On the green clay courts of The Club at Cheval, in Tampa, Florida, Nirupama Sanjeev’s reputation often precedes her. She spends long hours coaching at the venue and, more often than not, there’s a set of questions, all around the same topic, that she gets asked.
“’What is it like to play in the main draw of a Grand Slam?’ ‘What does it take to win matches?’” she recites. “They’re good questions.”
She does have an answer though. After all, she was the first Indian woman to win a main-draw match at a major. Till date, she’s one of only two from the country with that achievement.
On a phone call from Tampa, she still remembers, quite well, the 1998 Australian Open, where on a hot Melbourne day she upset Italy’s Gloria Pizzichini to become the first Indian woman to win a main-draw match at a Grand Slam.
Incidentally, the journey to Australia began in the United States. Since 1997, Nirupama had been working with her coach David O’Meara. Usually, she would base herself in the US, train with her coach and then travel solo for tournaments, including the Slams.
At the start of the 1998 season, the then 21-year-old had been trying to make the main draw at the majors for three years, but hadn’t quite managed to make the cut.
“I managed to reach the third round of qualification eight out of the 12 times I had gone to a Grand Slam before 1998,” she says. “I had never travelled with a coach or a physio for any event because I didn’t have the money for it. Every time I’d reach the third round, my body was spent. It would have made a difference if I had somebody with me.”
Over time though, her ranking continued to creep up, and by the start of the 1998 season she was inside the top 200, placed 196. That put her in the running for an Australian Open wildcard.
“My parents and I figured that there was a decent chance of getting a wild card, and also I have an uncle who lives in Melbourne, and he was happy to host me and my coach at his place,” says Nirupama, who had reached a career high of 134 in July 1997. “It would save on hotel expenses, and all I’d have to do was pay for my coach’s travel. So we decided I should take David along with me. He would arrange for my practices, the warm-ups, cool-downs, and also scout and figure out a plan. It was definitely going to be an advantage.”
Getting the wildcard, however, was no given. There was a procedure put in place, and as it panned out, it was no easy decision for the officials as to whom to give it to.
“The rules at the time,” Nirupama explains, “was that if you were in the top 200 from Asia and there was nobody from your country in the main draw, you were put into a pool – almost like a lucky dip – for the wildcard. There was another girl from South Korea who was gunning for the wildcard, but there was already a Korean girl in the main draw, which reduced her chances. At the same time, the organisers decided to give Leander Paes a wildcard as well, which meant my chances were slim too since they might not want to give two wildcards to Indians. The deadline for announcing the wildcards was around 12 noon, and they’d normally announce it hours earlier. This time it was just 15 minutes before the deadline.”
She remembers getting the news a short while after the deadline. O’Meara had been keeping tabs on the development, and would eventually walk up to Nirupama on the practice courts and ask her whether she’d prefer hearing the good news first or the bad.
“The bad news is,” she recalls her coach’s words,” that you need to get a new accreditation (with the tag of a main-draw player). The good news is that you got the wildcard.”
She was elated. After 12 failed attempts, she was finally going to get a chance to play in the main draw of a Slam. But now there was a sense of pressure as well. She knew very well that the organisers took a long time to decide if she was worthy of a wildcard.
“I had to prove that it was the right decision.”
With the wildcard secured, Nirupama had a few days extra to train, acclimatise, and prepare herself mentally, as she was about to step into uncharted territory. The thought did dawn on her at the time that she would have a chance to go where no Indian women’s singles player had gone before. What stood in the way was a player who had been as high as 45 in the world. But what Nirupama had this time was a coach by her side.
“David would arrange for my practices, the warm-ups, cool-downs, and also scout my opponent and figure out a plan,” she says. “Gloria used to hit the ball flat and low, so we decided to keep changing the pace, not give her any rhythm. Hit a looping ball and then flat on the next shot. Just mixing it up. Her backhand was also her weaker side, so I had to attack that whenever I could.”
Slowly, in practice, the confidence started to grow. Granted, she had never been in the main draw of a major before, but Nirupama had beaten top 100 players in the past. In 1996, enroute to winning an event at Bad Gogging, Germany, she overcame Wiltrud Probst (former world no 31) and Petra Schwarz (former 52). Pizzichini, during the Australian Open in 1998, was ranked 92.
“I felt I had a 60 per cent chance of winning. So I was quietly confident,” she says.
That feeling didn’t go away, even when she lost the first set 5-7. Instead, she drew confidence in the way she had played.
“It was a close set and I was holding on well despite the occasion,” she says. “I knew that I could get back if I got a break early in the second set, which I did. The rallies were also not too long, so I wasn’t worn out.”
Eventually, the Indian pulled off an unlikely win, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, becoming the first woman from the country to reach the second round in the main draw of a Grand Slam. She knew what was at stake at the start of the match. She knew it when she dropped the first set, came back in the second and then dominated the third to pull off a victory over a player ranked over 100 places higher than her. But it wasn’t until she walked up to the net and shook the hand of her vanquished opponent that the significance of her achievement struck her.
“The enormity of it hadn’t struck me till then,” she says. “Suddenly I had people from international media houses wanting to talk to me, and that’s what gave me an inkling about how big a deal this was. Nobody had seen an Indian woman play. They called me for my first ever press conference at a Grand Slam. They asked me about where I came from, how I felt, what it feels like to be the first Indian woman to achieve such a thing…” Nirupama trails off, pauses, and then adds: “It felt really good.”
She carried the new found confidence into her next match, against Poland’s Magdalena Grzybowska – a player she had played and beaten on the junior circuit years earlier. This time around though, as Nirupama puts it, Grzybowska “had grown a foot taller and was a much different player.”
She’d eventually lose in the second round 6-2, 6-1. But by then she had already set the bar for women’s tennis in India. A mark that wasn’t breached until Sania Mirza – also a wild card entrant – managed to reach the third round of the Australian Open in 2005.
Back home, the adoration started to pour in. Nirupama received a reward of Rs 2 lakh from the All India Tennis Association (AITA) – the governing body for tennis in the country. With the attention, however, came the expectation for results.
In the same year, she’d pair up with Mahesh Bhupathi to win a bronze in the mixed doubles event of the Asian Games, but by 2003, Nirupama had decided to call it quits.
“It was an easy decision. After I got married (in 2000), life was just so calm,” she explains. “I was anyway struggling with injury, I had a pinched nerve and my rotator cuff (shoulder) was bothering me. I was already cutting back on tournaments because I was in pain. The Australian Open was the highlight of my life, but it wasn’t my life. I was travelling to all these forsaken places, carrying my heavy bags, all alone.
“Maybe if I was in the top 100,” she adds, “and making the main draw of the Grand Slams, maybe then I’d stay there for longer.”
There was a brief comeback, however, for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi – where Nirupama reached the semi-finals in women’s doubles with Poojashree Venkatesh – before permanently retiring after an event in California in September that year.
Thereon, she’s focused all her attention on her coaching career.
She’s the director of tennis at the club in Florida. But her achievements as a player have not been forgotten. She’s the go-to person for budding players with dreams of making it to the Slams. After all, she was the first Indian woman to have broken through.
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