'I am far more focussed and disciplined than I was ever before'

KALYAN ASHOK

Harsh Mankad spells true sports pedigree. With cricket legend Vinoo Mankad as paternal grandfather, former Davis Cupper, George Vasanth as maternal grandfather, former cricket Test star Ashok Mankad and former National women's tennis champion Nirupama Vasanth as his parents, sports runs in Harsh's veins. The 23-year-old Indian Davis Cupper was the most consistent Indian player on the Futures Circuit and there's a sea change in his attitude and game which augurs well for Harsh's future as well as for Indian tennis, which is in search of new heroes.

Harsh Mankad's transformation from a laid- back youngster, who began to fade after an early promise, to a committed tennis professional is remarkable. Many eyebrows were raised when Harsh Mankad was picked for the Davis Cup ties this season and his fighting display against the Aussies proved that it was a right choice. Mankad's turn around came after his three-year collegiate stint on a sports scholarship at the University of Minnesota. He topped the NCAA collegiate circuit and won the NCAA indoor championship, the first ever Indian to do so. The tough tennis grind in the college gave a solid foundation for Harsh Mankad to build his pro dreams. After three years in the US, Harsh Mankad is back home to pursue his career in tennis and he has made a winning start with a superb display in the ITF Futures Circuit. Harsh feels that he is ready for the big challenge. In an interview to The Sportstar, the unassuming Harsh spoke about his plans.

The excerpts:

On the performances during the season: To be fair, I have only played for about six months after my three-year stint with the University of Minnesota. I had done consistently well on the NCAA Circuit and topped the ranking and I was among the top five. This year, I played in two Davis Cup matches and turned Pro in June. The Futures was the first major ones that I have played at home after returning from the US.

On the gains of playing in the NCAA circuit: The stint out there made me a more complete player. May be I took things easy a bit in junior days, but the tough grind has made me more match savvy and I am far more focussed and disciplined than I was ever before.

On his form: I am pleased with the way I am playing now. I am more of all-court player and if there is any area for improvement, it is fitness. I should concentrate lot more on fitness. Before the new season, I am planning to go through full regimen for total fitness. I also plan to work hard and keep my focus and intensity at a higher level

On being a key member of the Davis Cup squad: Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have done a great job so far and it is time for us to share some of their burden. Our aim is to get into World Group again and I will give my best for the country. I enjoyed playing for the country and it is a special honour, especially to play along with Leander and Mahesh, they are very inspiring.

On his contemporaries: I guess about ten of us are almost in the same bracket and playing at the same level. I would pick guys like Rohan Bopanna, Ajay Ramaswamy and Sunil Kumar Sipaeya, who have good potential to do well. We have lot of Futures and other tournaments going for us and everyone is trying his best and the competition in each tournament is pretty keen.

On the junior crop: The AITA has been doing well to promote young talent in the country and they are getting exposure at all levels and some of them are capable of pushing us also. There are more kids playing tennis than they did during my junior days. The future, I guess is bright.

On the Pro Tour: it is tough, when you get to play 200 days in a year, different surfaces, different places. It is hard to maintain consistency and that's what we try and you can't win every match. Some times, you are out in the very first round and that's part of it all, you learn from every match and keep going.

On the role of his coaches: David Gaetz, who was my coach in the University Minnesota team, was just great .His presence, his advice made a lot of impact on my game and my outlook towards it. In this Futures Circuit, I had my uncle Mayur Vasanth, a former player, accompanying me. He was very supportive. He helped me to get over that loss in Chandigarh and then the early defeat in Delhi. You need someone in situations like that. We may continue it in future also.

On having famous parents: I am not under pressure because my parents were great sportspersons and my grandfather was Vinoo Mankad. I look up to them and draw inspiration from their deeds and it gives me an extra push in my quest for excellence.

The aim: The aim is to be the best. Tennis is my profession and I have to play a result- oriented game and make a step by step progress, towards my goals. Money is not an issue right now as I have the AITA support to pursue my goal. I plan to play the full schedule in 2003 and finish it with a good record.

The future: As I said earlier, I just want to keep playing good tennis and I hope for the best. But then tennis alone is not my life, I will keep playing as long as I enjoy the game as I did when I was a kid. It is possible to be a good pro and have fun on the court also, but the moment the joy goes out of playing, I will stop. But right now, I am having fun.