This is the second in a series of articles going behind the scenes of 21-year-old Karman Kaur Thandi’s journey. She is just the sixth Indian woman to break into the Top 200 in the WTA rankings. You can read the first part here.

It’s tough to miss the pride on Aditya Sachdeva’s face when he talks about one of his brightest students, Karman Kaur Thandi. The Delhi-based coach spoke about the journey he has shared with her, a journey that started by accident, when her former coach, who also happens to be his friend, introduced them.

He also shared interesting anecdotes from their training sessions, how he’s evolved as a coach while helping the 21-year-old, and why he thinks she has all the tools in her game to be a world beater. Excerpts:

When and how was the first time you crossed paths with Thandi?

The first time I ever met Karman was with a friend of mine called Vinod Kumar, who was her earlier coach. Then I met her at a school function with Mahesh Bhupathi at the Ryan International School. That was my first look at her, post which her parents were requested by Mahesh to get her down to the Siri Fort Sports Complex. That was the first time I actually had a look at her game.

What was your initial impression of her game? When was the first time you realised that she had what it takes to become a professional tennis player?

To be very honest, when you see a girl who’s that tall and a good athlete, which is a rare combination, it comes down from her genes. I met her parents, the father is over 6’2, the grandfather is even taller than that. So they had the necessary genes that were required, which gives a coach a nice vision saying ‘okay you have somebody in India that tall who can make it if given the right ingredients’.

My first impression was... she had an average serve. I wouldn’t say it was a very big serve, but, seeing the height. Most of all, what attracted me was the determination that this girl had. You could not get her off the court till she had finished the task that was given to her.

So she was adamant?

Very adamant! There are numerous examples I can give you. Once, while working on her backhand, I told her go hit a 100 balls off the backhand on the wall. I forgot, but I still saw her hitting against that wall. She said “I’ve hit 98 and I’ve missed and I need to do 100”. Any normal child at that age wouldn’t do that. So I could see the X-factor coming right up with her. This gave me additional motivation as a coach saying ‘okay you know let’s go give this thing a try’.

Image credit: Aditya Sachdeva

Her physique is obviously different from most of the Indian girls you would have trained. So did you have to adapt your coaching style to cater to her game?

It was a blessing to find a girl that tall already. There’s nothing as far as the adaptation is concerned. The only adaptation we had to make was to get her strong physically as she has long limbs and when you have long limbs, your center of gravity gets higher. To get that down, we needed to make sure she’s always physically strong so that she could stay low. As a result, we worked a lot on her agility skills because tall people move a little slower when it comes to the inside part of the court. This is something we’ve worked really hard on, in the initial part of her career.

Was it something which you had to work on or did she have some natural aspect to it as well?

Like I said she’s a natural athlete, she’s a very good athlete. It was just enhancing those skills, making sure the right ingredients are given at the right time. As you know speed is completely related to strength and she had long limbs, so we started that development a little earlier.

You’ve worked with her since her early years. Was there a conscious effort to pay extra attention to developing her serve as a weapon, given her height?

I’ve worked with her in her early years as well as I’m still working on her serve. There’s always scope for improvement. When I met the parents especially the dad and the granddad, you know that the genes are taking you there because at that time she was already taller than the mother.

If you have somebody with a big heart as she does, she doesn’t care. She’s not scared to miss the ball and that’s a huge advantage you get. It’s like a [Virender] Sehwag playing cricket, being fearless. That fearlessness, in addition to a big serve, is only going to get you to the next level. That’s where we started to work with the serve, keeping in mind that the other ingredients are there. Given the height, if you don’t have a serve then there’s nobody to blame but the coach. I probably didn’t want to get blamed over there (laughs).

Thandi’s strengths are her serve and forehead, but her backhand has also improved in the last few years. What do you think are the aspects of her game that she needs to improve in order to crack the top 100 and beyond?

Physicality! She has long limbs and is thin, but she needs to put on more muscle to become stronger. Because the stronger you are, the more stable you become. It’s not about the strokes as much now, because she has every ingredient that’s required, right from a huge serve, big forehand, and a very solid backhand now. Volleys are good as well, she’s moving inward from that aspect. From a tactical standpoint, the game is coming together. But to play against the top 100 women over there who are maybe 24, 25, 26 in age already, the density of muscle needs to be much stronger.

She’s an ectomorph. How does she make sure she doesn’t lose muscle mass since it’s a cardiovascular sport?

It has to be balanced with a good diet and what we do as a load principle. How much load to give because now she’s not learning the basics anymore. Now it’s more about taking care of the body and making sure she’s not injured at all right now which is what we’re trying. Let’s hope she stays injury free.

Movement is obviously another area where a lanky tennis player tends to struggle. How did you manage that aspect of her game?

From a young age, we started to really work on her physicality and more so, the agility, the small steps, the adjustment steps because you tend to take big steps because your natural first step is really big. So we needed to make sure the agility had to be taken care of from a young age, and that’s what we did. We got an entire plan as far as what we did and we followed that through.

From a young age, she has been under the spotlight and people have had huge expectations from her. How do you think she has coped up so far and do you think it burdens the athlete, especially when they are very young?

You can take it as a burden or you can enjoy it. I think she enjoys it because that’s the way we’ve groomed her from a young age. It’s like you’re playing a huge match, and you can either buckle down under pressure or enjoy the match because that’s your time to show the world that you have that talent. That’s how we’ve groomed her. I keep telling her that it’s an opportunity you have to showcase your talent to the world. So go enjoy it and that’s what she does.

This article was first published on Indian Tennis Daily.