After quitting professional tennis for a while, what is it like for Sai Jayalakshmi to don the mantle of mentor to the u-14 and u-16 girls’ teams?
Sai Jayalakshmi was leading a life of married bliss, happy to be a homemaker taking care of her own small baking business from her Abhiramapuram residence in Chennai, after having quit professional tennis in 2006.
So, when the All India Tennis Association (AITA) called the former National grass court tennis champion, and winner of three International Tennis Federation (ITF) singles and 23 ITF doubles titles to ask whether she would be interested in becoming a member of the Senior Selection Committee to pick the teams for the Davis Cup and Fed Cup, Sai reluctantly agreed, unsure of what to expect.
Out of the blue
“It (the call) certainly came out of the blue for me in January 2012. For six years, I was neither in touch with the association nor with the players. I went to Delhi for the first selection committee meeting. I met all those I hadn’t in years. It was good,” recalls Sai. More than a selector, it was in her role as coach that Sai flowered. The experience made her aware of her strengths as a mentor to aspiring youngsters. In fact, her successful stints with the Indian girls’ u-14 and 16 teams brought to light a facet of Sai that she herself, perhaps, didn’t think existed.
The u-16 team finished sixth in the junior Fed Cup in Bendigo (Australia), while the u-14 team qualified (in Kuching, Malaysia) for the World Group and finished fifth among 16 teams in Prostejov, Czech Republic.
For the 36-year-old, it was a wonderful learning process. “I am vey glad that I went last year (with the u-16 team to Bendigo), because with each trip I learnt how to contribute more to the team. I learnt patience; I travelled with a great group of kids. And when you realise they are receptive, your work becomes easy. I didn’t talk to them about tennis alone. I spoke to them about etiquette, hygiene, life and people,” she says. “Being a player helped a lot too,” she adds.
Vishal Uppal, who was coach of the Indian u-16 boys’ team in Bendigo and Sai's husband Rajeev (tennis coach), helped her tide over her initial problems.
“The u-16 experience was novel. It was an eye-opener. To watch the round robin and then the knockout was tiring. You are pretty much on court the whole day. But, I somehow felt the u-16 kids were not as enthusiastic playing for India as I thought they would be. You are only 16 and playing for the country is such a big thing. I would have thought they would be over the moon. But it was just another day at work for them,” she says.
A fun experience
The u-14 team experience, according to Sai, was fun. “I really got to know them; they sat with me, spoke to me and laughed with me too. With the u-16 team, I think there was a barrier,” she feels.
Sai is open to the option of coaching (“I would rather be called a mentor than a coach”) in the future, but not on a regular basis. “I am okay with twice-a-year coaching stints; nothing more than that. I am enjoying this phase of my life.”