“I play the ball, not the opponent.”

It’s a simple motto. A motto which is universal. A motto you would associate with almost all high-pressure sports. So, it’s not surprising when Malikaa Marathe, a tennis player from Pune, reels it off without batting an eyelid.

But here’s a little bit more about her. Marathe just turned 14 on April 30. She is going to Paris in June to play in a pre-qualifier tournament for the French Open. She reached this stage by defeating opponents much older than her, mainly in the range of 16 to 17, in a qualifying tournament called Rendez-Vous à Roland Garros which spanned three Indian cities. She was the youngest girl in the entire competition.

So, how did she beat all these older opponents and blaze a trail to the French capital?

Without missing a beat, she replied, “I focused on my game.”

That Marathe was a progidious tennis talent was something her engineer father and dentist mother had no inkling of when they introduced her to tennis when she was just six and a half years old. It was a recreational activity for their daughter, they thought, an activity to keep her occupied. But her coach, a former tennis player named Sandeep Kirtane who received the Arjuna Award in 2001, thought otherwise.

“Sandeep Sir was the one who pushed us to send her to tournaments,” said Vaijayanti Marathe, Malikaa’s mother. “He has an eye for talent.”

‘In one word, she was bindaas’

On his part, Kirtane explained what attracted him about six-year-old Malikaa’s game. “What I noticed about her was that though she was so young was that she was not scared to compete. She wasn’t scared of losing,” said the 43-year-old coach. “At that age, most children are scared. They make excuses. No one wants to go first. ‘My head is paining’, they will say. Or ‘My hand is paining’. But Malikaa was always ready for her next opponent. She wasn’t ever scared of the limelight. In one word, she was bindaas!”

It turned out that the young prodigy loved the limelight. She started winning tournaments. She won the state level Under-10 title, a moment which finally convinced her parents that they had taken the right decision in letting their gifted daughter pursue the sport. She went further. She won the Under-12 Nationals in 2015. She represented India at the ITF Asia 14 & U Development Championships - Division 1 this year.

Malikaa had created a storm on a tennis circuit. “When we first came on the circuit,” remembered her mother. “No one really expected much of her. She was this tiny chubby girl and everyone around was much older. The thinking went, chalo, uda de isko (Let’s blast her away). But then she started performing and beating players and got new-found respect.”

What makes her excel and beat her much older competitors, according to her mother and her coaches, is her mental strength. “She’s mentally very tough, at such a young age. It’s a rare quality,” said Kirtane.

Vaijayanti provided an example. “She played a tournament in Ahmedabad in 40-45 degree Celsius heat. The heat is so intense that even your soles can’t get protection. She had blisters on her feet. She was hurting. And yet she still played and she won.”

‘She never complains’

She added, “The one thing is, she [Malikaa] never complains. Never. She doesn’t complain if her accommodation is bad, her food is bad, the toilets are stinking. Maybe her secret sauce is her tenaciousness. Because this girl is brilliant!”

And as her first coach Kirtane pointed out, the bigger the arena, the better she performs. This was clearly evident by the way she defeated her 16-year-old opponent Yubarani Banerjee in the final of the Delhi Masters event in April, which gave her the ticket to Paris.

“When she qualified for the Delhi event, then the media exposure was tremendous,” said Vaijayanti. “Even I got a little worried and wondered if the pressure would get to her for the final. I even asked my husband whether we should stop Malikaa from reading the media coverage, hoping that she wouldn’t get influenced by it.”

But her mother needn’t have worried. Malikaa confidently swept aside her opponent 6-1, 6-3 in the final.

10 tournaments, 8 titles

It’s not always been smooth sailing though. It can never be in a sport where you’re on your own and in Malikaa’s case, playing against older, more experienced players, day in and day out. “There have been crushing defeats,” said her mother. “But she always bounces back.”

In July 2016, Malikaa was nowhere near the horizon to being one of the top players in the rankings. She turned that into a weakness. In a span of 11 weeks between September to December 2016, she played 10 tournaments, won eight singles titles and reached the final in every tournament she played, helping her get selected for the ITF Asia 14&U Development Championship – Division 1.

Obviously, now she’s creating a flutter of sorts in the Indian tennis circuit. Vaijayanti does not want to reveal names but she admits that some big figures are keeping a tab on Malikaa. The one compliment which she treasures and can reveal was the one she got from Imran Mirza, Sania’s father. “Very impressed by Malikaa,” he had told Vaijayanti. “I’ll be keeping an eye on her.”

For a girl who has just turned 14, Malikaa is very clear about her game. “Yes, I have a good serve, but it’s not my main weapon,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I still need more work on it. In the final, I just kept hitting my shots deep. My greatest strength is my groundstroke. My backhand is also as good as my forehand.”

The sky’s the limit

The support of Malikaa’s family and her school has helped a great deal. Vaijayanti and her husband Abhijit take in turns to take Malikaa to different tournaments all over the country. Malikaa’s younger brother Siddharth, who is two years younger, is also a budding tennis player and, in Vaijayanti’s words, Malikaa’s best friend and biggest supporter. Abhijeet Marathe, the father, is Malikaa’s anchor, according to her mother, “her lighthouse in the storm”.

But this is only the start, says Malikaa’s current coach Hemant Bendrey. “The short-term goal is to have her do more strength training and improve that aspect of the game,” says the coach. “The long-term goal is to see her play at the Junior Grand Slams soon”. Bendrey has high hopes from his ward. “The kind of mental strength I see in Malikaa, I saw earlier in Ankita Raina and Isha Lakhani,” said the coach.

But a bigger compliment comes from Kirtane, Malikaa’s first coach.

“In 2001, I met a young group of girls at a tournament. Malikaa reminds me of one of the girls who had caught my eye then. Like her, that girl was fearless. That girl was Sania Mirza.”