When newly-crowned national champion Dalwinder Singh first picked up a tennis racquet, he thought he was going to play badminton.

As a student at the government school in Jassowal, Punjab, he had raised his hand at once when Harvinder Singh Saran, the owner of the Harvest Tennis Academy, asked the children if they were interested in learning the sport. Singh, an NRI, set up the Harvest Tennis Academy in 2005 in Punjab, a place where tennis was not a very popular sport.

Today, both finalists of the recently concluded National Tennis Championships train there. Incidentally, Singh’s father is employed as a bus driver at the Harvest Academy, which completely sponsors the player’s career.

Why did Singh raise his hand if he didn’t even know about the sport? To get out of school? To get a chance to play more?

“I can’t really say, I thought it was badminton and a few of us went to the ground. I got out of school as well and here we were given racquets and I soon started to enjoy the sport,” he told The Field.

Singh’s natural talent was spotted by Harvey sir (Saran) and the Punjab youngster soon knew a lot more than just the name of the sport.

That was 13 years ago. Since then, the now 21-year-old has played in the International Tennis Federation circuit and has broken into the top-800 in the ranking. He reached the final of the $10,000 ITF men’s Futures tournament at the Harvest Academy in May 2016, but lost to Vishnu Vardhan 7-6(4), 6-4 on his home turf.

Image Credit: Harvest Tennis Academy
Image Credit: Harvest Tennis Academy

The national title is his biggest triumph yet, and in his own words, was a dream come true. Singh is only the second player from Punjab to win it, after Sunil Kumar Sipeya. He had lost in the quarter-finals in the last edition of the event, and was seeded fourth this year.

While it is known that not many top players participate in the Indian tennis nationals, the field was by no means was no cakewalk this year. En route the title, Singh pipped top seed Suraj Prabodh 6-3, 6-4 in the final, second seed, overpowered second seed Bava Haddin – to whom he has lost a couple of times this year – 7-5, 6-0 in the semifinals and outlasted qualifier Nitin Kumar Sinha with a marathon 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 win in the quarters.

In fact, he almost didn’t make it past the first round, losing the first set in his opening match to Paras Dahiya.

“After losing the first set in the first round, I told myself that I have to win. Once I won that match, and then the next, I slowly started gaining in confidence as I went ahead in the competition,” he said.

His gameplan, he says, was simple: don’t get your serve broken, and break theirs. Singh’s serve is his biggest weapon according to his head coach Milos Pavlovic, and he stuck to the plan.

“I was feeling confident after the first few wins, and I was focused on not losing my serve. Even in the final, my serve was not broken and I was able to break him. I have played and beaten Prabodh before, but I was still a little nervous. I thought that if I win the first set, the pressure will be on him, and that’s what I did,” Singh recounted.

Serbian coach Milos Pavlovic. Image Credit: Harvest Tennis Academy
Serbian coach Milos Pavlovic. Image Credit: Harvest Tennis Academy

Singh is a big-hitter, with a strong backhand to match his serve, according to the Serbian coach Pavlovic. Seeing the potential in his serve, the coach worked on the toss and swing further few months back.

But the tipping point for Singh this year was his change in approach mentally as well. “His physical movements on court are good, and at the nationals he played with determination.He was playing aggressive in this tournament, but most importantly he was disciplined in his game,” Pavlovic told The Field.

“But being aggressive is one thing, and being disciplined is another.We were discussing that before every match, and this time he played with maturity,” he added.

The national title could well be the catalyst at 21-year-old. “Now that I have achieved one big dream, I have even more confidence for the future tournaments,” he said. He leaves for Malaysia to play in the ITF tournaments later this week.

Singh’s next goal is to break into the top 300 of the ITF rankings, his current rank is 1053. Pavlovic believes that Singh can come up to 500-600 with a few good results in the near future.

Whether he charges ahead or or not Singh has already inked his name as a national champion. He will now hope to capitalise on this new-found momentum and make his mark in Indian tennis.