It is seven in the morning. The long shadows scattered across a sprawling court, a boomerang-shaped strip of bright sunlight illuminating one end and an uncharacteristic silence are providing the perfect setting for a bracing exchange of rallies.
You feel the calm the moment you enter the pristine Srinath Academy of Tennis (SAT), in the whizzing of rackets, the resolute trajectory of the ball , and screeching noise the shoes make every time they are dragged along the turf.
With determination writ large on her face, a young talent at the SAT plays a nearly perfect forehand, only to be beaten by a beautiful, versatile and powerful return.
The shot must have felt like echoes of those days spent honing an entire gamut of strokes to outsmart the opponent. He may not be playing professional tennis anymore, but 43-year-old, two-time Asian Games bronze medalist, Srinath Prahlad, is passing the baton to the younger generation through his foray into coaching.
Srinath believes the transition from being a pro on the tennis court to a coach “has been quite a journey.”
Former players would do well to offer some early advice to the younger tennis aspirants to prepare them for bigger challenges at the game’s highest level: something that Srinath does. But his job does not end there.
“I am also donning the hat of a mentor and guiding the children and training them, besides tennis, how to be good citizens and how to develop as human beings,” he adds with a smile.
With the growing popularity of other sports, and new heroes to look up to, the youngsters are keen on looking at a career beyond cricket. In an article posted in The Hindu, Aishwarya Kumar writes: ‘With the glamour quotient in place over cricket in India, the development of other games was always tough. It is hard to break this stereotype, but not impossible.’
That is where the role of academies such as SAT becomes all the more significant. They not only provide opportunities for a talent to flourish but also thrive to retain the sheer excitement of playing a sport.
But how did Srinath come upon this idea?
“Before I took up serious coaching, I started talking to Mahesh Bhupathi. He had a concept of developing something (academy), and he asked me if I could help him. I was more than happy to help and that is how it all started. I wanted to give back something to the sport which I loved a lot,” says a visibly content Srinath.
There is also the question whether a celebrated player, with all the skill and temperament, would be better able to extract the best out of the pupils than a lightweight player. Do great players make great coaches?
Srinath believes, “it comes a lot easier for someone who has played the game, especially at the highest level. You know how to handle the pressure, you understand the little nuances, how to prepare and manage your tournaments. It definitely comes in handy in terms of guiding the players and imparting what needs to be done for kids at different levels and age-groups.”
And technique may be one of the crucial denominators in a sport but it surely is not the be all and end all. Srinath concurs: “Generally a number of people are stuck on technique. You don’t want to be doing that all your life. When you are out there on the field you have to be more aware tactically.”
Indian tennis has come a long way since the time Srinath turned pro. The likes of Sania Mirza, Rohan Bopanna, and Somdev Devvarman have taken huge strides internationally while the stalwarts Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have continued doing well.
But just how ‘good’ are Indians internationally?
“I think, in terms of skills, Indians are very good. However, one of the biggest problems we have is that we do not have too many players competing at the highest level. A lot of players are trying to get groomed when they are 15 or 16 years old, which means they have lost a lot of time during their formative years. Physically, we need to improve a lot. The problem is they do not have enough exposure.”
However, he adds a caveat: “It is not appropriate to compare Indians with Europeans because Indians do tend to mature a little later.”
One of the many charms of a sport is to watch a player from a small place make it large at the international scene. Cricket is aplenty with such examples, but is tennis catching up?
“We do have a lot of players coming in from smaller cities. The important thing is you have to identify the kids with potential and bring them to a centre where someone can really mould them and show what it takes to reach the highest level. There is definitely no dearth of talent in the country.”
Almost two decades ago or even before that, tennis was yet to leave an imprint in the country. Although time and space might not have been as perishable a commodity then as they are today, the creative learning environment was still not in place.
Srinath reminisces about the time he started playing tennis: “When I started off, I was lucky because my father played tennis and several other sports.I had some kind of a sporting background which made it a little easier. But formal structured training did not exist back then. That said, my goal was that I want to get to this level and, whatever it takes, I am going to do it.”
With the likes of Nadal and Djokovich out-tiring their opponents, does he feel the sport has become more physical over the years?
“I think ever since the change from wooden to graphite rackets, the game has definitely become more physical. With the exception of Roger Federer who can do incredible things on the court, the rest of them are very physical.”
Academies such as SAT are far and fewer in number; Srinath feels there is only so much that a government can do. “I think it takes a lot of will for the government to do something like this. Also, if you look at how it’s structured in the West, it is the private clubs that are producing players and not so much the government. It can step in and help in this direction but the corporate world needs to come forward. It is not going to be easy.”
In an article, The problem with Indian cricket academies, Harsha Bhogle writes: ‘Even as academies mushroom everywhere, there is little proof that they are enriching Indian cricket…It is a good exercise at social events to say, “You know , my son goes to such and such academy…” but it does little else.’
There are many challenges faced by many sports in the country, among them is the difficult task of forging academies that give themselves a chance of producing great players. On that front, what is it that SAT academy strives to achieve?
“We are trying to create a platform for children where we are trying to coach them in the right way from a very young age. By the time they are 14 or 15, they should be equipped to go and start playing abroad, compete in ITF leagues for a fraction of a cost. We are trying to train kids who can excel internationally. Every child comes in with a different set of goals. Some want to play recreationally but everyone should be able to play tennis the way it is meant to be.
Srinath has a word of caution for the parents.
“Their (parents’) aspiration is for the kids to become something, whether they are ready or not; they do not understand. Many parents dream in the eyes of their kids. ‘I want you to become…’ whether the kids wants to do it or not, they do not care. They are living their dreams through their children. Educating both the parents and their children has been tough.”
And that, according to the champion tennis star, is one of the reason why India fails to impress at the Olympics. There “has not been enough funding, not enough exposure, not enough help in terms of support staff.”
“We will continue to have these problems. I do not blame the athletes,” he signs off.
With academies such as SAT preserving the joy of playing a sport, while providing the requisite infrastructure to groom the talent, Indian tennis is in safe hands.