About five years back, Pranjala Yadlapalli was hailed as the “next Sania Mirza” in a country obsessed with finding the next sporting star. But to give credence to her claim, the Andhra Pradesh girl had a strong showing on the junior circuit, winning the WTA Future Stars U-16 Gold Tournament and a combined junior ranking of 15. The then 14-year-old also had the backing of the GVK group, which had supported Mirza as a youngster as well.
The transition from junior to senior circuit, however, has not been easy for Pranjala as she makes her way through the lonely journeyman circuit of pro tennis. But in the last two months, the 19-year-old has had an upsurge of sorts, after spending years on the fringe. And it all started in Thailand, when she started training at the IMPACT Tennis Academy under Stephen Koon, who also coaches Yuki Bhambri, India’s current top-ranked singles player.
And on Sunday, she won the $25K title in Lagos, Nigeria, the biggest career title for the teenager. The world No 449 defeated 144th ranked top seed Conny Perrin of Switzerland 2-6, 7-5, 6-0, recovering from a set and triple break-point down in the final.
“My game has changed a lot in the past two months. I have been training in Thailand at the IMPACT Tennis academy under coach Stephen Koon. He knows what to work on, how to make strengths even stronger. My fitness level is also improving, same with strokeplay as well. I have become much more quicker, running to the ball faster and getting into position and recover faster to hit the ball. Because of that I have become much more confident, aggressive and positive,” she told Scroll.in from Nigeria.
And this improved fitness is what really clicked for her in the recent past. In August, she won the $25,000 Nonthaburi doubles title with Rutuja, and reached the semi-final where she lost to Xiyu Wang, a top 200 player. She then played the Asian Games, bowing out in the first round of the women’s doubles.
Her good run has coincided with the new partnership with Koon, something that her family is paying for because of the lack of support at this level.
“I went for a tournament there, I know him since last year but it was expensive to go there. But now my parents and I thought that if I really want to do something then I have to go there and train.
“Juniors is completely different. In seniors you need to improve your game constantly to go to the next level, you can’t stop improving. I think in seniors, fitness and consistency and aggression all matters and I am working on these. You also need a proper coach and proper guidance,” she added.
Guidance is exactly what she is looking for in her new partnership with Koon, whose list of pupils include Australian Open semi-finalist Hyeon Chung and China Open champion Nikoloz Basilashvili. And she can feel the difference in her game already.
Before this, her biggest career title was the $15K ITF women’s tournament in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt last July, although she has won two doubles titles this year.
But a $25K title, after fighting from a a set down, is commendable given how it is these tournament finals that will count towards ranking point from 2019, as per the International Tennis Federation’s new mandate. The Lagos title has also given her the confidence to play the higher-ranked tournaments.
“I have reached 25K quarters before, but first title. This is the next step towards playing in bigger tournaments against higher-ranked opponents. My goal is that I want to play the Grand Slam qualifying next year and to reach that you have to be in the top 200,” Pranjala, who has a career high ranking of 381, asserted.
This will be easier said than done. But if Pranjala can keep improving her game and fitness under the tutelage of her new coach, she will give herself the chance to end the year on a high and a realistic shot at bigger tournaments next season.