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The Pride of India

Tennis Icon Radhika Tulpule

From being a professional player herself to now training others towards excellence, Radhika Tulpule has has quite the experience with tennis. One of the top prospect of women’s tennis in India,  she has also been a member of Indian Fed Cup Team. Taking up coaching, she has been a traveling with Asian ITF Junior Teams. Here’s a look into her life.

How did you start playing tennis? What made you pursue it further?

Radhika: Actually, my family is  a sports family. My dad and elder brother used to play tennis at Deccan Gymkhana club which was about 5 minutes from home. I used to play table tennis before I started tennis, but I played it only for a year because I didn’t like the indoors.. It wasn’t very comfortable. So that’s when you know, like I said, my dad and brother were playing tennis at the same time and I just moved from table tennis to tennis.

Who was your role model while playing tennis?

Radhika: Steffi Graf was one of them. (Int: So how did you get to meet her?) I met her when I was playing the Junior Australian Open. It was almost like a dream come true (laughs), so that was a nice experience. There was Martina Hingis, who was still playing until recently. It’s a different experience to get to know these players, be with them.

Did you prefer playing doubles or singles?

Radhika: I can’t really say.. I enjoyed singles and doubles. A little later in life I always played singles, but now that I’m coaching I would probably say that I was a better doubles player than a singles player. But both of them.. Now you see a lot of Indian players moving towards becoming really good doubles players.

While you played, who was your favorite doubles partner?

Radhika: She was a senior player to me, a much senior player. I think I was still a junior when I partnered with her for the first time in the women’s category. Her name was Janaki Krishnamurthy, from Bombay, South Indian but from Bombay. We actually won the Grass Court Senior Nationals together. I made the finals the following year. She was really fun to play with. I think I somehow always partnered and played well with elder players, who were a little elder to me. I think I gelled much better with them on the court. (Int: That helped you, playing with a senior?)I think that did, gelling with them helped a lot, the understanding level was great, because doubles is all about communication and so she understanding my game better, then planning a strategy or planning a tactic. I was more comfortable, and it was a very good learning opportunity.

In your dream match, who are you playing against?

Radhika: Steffi Graf, again (laughs). I’d love to play with her. Her elegance on the court, different game styles. Back then, of course, tennis was not all about power but it was more skill-based, so Graf was one player where you could really see the skill level. All the players in that era, even the men’s players, you see the skill. Now you see the tennis on TV, it’s just pure power. (Int. What do you mean by skills and power?) Skills like, you know, serve and volley. Now we don’t see any serve and volley. If you see Wimbledon- earlier, back when they entered the second week of Wimbledon you would see the service line becoming brown, there was no grass. That’s where they played more. Now if you see it, the base line is brown, because now they’re hitting as hard as they can from the back of the court. That’s how tennis has changed over the years, I think. It’s one of the sports that has changed the maximum out of all the others. So the serve and volley doesn’t exist, and I think that’s why Federer becomes so special because he can still play that game and he can still compete against the power.

What made you start FuturePro?

Radhika: Well, after I stopped playing as a player, which was because of a bad tennis elbow that I had to actually give up, I had no plans of coaching straight away, because as a player you don’t really want to coach. We’d rather say ‘nah, leave it’, you know? So I gave these tourism exams in between. Since I traveled so much for the sport, I thought I could probably get a job,begin a back office at an airline. I wanted to do stuff with airlines, travel and tourism was another one of my likings. So I gave all that, and I had always been in Pune so I approached a few travel agencies initially to start with, through some friends. And one of them said ‘okay, so you can start coming from tomorrow, it’s a 9-6 job’ so I said okay, and I was thrilled, I went and told my mom. And my mom said, ‘Radhika, you can go if you like but if you can sit on that table and chair and live that lifestyle, I’ll give you whatever you want’. And I was like, ‘oh god if you’re that sure, then I don’t want it.’ Even now, it’s so hard for me, if anyone tells me to sit and make a report it’s the toughest job. Even today, I tell them, ‘I’ll teach you an hour of tennis but please don’t make me sit in front of a computer,’ It tests my patience. So that’s how I decided to start, and I approached my coach, told him that I’d like to give it a shot at coaching. So at first it wasn’t proper “coaching” but because I had a good playing level, I started hitting with good players, giving them maybe set practice or just more of those, with the better upcoming juniors back then. I also started drabbling for the All India Tennis Association, The International Tennis Federation, the Asian Tennis Federation, Maharashtra State Tennis Association. So I travelled a lot, for the next 8 years or so after I stopped playing I was just travelling and hitting with these guys, that’s what I was doing. Eventually it got a little tiring, because I was travelling almost from the age of 10, and travelling alone from the age of 14, because there was no other girl from Pune who used to play. There was no other choice, you know, if you wanted to play you had to go. So it got tiring, and I thought, ‘let’s see if we can find a base, start training and look at really developing some players right from scratch. I’d worked enough with already, kind of, readymade players. I said that I needed a change, and wanted to see if I could start off my own academy, so that’s how it all got connected.

What do you love most about coaching?

Radhika: I actually really like working with 5 and 7 year olds, because you get so many varieties within them itself. They’re very enthusiastic, keen to learn, and their mind just processes, you know, so when you’re teaching them you really need to be very alert. Someone who already plays tennis already knows what you have to do, but with these kids you need to come up with things all the time. It’s quite challenging but it’s really fun to be with them, that’s why the program we have come up with is called the ‘Play and Stay’ program. It’s the main program that we run. The International Tennis Federation has announced this program. Different balls, softer balls are used according to the age group. Courts become smaller, and obviously the racquets are smaller. So that’s what we actually focus on. There’s like three stages before we move onto playing tennis with a regular tennis ball. It starts from the age group of 5, so by the time the kid is 11 or 12, and sometimes maybe with really good talented kids maybe 10. Maybe an age group of 4-10 or something where they go through a systematic development process with appropriate progressions. That’s our main program, we do not have too many advanced programs. For the advanced kids, I train them individually like I was doing before, but not like a group program for it. Over the years we’ve formed about 15 kids who are now ready to play some tournaments. Still under 10, between the age groups of 8-10. So I’ve picked these kids up and started since February a serious two hour five days a week of tennis with fitness. But they came through all these stages.

 What are some difficulties you face as a coach? Do your players always cooperate?

Radhika: Being a female. It’s actually funny, when I’d just started coaching, the guys- 12, 13 year olds- obviously there are not many lady coaches in India, and all the coaches I was working with were male coaches. So anything the male coach said, they would listen immediately. When I was trying to tell them something, they would take it quite lightly. Later on I found out that I had to play some points or play a match with them and actually win. That’s when they took me seriously. It’s quite funny when you think about it now. Many a times I said, ‘okay, okay’ when I knew this was the non-listening type, I would say, ‘come, let’s play a tiebreaker’ before I could even start (laughs). So I would make sure that I won. And then when I started coaching them, they would listen. (Int. What about as a player?) Well, like I said there were no other players from Pune. So really, hats off to my parents who let me travel alone. Mobile phones were also not there. I remember I travelled to Calcutta alone. From there I was supposed to catch a connecting flight. The flight got cancelled. This was when I didn’t have a mobile phone as yet. Everytime it was decided that when I land, I would call them from one of the STD booths, and then they know I’ve reached. So that flight got cancelled, and then I called them, and I had to spend the whole night at the airport. That’s the safest place to spend the night, when you’re travelling alone at the age of 13-14, rather than catching a cab and spending a night at a hotel. So I stayed there overnight. (Int. What about the politics of the game?) Well, tennis is still a very male oriented, male dominant sport. For example if you ask people about the Davis Cup, everyone knows what it is, and it’s just for men. But what is the equivalent of the Davis Cup for women? No one knows. It’s the Fed Cup, but no one knows. It’s equivalent to the Davis Cup. A male player comes and says ‘I played the Davis Cup’ and everyone will know what it is. If I come to you tomorrow and say I played the Fed Cup, you’ll first have to google what the Fed Cup is. I don’t know if there’s enough awareness. Especially in India, which is mainly dominated by cricket. We had a workshop where we discussed Cricket against all the other sports and they said it’s because (cricket) is such an easy sport to learn. In a classroom, you take a writing pad and a paper ball, and you’ve learned. People can play it right away. Tomorrow you want to come and play tennis you can’t pick up a racquet and start playing immediately. It’s a difficult sport to learn. And not enough weightage is given to people who play the sport, especially to women. I mean the number of women athletes, and especially the fact that they are doing well, doing so well in so many various sports. (Int. Would you say that’s one of the biggest challenges faced by sportswomen in India?’) Yes, I think it is, because even the Indian Women’s Cricket team did really well in the middle, but there was little coverage about it. Meanwhile you have double sports pages full of male athletes even if they win one match. I mean, it’s been there for years now, you can’t really blame anyone. But it’s become better over the years from the fact that we know that there are a lot of women players who are getting into the sport, who are excelling in the sport. So obviously the scenario is getting better and changing.

You’re a very busy woman, what do you do to relax?

Radhika: I listen to music, I play golf. My husband is a golf coach, so I took it up after my marriage. I thought it would be fun to at least learn, because it’s a very time consuming sport. Being that busy, I don’t get to play a full round of golf which is about 5 hours. But even going on the range and hitting 50 balls, 100 balls really feels nice.

What do you like doing in your free time?

Radhika: I watch some movies- I’m not a big fan of going to the theatres and watching movies, but I can usually find something on TV with so many channels (laughs). Or like I said, listen to quite a bit of music. Not now, because I have my daughter, but before marriage my room’s light and my music system’s light would go on together. Actually the music helped me a lot in my playing career. I mainly listened to English music, and I had a song every week which would help me relax before matches and get into the zone. It would change week-to-week, one song I would listen to for the week. Even now, if there’s suddenly a song that I like I just keep listening to it again and again.

Have you seen any differences in the world of sports between when you used to play and now?

Radhika: I think the power and the changes that have come in now are because of better equipment- the balls, the courts, the speed of the court surfaces. All this has contributed a lot in the game being a lot more quicker and faster today. If you saw tennis back then you would see the matches of Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, where you could see multiple shots being executed. You would see a back hand slice, you would see a drop shot, you would suddenly see somebody coming at the net, you would see serve and volleys- you could see that the whole court was used really well. That’s where skill comes in. If you want play all these, as we call, variety shots you need skill first, power later. Now you see all these things missing in today’s games. So even as a coach, it’s quite challenging for the kids because they see all this on TV and they want to just bang the ball, but you’ve got to remind them that there’s a boundary and you’ve got to play within the white lines. So as a coach this is a very challenging part to make them understand. They think that ‘Oh, Federer hits it so I can hit it, Nadal hits it so I can hit it’. But they were hit like this when they were your age (laughs). You’re still focussing on the basics, and getting good control first, so it’s a little challenging to explain to the kids who want to serve as hard as them. So when we have service baskets, they really nail it, but it’s hard to explain that while you got that one, to get the one you missed like 20. But at the same time, if I see 14 year olds playing today and compare them to me at 14, they have got more power. So maybe the athletes, generation wise have become much stronger, specialization also has started much earlier now compared to the time when we were playing.

What are some misconceptions common people have about tennis?

Radhika: It’s an easy sport, they feel. Till they get on the court they don’t know. It’s a fast game, the speed of the ball is high when you hit it, even the control factor. They come in and they say that they’ll learn tennis in a month (laughs) and I said no, that’s not possible. So number one is where they feel like it’s an easy sport. Which is not so. It requires a decent amount of fitness.

Most people take up tennis at the age of 4-5, but you still found success after taking it up at the age of 9. So how important is the starting age, really, when it comes to tennis?

Radhika: I think it’s important to start fairly early, because life is short for a tennis player. Roger Federer being World No.1 at 36 is amazing.. There are no words to explain it. So it’s a short life cycle for a tennis player. It’s important to start early, it definitely helps and especially with this ‘Play and Stay’ program that has come up, because of softer balls the kids can learn to play the game faster. When I started at 9, or whenever someone in my time started, we started tennis directly with regular tennis balls. The teaching method was quite different. Where would we do rallying? The ball is quite fast. So there were lots of drills and a lot of work, technical work. But here the balls are much slower. They are differentiated into red, orange and green. Red ones are 75% slower than tennis balls, orange is 50% and the green is 25%. Since the speed is so slow they can learn. They get into the rally stage within a week.

How was your experience as captain at the ITF World Junior Championship?

Radhika: It was quite good. When you travel, it’s a tough job. And most of these were under 14 players. Max under 16. So they are in a way still kids only. So it’s like you have to be there 24 hours, anything they need. You can’t say that ‘my job is on the tennis court, you take care of the rest’, no. It’s my responsibility right from the time I meet them at Delhi airport till the time I drop them off to their own cities. You know, a lot of people say ‘oh wow, you’re going there’ and I say ‘You ask me for addresses and I’ll be able to tell you the hotel address and the stadium address. Apart from that I won’t be able to tell you anything about the city, because we don’t have time (laughs). So it’s not like I’m going there for a holiday. It is a tough job because you have to look after their eating, everything. The tennis part of it is easy. But the rest of the things, recovery of the players, cooling down after matches, that’s the difficult part. In Diwali I went for a tournament called Future Stars, which is associated by the WTA. There are 8 women from over the world who come to compete for a year end tournament, which is a different format. The Future Stars are the ones who are the Under 14 or Under 16 kids from various countries. They play a week before the main event, and they get to interact with the players. It’s a very well organized event, because the kids need to learn something when they travel apart from tennis. We were invited to the draw ceremony of that event, which was a huge gala event. So they get to see these players, interact with them and come to know what they go through. I think this is really important.

What is the next goal that you are focussing on?

Radhika: As a coach, I think I would one day like to be the captain for the senior Fed Cup. That is something I definitely want to get an opportunity to do that. Other than that, just to grow Future Pro. We’ve gone a bit global as well, because my brother lives in Dubai. Since he’s based there, he looks after the centres in Dubai- there are around ten, and we have one in South America, which is pretty recent. There’s an Argentinian coach who was working in Dubai. He went back home and started it up there.

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