It was almost 7 p.m. She was all set to fly back home. The ecstasy of stepping home and amongst loved ones after a gruelling season can be so natural. More when you have had the most fulfilling year regarding reaching milestones. And I could almost sense that exuberance in her tone when I began talking to this tennis sensation of our country.
19-year-old Pranjala Yadlapalli has carved a niche for herself this year. With two back to back singles ITF $25K titles in Lagos, two doubles titles, A Fed Cup debut, an appearance at the Asian games and now a maiden main draw of a WTA event in Mumbai this season, the Andhra girl is the newest poster girl of Indian Women’s tennis.
While a ·majority of teenagers of her age might be up to whatever, Pranjala has blazed a trail giving the nation another star to adulate.
But these enormous feats have not been able to shake the humility that makes Yadlapalli an adoring athlete. With a childlike charm, she was quick to express her euphoria as she was almost home-bound.
“Yes, I am going home, to Hyderabad. I am so happy to go spend a few days there and then go back to Thailand," the Guntur born teenager tells The Bridge from the Mumbai airport. Her enthusiasm so infectious and hard to escape. She trains at the IMPACT Tennis Academy in Thailand under the watchful eyes of coach Stephen Koon.
In her maiden WTA main draw appearance at the $125K L&T Mumbai Open this week, Pranjala has proved her mettle, sending out a signal to the tennis world that she is a force to reckon with and here to stay.
“It was a great feeling playing in Mumbai. I played some good matches, and it gave me a lot of confidence and boosted me up,” Pranjala said when asked what the feeling on playing a first-ever Main draw of a WTA event was.
Coming through two qualifying rounds at the tournament and taking the first set from World No 103, Thailand’s Luksika Kumkhum in the Round one, Pranjala kept fighting like a tigress in the second set and was almost about to touch the finish line. Little Pranjala was looking at the most significant victory of her career.
Just two points away from causing the upset over the 8th seed, Pranjala knew in heart that whatever be the outcome, she has the ability now to challenge the big stars on the circuit. Kumkhum who seemed very frustrated gathered all her experience and grabbed the momentum back to dismantle Pranjala taking the second set and thereby winning the match in three.
“Yes, the match I played in the first round indeed was a perfect match for me. In that, I had chances, like I was just two points away from winning. But that is when experience comes into play. Luksika is a top 100 player and very experienced. But for me, it was a positive sign that I can fight against these higher ranked players. It instilled a feeling in me that if I keep working hard and improving, I can reach that level and go much higher,” says Pranjala.
Thai star Luksika has some big wins to her credit. She has toppled two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova and also former top 10 Belinda Bencic.
When asked about any pressure during the match, Pranjala said, “Not exactly pressure, but yes she is a very good player and playing against her was a great opportunity for me at this age where I can learn. I also had a chance to beat her. I was close. But it happens. Sometimes you win from being down, and you lose from being up. But you need to take it positively and go forward with your head up.”
An individual sport like tennis is all about taking losses with a pinch of salt and not letting victories go into the head. It is what athletes train for. And it was heartening to hear Pranjala showing immense maturity imbibing these lessons.
This was a second career meeting between Luksika and Pranjala. The Hyderabadi quickly recalls with a smile, “Yes, the last time I played her in 2017 I lost 2-0. I just could not understand her game and the way she was playing or anything. I was taken aback seeing her game and thinking of ways to control her. But this time I did much better. From the beginning, I was doing the right things, and that worked well. Of course later on I was missing out on a lot of shots. I was also not that good on the physical and mental part in the third set as much as I was in the first.”
How did the tennis journey begin?.
Pranjala like all other kids would be glued to the television. She was six years old then. Like all parents who worry about their children ending up as couch potatoes or straining their eyes while watching the tv continuously, Pranjala’s parents were no different. They wanted to engage her in some sort of physical activity outdoors.
“I started playing tennis when I was six. My parents wanted me to go out and play some sport instead of straining my eyes watching television all day."
"There was a tennis court near my house. So I joined there. The coaches there saw my game, and they said she is playing very well and in this age, she is consistent and rallying extremely well. It was when they saw my interest that they thought of taking my game seriously. But tennis is an expensive sport, and it was difficult for us initially”, says Pranjala.
Fighting the economic barriers
It was when she was 12 that Pranjala won a National series in the under-16 category and garnered the attention of the tournament director there.
“I won the title in the under 16, and the tournament director was impressed with my game. He asked me if I had sponsors and I said no. This was when they recommended me to GVK Group of Industries. That is how GVK came, and it helped me to stay in this sport. Otherwise, it would have been tough to sustain in this rich sport.”
Time kept flying. Pranjala was determined and kept working hard and winning. In 2015, she won the WTA U-16 Gold Tournament in Singapore. She also won the Asian Junior Tennis Championship that year.
The same year, Yadlapalli played her Junior French Open and also reached the second round of the Wimbledon Junior Championships. The following year in 2016, Pranjala kept riding the winning form.
She played the Junior US Open and made it to the second round again. But her best came at the Australian Open Junior that year when she reached the third round in Melbourne.
Pranjala who currently is perched at 285 in the Live WTA rankings has been the only female tennis player to excel both in singles and doubles. She has also made a quarterfinal appearance in doubles at the 2015 French Open Juniors and 2015 Australian Open Junior championships. Pranjala also made it to the first round in doubles at both the Junior US Open and Wimbledon in 2015.
The India-No. 3 in Women’s tennis has been training in Thailand from the past few months, and the results are visible. Mr Stephen Koon who coaches Pranajla now has taught some big names in the tennis world like India’s No 1 Yuki Bhambri, Australian Open semi-finalist Hyeon Chung and China Open champ Basilashvilli.
How the new coach and training helped Pranjala
“I think I can see a lot of difference in my game. Mentally, physically and almost everything. I am playing much more aggressive. I am moving much better with more powerful shots with good depth and angles. I think physically I have improved a lot. I can get to the ball much faster and pressurise my opponent.”
The 19-year-old is keen on setting up a base in Thailand. With very few opportunities for growth in India, Yadlapalli and her parents are ready to pay for the extra cost for her training that will help her reach newer heights on the WTA.
“Staying in India with not much training facilities, it makes sense setting a base in Thailand. You cannot reach where you want to be if you train here. My coach Mr Koon tells me that I have a game of top 100 and these results could come much earlier with proper guidance,” says Pranjala.
Beginning the year at World No 497 in singles and around 676 in doubles, Yadlapalli has been on a scintillating upward trajectory this year. Reaching a career-high singles ranking of 280 as on 22nd of this month has been the most impressive scale ever. She also reached a career high in Doubles at 232 in August this year.
Have the rankings been the motivating factor?
“I think more than the rankings; it is the game that I have to focus on. The rankings do not matter much. But yes I cannot deny that for me going from 441 to 280 is a big boost and it indeed makes me happy.”
In tennis, every week is a new grind. In keeping up with the treacherous competition, there is no room for a low down. Every match is a new challenge and every win or loss, a unique learning experience. Keeping up with more modern techniques, game plans and working on fitness is what goes into the making of champions. Pranjala agrees.
“Yes, now I need to work much more on my fitness. Also, I need to work on my serves; my second serve more to keep moving upwards.”
As the season is almost at its close, I asked Pranjala about her goals for the next year of 2019. For someone like her who has played multiple Grand Slam juniors, the response was natural too. “My immediate goal is to go back to Thailand, train and then look into the tournaments. Next year, I want to be able to play Grand Slams. I know for that I have to be into top 200 for qualifying and top 100 for the Main Draw. But I will keep working towards it and that is my real goal.”
But in this very expensive sport of tennis, a strong financial backing is a must. “GVK is not supporting me anymore as they do not do the WTA but only juniors. Now the AP government gives me all the financial backing. Mr Chandrababu Naidu is supporting me, and I am very grateful for it.”
Pranjala indeed has been basking in one of her finest seasons. More than winning matches and titles, the teenager has won hearts of tennis fans. All we hope is to see her scaling the WTA with renewed vigour every week and every year.