Sriram Balaji talks tennis, revisits foreign escapades

The mild-mannered Balaji, in a conversation on Instagram, was encouraged to recall many lively stories by his coach, M. Balachandran.

Sriram Balaji, sporting his employer MEG logo on his T-shirt. - SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

He is extremely soft-spoken, but mild-mannered Davis Cupper Sriram Balaji was encouraged to recall many a lively story by coach M. Balachandran in a conversation on Instagram.

Playing with Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, his current doubles partner, Balaji missed out on gold at the South Asian Games in Kathmandu last year, but he had a golf story from the trip to narrate.

While playing the second round at a nine-hole facility, Balaji’s shot on the sixth hole swerved to the road adjacent that led to the airport.

“There was a traffic jam as the ball had smashed the windshield of a truck. Luckily, the club had insurance for that hole. I didn’t have to pay any money,” said Balaji, the winner of nine singles and 43 doubles titles on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Futures Tour and six doubles titles on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Challenger Tour.

Addicted to golf and travelling with Jeevan, whose wife Neha Tripathi is a top-level golfer, Balaji said he was regularly carrying a golf kit “everywhere.”

In another incident, Balaji had to part with more than $100 at gunpoint while on a tour of Nigeria some years ago as he was walking to a supermarket near the tennis facility.

“Right from the airport to the hotel in Lagos, we saw that there was a bomb blast on the road a few minutes before we reached that spot. It made me sick,” remembered Balaji, who was then travelling with VM Ranjeet.

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Language has also posed a serious challenge, especially in China, and Balaji talked about going to the domestic airport in Shanghai with a bus ticket before being given the right directions by a student.

Working with the Madras Engineering Group (MEG) for the last three years, Balaji was proud about winning the singles medal ar the World Military Games, beating some good players from Uzbekistan.

Having showed promise after initial training at the PERKS Academy close to his home in Coimbatore, Balaji was drafted for big support by the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association.

“We stayed in a small room close to the Nungambakkam stadium,” he said.

Training with Tipsarevic

The support meant Balaji getting training at renowned coach Nick Bollettieri’s academy in Florida, apart from centres in Spain and Germany. He was pleased to train with former top-10 player Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia at the Waske Academy in Germany and expressed gratitude for the training programme he follows on the advice of the Serb’s trainer.

“I trained with Tipsarevic and Rainer Schuettler. They hit a heavy ball. The speed was normal. I was only 10 percent of their level in terms of heaviness in the stroke. Among our players, Prajnesh (Gunneswaran) hits a heavy forehand. I became more hungry to work hard and develop my game,” said Balaji.

Alexander Waske, who runs the centre in Germany, drove Balaji to the middle of Frankfurt and left him to spend the day and find his way, as the disciplined Indian player rarely ventured out of his comfort zone.

Sriram Balaji was pleased to have trained alongside Janko Tipsarevic (in picture) at the Waske Academy in Germany. - AP


Balaji was also in awe of the overwhelming game of Nick Kyrgios, especially his slice serve, which has been clocked at more than 200km per hour. Having won a big Challenger doubles title with 2008 Australian Open doubles champion Jonathan Erlich, Balaji praised the 42-year-old for his razor sharp game.

In the fast lane

While travelling with fellow player Vijay Sundar Prashanth, Balaji said he was compelled to drive at around 200km per hour in an old car to reach a tournament venue in Germany last year after being delayed on the way by a massive traffic jam.

“There was no speed limit. We were driving around 140km per hour. But as we saw Google Maps projecting that we could be late for sign-in for the tournament, I had to speed up,” said Balaji.

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He fondly recalled making his Davis Cup debut in Bengaluru, with Rohan Bopanna as his partner, Mahesh Bhupathi as captain, and Leander Paes on the bench. He rued missing the next tie against Canada owing to an injury.

Balaji said he was forced to stick to doubles even though he still played singles whenever he got a chance, as he had to play the Challengers for doubles and could not get entry for his singles. He did win a round of doubles at Wimbledon with long-time partner Vishnu Vardhan.

“If I focus on the doubles, I believe that I can go deep in the draw in Slams,” said Balaji, even as he limited his estimation of his singles potential to 150 in the world.

Of course, limited finances played a big part in making him take a judicious decision while planning his calendar.

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Balaji won the national men’s title in 2015. While leaving for Delhi from home, he watched his favourite actor Vijay’s film till the interval before rushing out of the theatre to catch his flight.

“It was the first-day show, and it got delayed by two hours,” said the big fan of the popular star.

Balaji revealed that his twin sister is quite tall and strong, and could have been a good tennis player, but did not show much interest in the game, after both trained and competed together initially.

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