

Looking ahead, coach Todd Clark summed up nicely about Zeel. “After the US Open juniors, all attention will shift to the ITF women’s in an effort to raise Zeel’s ranking. Hopefully, she will gain selection for the Asian Games in August 2018,” said Todd.

Zeel Desai and company do have it in them to march ahead, with purpose, into the professional circuit, even though they may not have made much of an impact in Wimbledon.