Often, the performances of athletes in the junior sports circuits get obscured. Unintentional as this is because of the continuous flow of events and results emerging from the seniors’ arena, it’s an absence nonetheless.
But not so in the case of Zeel Desai’s recent achievement. The 17-year-old, who is the country’s top-ranked junior in girls’ tennis, won the ITF Junior Grade 2 event in Tin Hau, Hong Kong, recently, defeating Thai player Thasaporn Naklo, 6-3, 5-7, 6-2. The win saw her jump forward 19 spots in the ITF junior rankings, from the 53rd to the 34th place, a new career-high from her previous best of 48th. By the time the new season starts, her ranking will rise further, as players who have turned 18 will not be included in the rankings. As a result, Zeel should gain an entry into the top-30 to commence the 2017 season.
Scroll.in caught up with Desai on the eve of her trip back home to Ahmedabad after her successful campaign in Hong Kong and the chirpy teenager had quite a few aspects to share.
What does the win mean?
Opening up about her win, the visibly excited Desai said, “I am really proud that I am the top Indian junior. It makes me feel confident for my upcoming tournaments.” It was her third title on the trot after the Grade 3 junior event in the Zimbabwean capital Harare in August and the Grade 2 junior event in Nonthaburi in Thailand in October, and the fifth overall for this year, with her two previous titles coming in January, in the Grade 3 junior tourney in Chandigarh and the Grade 2 event in the Indian capital.
Heading into the next season, Desai will need to keep maintaining her intensity and concentration in training and match preparation to put up a better showing at the junior Grand Slams, beginning in Melbourne Park, befitting her rank as the nation’s best junior. Desai has already begun gearing up for it. “It will be my first junior Grand Slam main draw. I will be excited rather than being under pressure,” she commented, before quickly adding, “I will try my best and will be confident.”
Credit where credit’s due
Desai being confident of herself and her game are reflections of her growing maturity as a player. In this regard, credit goes to her father, Mehul Desai, who introduced her to tennis at the age of seven, and to Todd Clark, under whose tutelage she’s in at the Ahmedabad Racquet Academy.
“My dad decided to make me play tennis because he loved sports,” said Desai, before going on to say that she did not connect with the sport immediately and it took a while before she realised she had begun to love and enjoy playing. “Slowly, I started to get more focused into tennis. I started to develop more interest in it. Now, there’s nothing before tennis for me.”
The latter is an attitude her coach will be proud of. Clark, a veteran Australian coach with over 20 years of experience, has been working with Desai since he joined the academy in April 2015. Proud of his pupil’s achievement in Tin Hau as he was, Clark was happy about the fact that the goal with which Zeel had entered the tournament had been accomplished. “It’s a great result for Zeel. She played this tournament just to ensure her place in the main draw of all the four Slams,” he shared, before adding, “My focus for Zeel is to her see her improve her ITF ranking.”
To that end, Zeel participated – and did well – in two ITF $10k events held in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, earlier in September this year, reaching the singles final in one and winning thedoubles title in another. According to Clark, it’s in such competitive playing fields that Desai’s best comes out.
“She is very determined and loves competition. She takes playing against better players as a challenge. It’s good for her because she will be tested in the junior Slams,” he volubly revealed, before mentioning that his primary area of focus for Desai was improving her fitness in order to help her play these events better. “Tennis is becoming more and more physical. Players need to recover quickly. If Zeel is fitter, she will recover faster and better.”
The Sania Mirza connect
As far as having affirmative mindsets are concerned, nothing beats sure-fire purposefulness. It was with a similar attitude that Sania Mirza, a former top-ranked Indian junior herself, and the current undisputed world No. 1 in women’s doubles achieved all her success. And then some more.
Mirza’s junior career ended in 2003, with noteworthy results that included 10 ITF juniors’ titles and the junior Wimbledon doubles title, partnering Russia’s Alisa Kleybanova. But for over 23 years, her ITF title haul had gone from being a huge milestone to an unassailable crossing.
That is, until Desai’s win in Hong Kong. Prior to this win, Desai had equalled Mirza’s record of 10 ITF trophies. Post her triumph, she overhauled the long-standing record, though she admitted that she did not know she had done so. “I didn’t know that I had broken Sania Mirza’s record. My dad told me after the match. I am really happy.”
Alongside doing so, she has also ascertained that Mirza’s legacy won’t be a one-off ensuring that Indian tennis, specifically Indian women’s tennis, is in safe hands for a long time to come.