Sixteen-year-old Mahak Jain is the women’s singles Indian national tennis champion. She beat top seed Zeel Desai 7-5, 6-3 in the final in New Delhi on Saturday. At an age where some may prefer to compete at the junior level, she is playing at the top beating opponents older and more experienced than her.

“Age doesn’t bother me at all, in fact it especially advantageous for me. They are older so the the pressure is on them,” a confident Jain asserted after her title-winning run.

Desai, two years older, had the advantage in terms of experience and in the head-to-head between the two. But it was Jain who raised her game and got the better of the player ranked 10 places above her in the International Tennis Federation rankings.

“I was a bit nervous also, but at the same time I was confident because this year in January (during an ITF junior final), I had beaten her at the same court,” Jain told The Field.

Desai got her own back and beat Jain in finals at Gwalior and Malaysia later. Indeed, for Indian tennis fans, Jain vs Desai is a budding rivalry to watch out for.

“We have played four times this year, she has won two matches and I have won two. Both of us know each other’s games, our weaknesses and strengths quite well,” Jain said.

Receiving the Fenesta National Championships trophy from Dipa Karmakar. Image Credit: Mahak Jain

Mumbai to Indore

Traditionally, most sportspersons move from smaller cities and towns to metros to get better facilities to train. But in Jain’s case, it was the opposite. The family left their life in Mumbai behind to shift base to Indore in Madhya Pradesh in 2015, where she trains at the Sajid Lodi Tennis Academy.

The move wasn’t easy, but Jain’s focus was singular: she had wanted to make tennis her profession from a very young age.

“I decided to take it up as a career long time back when I started playing tournaments at 10 years old or do, I was doing well in these tournaments and thought why not take it up as a profession,” she recounted. But moving to Indore to fulfill this dream was a big decision. “I have always been in Mumbai and I love it so leaving the city was a big call but I knew what was important for me,” she added.

Image Credit: Sajid Lodi Tennis Academy

The decision paid dividends for the teen as both her performance at and planning of tournaments changed after joining Lodi.

“When she came to us, Jain was a sound player with a lot of potential, but there were a lot of physical discrepancies in her game which if continues, would have eventually lead to injuries. The first thing we did was assess her and once we did that, we started a individual program for her with a dedicated team – physical trainer, nutritionist, etc,” Lodi told The Field.

Jain credits this approach for her all-round improvement. “My fitness and mental training is better now. Sajid Lodi and the whole team has worked very hard on me. I am working to improve my strokes and strengths as well,” she added.

Breakout season

The national title was the perfect crowning moment after a strong 2017. She started the year with two titles in January – the India ITF Junior-1 in Chandigarh beating Axana Mareen and the India ITF Juniors 2 in Delhi, where she beat Desai in the final.

Then came her her first Grand Slam experience at the Australian Open, a tournament that she describes as one of the highlights of her career so far. She gained direct entry into the juniors due to her Top-50 rankings And although she lost to Marta Kostyuk 3-6, 3-6 in the first round, she gained a lot in terms of exposure and encouragement.

“It was the first Grand Slam I had ever played. It is a big step, it’s great exposure for a junior. I reached there and the environment of a Grand Slam, seeing the top players hit... it was very motivating. To see players like Nadal, Federer on the tour, it really pumps you up and motivates you to work harder,” Jain said.

Incidentally, the self-confessed Rafael Nadal fan not only got to see her idol play from up close quarters, but also share a gym with him while training, thanks to her Grand Slam foray.

From her results this year, it is evident that the her first Major experience has been extremely beneficial.

Playing at Wimbledon. Image Credit: Mahak Jain

She also made it to the second round at Wimbledon where she lost 2-6 1-6 to American third seed Claire Liu, in addition to the first-round appearance at the US Open. She couldn’t make it to the French Open in May due to a lack of funds.

Playing at the All England Club was another memorable moment from this year for the 16-year-old. In 2015, Jain had won “Road to Wimbledon” title for under-14 girls “Wimbledon was really special, we used to watch the pros practice and they used to be all around us,” she recalled.

But she also went through a bit of a rough patch losing three finals to her Indian peers. She was the runner-up at the ITF $15k tournament in Gwalior and Sarawak Chief Minister’s Cup in Malaysia in March and lost the final of the Asian Junior Tennis Championships, where she was the top seed, to second seed Mihika Yadav in June. So to get the national title under her belt must have been even more special.

Lodi says Jain’s biggest strength is her swift movement and court coverage. But a chat with her also shows her mental resolve and hunger to excel.

Armed with this confidence and her evolving armoury of strokes, it will be interesting to see how she builds on her breakout season in 2017 in the coming months.