Will it be an Indian summer for the juniors at SW19?

Martina Hingis had helped India weave the magic in 2015, when she won the women’s doubles with Sania Mirza and the mixed doubles title with Leander Paes.

Zeel Desai will be the last to reach London among the juniors, and will do so on June 30, in time for the Nike grade-1 event scheduled to start on July 2.   -  M. Moorthy

After the unforgettable edition of Wimbledon in 2015, Indian players look to make it another memorable summer in London. Martina Hingis had helped India weave the magic two editions earlier, when she won the women’s doubles with Sania Mirza and the mixed doubles title with Leander Paes.

To add to the celebration, Sumit Nagal won the junior boys doubles title with Nam Hoang Ly of Vietnam. To add to the spice, Sacchitt Sharma and Mahak Jain won the UK under-14 championship boys and girls titles in the Road to Wimbledon event on the hallowed grass courts of Wimbledon then, a little later in August.

While there will be a bunch of doubles stars staking their claim on the men’s trophy, and Sania venturing this time with Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium, it will be the juniors who will try to gain some attention with their performances in the Mecca of tennis.

Mahak Jain will be there this time along with the country’s best junior, the 18th ranked Zeel Desai and the Asian junior champion Mihika Yadav. On the boys side, there will be Siddhant Banthia. To top it, the All India Tennis Association has drafted the former FedCup player, Arati Ponnappa Natekar to take care of the juniors as the coach, with financial support from the Union Sports Ministry. She is the wife of Davis Cupper Gaurav Natekar, who had won the Asian Games doubles gold with Leander Paes in 1994.

“The kids are very talented, have had good results and are ranked high. They have no fear. They have nothing to lose and can really go all out and play their best tennis,” said Arati on the eve of her departure for London.

Arati will be travelling with Mahak Jain, who will not be accompanied by her parents for a change, while Siddhant Banthia and Mihika Yadav have already reached London with their mothers. “Mihika, in fact, has already managed to have some practice on grass,” said Arati, who was the coach of the Junior Fed Cup team this season.

The juniors will first compete in the ITF grade-1 event in Roehampton to get acclimatised to the conditions and tune their game on grass, before Wimbledon.

“Am excited to be back. It is not easy to be away from home for three weeks, but with the sporting background we have, everyone is flexible and willing to adjust. I have good people around,” said Arati. One of her two sons is in a golf academy and the other is under the care of the badminton legend Nandu Natekar, as Gaurav himself keeps busy with his travel for tennis academies.

Arati’s parents, PC Ponnappa and Nirmala Uthaiah, have been national champions in athletics. Actually, they have international achievements as well, as Ponnappa was part of the 4 x 400 metres relay team that won the Asian Games silver in Bangkok in 1970, and Nirmala, who had won the national gold in 100, 200 and 400 metres, had won two bronze medals in an international meet in Singapore in 100 and 200 metres.

“With such rich sporting background, we do have a fair understanding of sports. More than anything else, my job is to ensure that the players stay positive and prepare well. It is important to cut down on the distractions and stay focused. Technically they all will be fine, and it is a matter of tuning the focus. It is a great opportunity for the players,” observed Arati.

Zeel Desai will be the last to reach London among the juniors, and will do so on June 30, in time for the Nike grade-1 event scheduled to start on July 2.

Actually, Banthia had to be there early as he will have to negotiate the qualifying event. The girls are ranked in the top-30 and thus have direct entry. Quite conscious about the need to play as much as possible on grass, Arati tried to coordinate a training camp in Delhi or Chandigarh prior to the departure of the team, but it did not work out, as the players had different travel plans.

“I think we will have adequate practice before the tournament inn Roehampton,” said Arati.

With Zeel Desai’s coach Todd Clark not travelling for the grass court events, Arati said that she would speak to the coach and the parents of India’s no.1 junior, who had made the quarterfinals of Australian Open junior event, to ensure suitable support, if necessary.

Zeel had declined the Union government support as she was already supported by the Gujarat government.

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