Niki Poonacha looks ahead with confidence

Niki Poonacha, who won the men’s title in the Fenesta National tennis championship, says that he rode on self-belief in becoming the national champion.

National champion Niki Poonacha receives trophy from multiple Grand Slam champion Sania Mirza. The Asian Tennis Federation (ATF) president, Anil Khanna looks on.   -  Kamesh Srinivasan

Winning the national tennis championship does not guarantee anything,
except that it can give you a lot of self-belief to propel you forward in the professional circuit.

The wiry Niki Poonacha, who stands at 6’ 3’’ and weighs 85 kg in his athletic frame says that he actually rode on self-belief in becoming the national champion.

‘’It was a dream for me. Most of India’s star players have won it. To be in that list is very motivating and inspiring for me’’, said Niki, who is coached by M. Blaachandran and Sujith Sachidanand at the Rohan Bopanna Academy in Bengaluru.

It has been a roller coaster career so far for the 24-year-old Niki, who trained in Spain for a season when he was 18, but has been on his own, till Bopanna invited him to his academy about two years ago.

‘’Rohan is the best mentor I can have. One thing he always asks me when we meet is to believe in myself. I started to believe in myself a lot more in recent times. I wasn’t at my best from start of the Fenesta National championship. I had physical issue. Then, I wasn’t feeling good about my shots. I made a lot of errors. But, I was running on self belief, more than anything else, and that was what got me the title’’, said Niki.

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He did not drop a set in the tournament except one to the former champion Dalwinder Singh in the semifinal. When Dalwinder was blasting his way to the final, Niki stopped him abruptly and turned the match around.

‘’I was a bit nervous at the start. I made way too many errors, which cost my serve twice. He was controlling all the points from the start. In the second set, I started reading his shots and was putting more pressure on him. I was controlling most of the points. I was playing my service games better. In the third set, I kept controlling the points. I was aggressive and I was patient’’, analysed Niki.

His father from Coorg, Kaliyanda Bopaiah Poonacha, having been a decathlete who represented the country, and mother S. Veena a basketball player, it was no surprise that sports influenced Niki a lot. After twelfth standard, he joined the SRM University for two years and quit that. There was scope to go to the US for collegiate tennis, but he opted to be at home.

‘’Now I am studying in Jain College. I got some very good offers from US Colleges, but we din’t have any knowledge about that, so I didn’t go there’’, said Niki.

Once the family blew up a lot of money on training in Spain, Niki had to train on his own, with the support of his dad, who had introduced him to the game and had done coaching courses, including the one with the International Tennis Federation (ITF).

‘’I went to Arena tennis in Spain. The coaches had lot of knowledge, and the intensity was high and the fitness routine was tough and structured. The only disadvantage, it was expensive’’, recalled Niki.

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At 19, Niki had no base and no proper training. That phase lasted for about three years.

‘’I just played tournaments and trained myself. My dad used to help me out with ball feeds etc. Later, Bopanna told me that he was starting an academy. The Bopanna academy is very professional with tennis, fitness, nutrition, and the coaches are very passionate to teach, as well as learn new things. It suits me the best’’, said NIki.

The challenge for him is to stay healthy and find the resources to play about 25 tournaments a year.

‘’I lost four months at the start of the season with an abdominal muscle tear. In August, I twisted my ankle and lost three weeks to that’’, he recalled.

So, Niki has played only eight tournaments this season, and he has only two more planned in November, including the Challenger in Pune. He will be playing three domestic league tournaments thereafter.

Niki has one ITF Futures singles title and four doubles titles, including the one with Davis Cupper, Ramkumar Ramanathan.

‘’After I stopped going to Spain, I won my first doubles title in the ITF circuit. Last year, I won my first ITF singles title, after being at the Bopanna Academy for about a year and a half’’, Niki observed, about the fruits of structured training.

There is a lot of life in his game. Niki is happy about it, but not satisfied.

‘’I can play a lot better. I have seen that now and then, but I want it to be regular. I never realised that I can hit my forehand so powerful and accurate, until I made a few changes. So, there is a lot to improve and learn. We are working on it’’, he said.

The key to the progress of the likes of Niki Poonacha is to have a lot of international events at home, which used to be the case for some years.

‘’The quality of our tennis will improve a lot, even if we have 10 tournaments for men, and 10 for women. It will make a big difference’’, he said.

He wants to be in the top 600 by next year, and take it forward from there. If he stays healthy and plays the desired number of tournaments every year, there is no goal that will be beyond the reach of Niki Poonacha.