Towards the end of the 2016 season, the then 18-year-old Karman kaur Thandi had said that her aim for 2017 was to break into the top 350 of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) rankings. A year later, she has not only reached a career-high ranking of 307, but is on the verge of breaking into the top 300 ahead of her first WTA event, as a wildcard at the Mumbai Open beginning Monday.

Ask her about it, and she sounds surprised. “I said that?” she asked with a laugh. But the mature answer comes soon after. “I had set that as a goal for the first half and it is a great feeling when you go beyond that goal. When you reach one goal, you want to work harder and set another and reach that and keep on working hard and do that,” Thandi said in a chat with The Field.

The more immediate goal for the 19-year-old is to make a mark at the Mumbai Open, where she has got a wildcard entry. She has played International Tennis Federation tournaments at home before but she is glad that her first major tournament will be in front of a home crowd.

“Even when I made the finals of the 25K [ITF tournament in Pune] there was a huge crowd with everyone supporting the Indian player. It was great to be in that atmosphere and I am looking forward to playing in Mumbai. The WTA is a big opportunity for me,” she said.

Thandi will begin her campaign against Slovenia’s Dalila Jakupovic, who at 242 is ranked 70 places above the Indian as per the rankings on November 13. She is also playing doubles with Pranjala Yadlapalli.

But the 19-year-old is choosing to focus on her game instead of looking at her opponent, quoting Billie Jean King on pressure. “For me pressure is privilege, you do some great things under pressure. It is going to be good match. For this week, I look forward to giving my 100% for each point,” Thandi said at the draw ceremony at Cricket Club of India on Sunday.

Positive direction

The champion at the first Under-16 WTA Future Stars tournament in Singapore back in 2014, Thandi is now considered one of India’s brightest hopes in women’s singles. She has had a stint at the Mouratoglou Academy, founded by Patrick Mouratoglou, who has been Serena Williams’ mentor since 2012. Thandi has also been one of only seven tennis players included in the government’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme for financial assistance.

She is also one of only two Indian tennis players signed by sports equipment brand ASICS, the other being Indian male singles No 1 Yuki Bhambri, who recently won the ATP Challenger in Pune.

And playing at home will give her an added boost as she looks to accumulate more points heading into the 2018 season.

Currently on the verge of breaking into the top 300, a few good results will give her a realistic chance of making the qualifiers of the bigger tournaments on tour next year as the cut-off for Grand Slam qualifiers is about the 210 mark. Having reached the quarterfinals of Australian Open and French Open as a junior, she knows a thing or two about playing at that level.

“The atmosphere of playing a Grand Slam is totally different. When you go there as a junior, and see it you want to come there as a professional and it gives you a push to go there as a senior,” she said.

The chance to prove herself

India has not made much headway at the highest level in women’s singles tennis since Sania Mirza’s unprecedented success a decade ago. While Thandi agrees that the gap in women’s tennis in India has been huge, she also believes that it is headed in a positive direction. “The struggles are still there, but things are getting better for players. The government is supporting them, there are better facilities, and people are showing more interest as well. When a player’s needs are being fulfilled, obviously the player will develop,” she explained.

The inclusion in the TOPS is also a huge step in the positive direction for the teenager. She was named in the shortlist of medal prospects for the Commonwealth and Asian Games next year, while several other names like Ankita Raina, Saketh Myneni, Divij Sharan, Purav Raja were left out – a point raised by the All India Tennis Association as well.

“When I came to know I am included in the list I was glad because I thought it’s going to get a little easier. Mentally, it makes you a little free. Being in TOPS with selected players helps us, it’s motivating to know that someone believes in you and you have time to prove yourself,” she said.

Only 19, Thandi has time enough to prove herself. And she is already standing out, quoting tennis greats, aiming to inculcate Maria Sharapova’s fighting spirit and hoping for Roger Federer’s discipline and positivity on court.

“I’m taking in point by point, believing in yourself in every point, that’s where the game changes,” she said of her plan to navigate the challenging draw at Mumbai Open. No matter her result at her debut WTA event, it will be interesting to see how she performs under the privilege of pressure.