Hours before Karman Kaur Thandi was to play her first ever WTA Tour match, the new world rankings proclaimed her as India’s no. 1 singles player. The Delhi girl had jumped 28 places to reach 284 in the world, courtesy her runner-up finish at the $25,000 Futures in Pune just over a week ago.
And when the 19-year-old walked out on to the centre court at the Cricket Club of India (CCI), there was a buzz of anticipation. But it wasn’t just because of her new rank. In Sania Mirza, India had a woman player with a powerful forehand and solid groundstrokes. What hadn’t been seen before was an Indian player with a big serve. Thandi fit the billing.
She began proceedings in the match against Slovenia’s Dalila Jakupovic. The Indian stands six-feet tall, and her toss is even higher. But the booming serve was there for all to see. Wide and too strong for the opponent to manage a controlled return. Thandi followed it up with an ace and quickly finished off her opening game at love at the Mumbai Open 125K Series.
“It’s always been one of her positive points,” says Aditya Sachdeva, who has worked with Thandi since she was 12. “She was already tall when she first came to us. She still needs to build her muscles and stabilise her shoulders. Her serves are only going to get better.”
What she lacks however, is the consistency. Her second service game of the match itself saw her make two double faults to concede an early break. Once her weapon started faltering, so did her game – she’d go on to lose the next 10 points on her serve. Eventually, the match would end in the Slovak’s favour, 6-2, 6-4. Jakupovic, on her part, does not possess a game that would overpower what Thandi could throw at her. Instead, the 26-year-old used her experience and the pace of her opponent’s shots to guide the ball into corners and make Thandi work.
The 26-year-old’s plan was to simply keep the ball in play. Thandi had the fitness levels to chase down Jakupovic’s returns, but there was a sense of impatience in the way she’d rush into her attempts at finishing points. Often she’d run around what would be a regular backhand to play an inside-out on her favoured forehand, hence leaving the court open for Jakupovic.
“When you’re handling a tight situation, kids try to be a bit more flamboyant, and Karman too has the tendency of pulling the trigger too early,” says Sachdeva. “Instead, you need to have the patience to build a point, and then hit the winner rather than going too soon and making a mistake. But that will all come with the experience of playing.”
Serving at 4-4 and 30-all in the second set, the pair engaged in a rally that had Thandi consistently making the extra yards to play a series of inside-out forehands. None stifled Jakupovic, and Thandi eventually hit a shot long. The next point, she’d strike a forehand into the net to concede the break. Sachdeva, however, isn’t worried about the manner in which Thandi lost.
“She’s always been the type of player who learns from where she went wrong and then fixes it,” he says. “Even in training, if you could tell her she can’t do something, she’d work hard on it and accomplish it.”
He remembers the teenager once working on her first set of Spanish drills (forehand and backhand), but not finding a rhythm. “We practised for two hours and I told her to stop once it wasn’t working. But she continued for another 40 minutes and finally got it right,” he recalls. “I used to tell the younger kids to practice 100 backhand shots on the wall. She’d be the only one to do it till the end.”
The tenacity and determination has helped her shoot up the rankings, as she finished last year at 603. The big service game and groundstrokes have highlighted her game, and brought in opportunities with it.
For the last two years, she’s been training in France at the Patrick Mouratoglou Academy, and has even bagged a deal with sportswear company Aesics.
At the same time, 12-time Grand Slam champion Mahesh Bhupathi has been supporting her. The former world no. 1 doubles player was there in the stands, watching Thandi play her first ever WTA match. “She’s got a good serve, she can hit the groundstrokes, she comes to the net, she can move,” he says. “She just needs to get that all in together and try and get into the top 100 in the next two years.” In Mumbai, the new generation of Indian women’s tennis has taken court. So far, Thandi has looked the most lethal.