Girl with a mission

Poojashree... aiming for the big stage.-K. GOPINATHAN

Poojashree Venkatesh hopes to break into the top 250 which would get her a place in the qualifying rounds of the Grand Slam events. By Kalyan Ashok.

Poojashree Venkatesh is on a roll in the ITF women’s circuit. The 19-year-old girl from Mysore won her third successive ITF title recently, in Bangalore, thus realising her dream of winning a major tournament in her state.

Poojashree’s run began in Islamabad, Pakistan, in December 2008; she then picked up her second ITF title in Delhi — her first at home — in August before winning in Bangalore, where she beat her good friend Dalila Jakupovic of Slovenia 6-3, 6-3 in the final.

Poojashree also won her second successive doubles crown in Bangalore, playing in tandem with Isha Lakhani. Earlier, in Delhi, she teamed up with Sanaa Bhambri to win the ITF doubles title.

Poojashree, who stands six feet plus, towers over the rest of the Indian women players. The lanky player packs a wallop with her double-handed backhand, which, along with her solid first serve, are her potent weapons. She can get better if she moves a little quicker and imparts more punch to her forehand.

“Yes, there are a few areas I need to work on, including my forehand, and I know what it takes to play on the big stage,” said Poojashree.

Given her background, it is remarkable that Poojashree has made it thus far in the game. Her father Venkatesh was an agriculturist who later turned a businessman dealing in farm products. As a youngster, Poojashree used to accompany him when he went to clubs in Mysore to play tennis. He initially taught her the basics of the game.

Mysore, despite its rich tradition in the sport, had little to offer Poojashree in terms of professional training when she started playing tennis. But coach R. Nagaraj, who saw in her the potential to make it big, took her under his wing and put her on the right track. Thus began Poojashree’s ascent as she won the National junior titles in the under-14, under-16 and under-18 categories.

The youngster wasn’t satisfied though; she nursed bigger ambitions and yearned to break into the big league of women’s tennis. For that she needed the exposure, and that too came her way in 2007 when the Hyderabad-based GVK Group, which nurtured Sania Mirza early in her career, offered to sponsor Poojashree’s trips.

“It took the load off me and I was able to focus on the game rather than worry about how to go for a tournament,” said Poojashree.

She played in a few junior Grand Slam events, including the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last season.

Poojashree also had the opportunity to train at the famed Nick Bollettieri Academy. The stint in the US helped instil a sense of professionalism in the youngster. “I learnt to hit better with a more open stance and improved my footwork, serve and mental toughness,” she said. (Poojashree hopes to return to the Bollettieri Academy at the end of the current season.)

The high point of her training was meeting her icon Maria Sharapova, who was also a product of the Nick Bollettieri Academy. “Meeting her, in flesh and blood, was a memorable moment for me. She chatted for a while and asked me to work hard on my game,” said Poojashree.

After she is through with the circuit at home, Poojashree plans to play in two $25,000 tournaments in Nigeria. “Those events carry higher points — 75 — and if you can earn that kind of points your ranking can dramatically improve,” said Poojashree, who is ranked 416. She hopes to break into the top 250 which would get her a place in the qualifying rounds of the Grand Slam events.

Does she dream of stepping into Sania’s shoes?

“Every Indian girl’s dream is to reach the level of Sania Mirza, and I too dream of that… playing in the same kind of events and venues, and also playing along with her,” said Poojashree, who is determined to work towards that goal.