'Love the sport' - Nirupama Sanjeev recalls lessons from her tennis journey

Nirupama remembers the solid foundation her late father laid for her that saw her become the World No. 134 in 1997.

Nirupama Sanjeev says she would have done her bit even if she was half as good a parent as her father. - SANDEEP SAXENA (FILE)

A pioneer often has a path of thorns to negotiate. It makes it easier for the rest who follow so they can have better direction.

In a two-hour chat with tennis coach M. Balachandran on Instagram, Nirupama Sanjeev recalled the solid foundation that her late father, K. S. Vaidyanathan, laid for her tennis career that saw her rise to No. 134 in the world rankings in 1997, and beat players like Mirjana Lucic, who rose to be World No. 20. Trying to bring up her daughter Sahana, who is musically inclined as she sings and plays the piano and guitar, Nirupama conceded that she would have done her bit even if she was half as good as her cricketer father, who guided her in tennis.

“I was clear that Sahana has to play one sport. Every day 4 to 6 p.m., has to be for playing. Here in the U.S., there are so many options - football, golf, gymnastics [,etc.]. She picked tennis. I was relieved as I could spend time with her on court. The next two years will give an idea,” said Nirupama, who won the Asian Games mixed-doubles bronze medal with Mahesh Bhupathi in 1998.

‘Love the sport’

With her husband Sanjeev Balakrishnan, who hails from a naturally-gifted athletic family with fluid coordination even when playing tennis, Nirupama was clear about providing the right fundamentals for her daughter, apart from sporting genes. “My dad always told me, ‘Love the sport. Take pleasure in the small things. During rough times, if you don’t love the sport, you can’t sustain for long’,” she remembered.

“If you are looking only for laurels, you are in trouble. For a long time, we didn’t see money,” Nirupama conceded.

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Having been impressed by Ramanathan Krishnan, who made the Wimbledon semifinals twice, Nirupama’s father made sure that Nirupama and her brother Ganesh had a court to play whenever they needed, in one club or another. Krishnan had himself said he and his son Ramesh had a head start over the rest as they had a court at home. “My father’s philosophy was drills, rallies, and matches. Very systematic. If you kept doing it, how can you not get better?” she said.

Obstacle-filled path

Suggesting that success had to be earned slowly, Nirupama felt early success for a young player may not be good. “Too good, too early, I am more worried. This road is not easy. Youngsters better lose and learn. I hated losing. But, I had to deal with it and come up with solutions to be better,” said Nirupama, who gave credit to the club players in Coimbatore for their high-quality game that helped her become sharp at a young age.

Nirupama with her daughter, Sahana, in August, 2010. - K. ANANTHAN


Being very positive, Nirupama recalled her father’s mantra, ‘never give up’. “He was a lawyer, but always found time for tennis,” she said.

Nirupama also recalled that her father was never angry with her, even though he may have been hurt when she did not play her best. She said empathy in the difficult times was the key to growth. “The child needs a loving parent at that time,” she emphasised, adding that coaching can wait.

Negotiating tough times, especially during her travel in Europe, Nirupama cooked for herself, and carried a cooker with her along with rice, dal, etc. “I had the freedom, but I was focussed on tennis. Never went out of bounds. I knew that I am here on a mission,” she said.

Expecting quick results

As a coach who runs an academy in the U.S. with her brother, Nirupama felt that successful parents wanted “results too quick” for their children. “The parents are the reasons why some of the kids couldn’t go far. They are exceptionally bright people. But they think, ‘if A beats B, and B beats C, then A should beat C’. It doesn’t happen that way. Sport has so many variables,” she said.

Appreciating the Indian circuit for making the base for her tennis career, Nirupama praised the late referee, the popular Dushan Deo. “He was such a cool cat. I loved him,” she said.

Nirupama with her women's singles title at the hard-court tennis championships, Hyderabad, in March, 1991. - THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Recalling her own umpiring days as a kid, Nirupama said she used to drink so much of Gold Spot, Limca and Thums Up, which used to be the fee for umpiring. That was perhaps not the right thing to do, even though some of the top players have aerated drink even now.

Looking back at her return to the circuit after retirement and competing in the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games in 2010, Nirupama said at some stage she had felt that she was more motivated than the players she coached.

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Nirupama praised the current Indian FedCup team of Ankita Raina, Rutuja Bhosale and Sania Mirza, for making it to the World Group play-off, a life-long dream she had nurtured. She advised sensible training. “Some players train super hard, that they can’t even walk afterwards. You don’t have to train to kill yourself. Training has to be effective,” she said.

Brushing away the negative voice that often emerges at crucial moments in a match is the key to better performance. “I used to hear double fault. When you saw a short ball, the voice would say, ‘miss it’. I didn’t know how to fix it. Then I read in a tennis book, with an advice to take five seconds at such moments, and think positive after that. That fixed my problem,” she said.

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