For Niki Poonacha life goes tournament to tournament, looking two weeks ahead, paycheque to paycheque. Figuring out flights, onward travel, accommodation, practice courts and then grinding it out on the court to extend stay for longer. This is the life of a tennis player who is trying to make his way up the ladder. On Saturday, on a Delhi afternoon with the sun beating down, Poonacha gave himself a massive bump in the quest to play bigger and more tournaments. He had beaten Aryan Goveas of Maharashtra to lift the National Tennis title. In the 25th year of the Fenesta Open, Poonacha was crowned champion and took home Rs 3 lakhs as prize money. A day prior, he was a set down and had he lost, he would have made just one-seventh of that.
Poonacha won the first set easily but had to work hard for the 6-2, 7-6 win over Goveas, who he had partnered in the past. "This is the first time I'm playing (him) in singles. I know he has a very big serve. I would say the last match (against Dalwinder Singh) was different because there were quicker points. But this one I had to stay in the point and he doesn't give up easy. So I have to earn the point or I have to make him miss. To do that, I need to really push myself. I need to give 100 percent for every point. I was moving better today. So I know that if I can stay with him, I can pull it off," Poonacha told Firstpost.
His journey with the Nationals has been brief. He played the U-18 tournament six years ago and lost fairly early. Since then, bouts of injuries and insufficient rankings have denied him from playing the national tournament. Having opted to play in Vietnam last year, Poonacha decided this year he was going to focus on the nationals and worked his way around it.
Having been introduced to the sport by his father, a decathlon athlete, the Neyveli (Tamil Nadu) native showed early signs of a promising career. He would win the ITF Juniors title in Chennai before turning 10. "It started because of my father. He's a decathlon athlete. And he actually learned tennis for me. He did the ITF course, learned tennis and taught me. He was my first coach. For my family, sport is primary and studies are always secondary. Every morning my dad would take me to the ground. I wouldn't play tennis, but I would run, I'd play football. I was really good at football back then. I moved to tennis completely when I was nine or 10 years," he said winding down the clock.
Initially, Niki, who trains at the Rohan Bopanna Tennis Academy, played the sport for fun. "My father actually believed a lot in me. I was doing really good in the AITA juniors. Back then the thought wasn't that you need to go to the tournament, you need to train. We just enjoyed and loved tennis. In the morning we would play from six to eight, go to school, come back and play from five to nine. We just loved playing tennis at that time. So if you love playing tennis, it doesn't matter if you're good or bad. And my dad, he wanted me to become a tennis player as well. So he kept pushing me. At a certain time, even he realised I can be good. So he went further.
"When I was nine, nobody thought 'Okay Niki you're going to be a professional'. I was playing and I was good playing juniors in India. Then I started playing a few ITF juniors. I played very few maybe like seven or eight tournaments.
"Later when I was 18 that's when I went to Spain for the first time. There was a camp which happened in India. So they said they can sponsor for three months. The picture was clear on how to become a pro. After that, it became even more serious," he added.
He spent over a year in Alicante, Spain getting coaching and training under the guidance of Santiago Ventura, 2010 Chennai Open doubles champion. Poonacha stresses on the importance of having a smaller batch of players so there could be extra attention on individual improvement.
But that had to stop with finances taking a toll. From the age of 20 to 22, crucial years for a player looking to turn professional, the 6'2'' player was without a coach. "There wasn't any proper setup like now. Everything was spread out. I didn't have a coach for three years when I was 20-22. That was a crucial time for a player. There was no proper guidance also," he rues.
As a young player, he was backed by parents for his tennis. "Back then they were employees of Central government so they were getting good pay. But then we had to sell a lot of land to be able to fund going to Spain, playing tournaments. Eventually, your resource will go off. My mom retired 10 years back and my dad retired three years back. After that, there's no income. So I had to take care of myself," he says.
From almost 15 tournaments this year - AITA and ITF combined - the 914th ranked player hopes to double that for next year. "The whole picture? It's still a long way. I mean, being a national winner puts you on the map. Your name will be heard now. So I think I can plan better now. Maybe I can get sponsors, maybe I can play more tournaments next year. So the plan for me for next year is to stay healthy and play more tournaments. I want to play 25 to 30 tournaments. That's like 30 weeks. I want to play that and stay healthy. I think if I do that, I can improve my ranking, game, attitude and confidence."
Poonacha, coached by Balu Sir, as M. Balachandran is popularly known and trained by Sujith Sachidanand, has one ITF singles title to his name. He won in Kampala last year and has four doubles titles to go with it. He believes he can improve and get better if more tournaments were available in India. With ITF tournaments dropping to zero in India this year, things have become significantly tougher for the players. In 2015, when India had 24 ITF tournaments, his ranking improved from 1035 to 983. A year later, with nine tournaments, it jumped to 1281. He currently stands 643 in the ATP rankings and 578 in the ITF rankings. "If there are more ITF Challenger tournaments in India, the country can produce a lot more players. Like there's plenty of good talent in India. It's just that there is a lack of infrastructure, knowledge about coaching, how to become a pro, the platform, and the tournaments. If there are 15 tournaments in India, you can see a lot of players in the ATP list."
He admitted that it is disheartening to see the hard work and effort of players not being matched by organisations in improving the game. "I'm sure they can do a lot better. We have had great players — Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Sania Mirza, Rohan Bopanna and they could give back to the sport. Even organisations need to step it up. India is rich. You can't see the money but we are rich. It's just that awareness. We can see that Sumit Nagal is making a good name. Prajnesh Gunneswaran is doing really good. Sasi Kumar Mukund also. Everybody's really drilled in, even Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan. The awareness is spreading but it can be done faster and better if the organisation was into it," Poonacha signs off.
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Updated Date: Oct 07, 2019 23:53:53 IST