The late 1990s was an interesting time for Indian tennis—Leander Paes had won an Olympic bronze medal in Atlanta in 1996 and his partnership with Mahesh Bhupathi was beginning to flower. But equally important was the progress Indian women’s players made during the decade by breaking significant barriers.
At the forefront was Nirupama Vaidyanathan (later Nirupama Sanjeev), the first Indian woman player to turn professional (in 1994) and later, becoming the first to win a round in the main draw of a Grand Slam event—in the 1998 Australian Open, where she beat Italy’s Gloria Pizzichini in the first round. Ranked No.1 in the country for over a decade, Nirupama also won the bronze medal in the mixed doubles with Bhupathi at the Bangkok Asian Games in 1998.
The 36-year-old US-based Nirupama’s story and career are now part of her memoir, The Moon Baller, which was launched in Chennai on Monday.
When she began playing tennis, in the early 1990s, the sport, albeit popular, wasn’t really making strides as far as women were concerned. “There weren’t enough Indian players on the tour. Professional tennis was virtually unheard of and there weren’t enough sponsors either,” she says during a visit to Delhi over the weekend as part of a book promotion trip.
Even infrastructure or facilities in India weren’t anywhere close to where they are today, which, she says, are comparatively much better yet nowhere close to world-class. “When I began, I remember playing on cow-dung courts (hard courts, which had a layer of cow-dung below the playing surface). Even grass courts weren’t great. I might have as well played on a field. Practising on those courts was really difficult because the ball would bounce all over the place.”
But, “when you want to do something, and want something real bad, you just had to play on whatever was offered”, she adds.
She says representing India itself was a challenge—she played in various team competitions, the Federation Cup, the SAF Games and the Asian Games, for a decade (1991-2001). She feels disappointed by the lack of respect or reward for her achievements. “When we played for India, it was honorary. We never got paid. I am not complaining, but once you are done and given everything for the country, it’s only normal to expect some reward and respect in return,” she says.
Her last tournament was the Delhi Commonwealth Games (2010), returning to the sport after a lengthy layoff, and after having a daughter. “At first, I didn’t believe I could do it. But, I worked hard for it. It was challenging because I’d had a daughter by then, and was busy with my academy (in south California). But I am glad I could do it. It was fulfilling,” she says.
Sponsorship was a major issue, and even funding from the association (All India Tennis Association or AITA) was quite a problem until she won that match in the Australian Open. “Then things started to change, and the AITA went out of its way, but I believe had the association invested in me two years earlier, instead of after, I could have done better than just the first round,” she says.
Nirupama set an example for the likes of Sania Mirza to follow, who took it to the next level. While Mirza’s contributions to Indian tennis have been well documented, her steep decline has been disappointing. “I’ve seen her play at her peak when she was probably 19 or 20. It’s unfortunate, but injuries have played a major role in her decline, given that most of her injuries recurred. If she’d carried on the way she played at her peak, we’d probably be talking of her differently by now,” Nirupama says.
“When I began, there were no pros. At least today, they have someone like Sania to look up to and emulate. Her highest ranking of 29 is quite an achievement; that’s something to perhaps better in the years to come.”
Nirupama names Ankita Raina as someone worth watching out for. But on a more generic level, she highlights the major issues facing Indian tennis today. “In the US these days, I see the system as a template for how a federation can and is run. I see enormous potential in India and the key for those running Indian tennis would be to develop a country’s programme on similar lines. But unless you’ve been there or trained in one of those systems, it’s hard to replicate the same here,” she says.
She singles out access (or the lack of it) as a prominent factor for the status quo in Indian tennis. “I wanted to take my daughter to tennis courts around Delhi, and maybe have a hit there, but unfortunately, it’s difficult to find good facilities. Contrast that with the US, where there are open courts every 4-5 miles, which you could use for free. Access really needs to improve,” she says.
Indian players are lost in transition, unable to make the step-up from junior to senior tennis, and that’s one area she believes she could help in shaping careers. Nirupama says she can make more than a positive contribution to Indian tennis by running a development programme but on her terms, without any interference. “I offered my services to AITA. My dream is to get India to a stage where they can compete with the rest of the world and I’d like to be a part of the system to help us get there,” she says.
“I could open a private academy and profit out of it too, but that doesn’t add anything to the system, does it?”