Now and then | Tennis

‘I learnt to embrace whatever came my way’: former tennis player Vishal Uppal

Vishaal Uppal is busy packing his bags to go to London for the Road to Wimbledon programme, accompanying young tennis players as their coach. “It is an initiative by the Wimbledon Foundation where the champion and runner-up in the boys and girls tournament make it to the U.K. under-14 championship held there.” Uppal is happy using his experience as a player to now associate with the game as a coach.

It’s ironic really, because Uppal, now 42, began with cricket. Even today, just as he did as a seven-year-old, he’ll mimic the bowling action of his 1983-World-Cup-winning heroes, Kapil Dev and Roger Binny. “I fancied myself as an all-rounder and they were my idols. I took to tennis at 11 only because playing cricket during breaks at school was becoming tough. Being a fast runner, I would be the first on the tennis court. Gradually, tennis became my first love even though I follow cricket closely even today.”

Vishaal Uppal (right) had the honour of partnering Leander Paes and came up with a sparkling display on debut in the Davis Cup tennis tournament in New Delhi on April 09, 2000. (TSS published on 22/04/2000)

Vishaal Uppal (right) had the honour of partnering Leander Paes and came up with a sparkling display on debut in the Davis Cup tennis tournament in New Delhi on April 09, 2000. (TSS published on 22/04/2000)  

 

The turning point came as a student at Delhi's Modern School. He was picked to play in the Father O’Brien tennis tournament, where he lost in the semifinals after eliminating higher-ranked players. Cricket took a back seat for Uppal that day, and he was determined to win.

He may have had limitations as a player on the tennis court, but that same determination to make a career in the game persisted. Uppal represented India in the Davis Cup and the crowning moment came at the Busan Asian Games in 2002 when he won the men’s doubles bronze with Mustafa Ghouse as partner. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi took the gold. “What a moment it was. I live it everyday,” Uppal lapses into the past even as he discusses the present.

Opportunity speaks

Living in Defence Colony and shuttling between his two tennis centres at the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association Complex in Safdarjung Enclave and the VAN Sports Club in Baliawas in Gurugram, Uppal tries to make his wards play to the best of their abilities. “How to hit a tennis ball is the easiest part. There are mental and physical aspects that need more attention. There is way too much emphasis on how to hit the ball,” he says.

He goes back to his younger days. “There were hardly four training spots for us; today you have nearly 30 tennis courts within 3 kilometres of where I stay. I would use public transport to reach DLTA and it was fun. I would hitch-hike. It made me tough. It also kept me grounded,” says the man who had a comfortable upbringing.

‘I learnt to embrace whatever came my way’: former tennis player Vishal Uppal
 

He talks of a life lesson from his first travel for a competitive tournament. “I went to Gwalior (in 1989) and my parents gave me ₹500. There, we learnt everything was free. I returned the money when I got back. A few days later I travelled to Lucknow for the national championship with just ₹200. When we reached, we were told to pay for everything. So, five of us shared a room and beds. Two on the bed and three on the floor — we took turns. We had to travel (back to Delhi) unreserved overnight, sleeping near the toilet in the train. I learnt to embrace whatever came my way. It has helped me and that is what I share with my students. To remain humble and grounded.”

Educated choices

He has a realistic approach to tennis coaching. “You need to be skilful, mentally alert, physically tough, tactically correct. You have to keep the fundamentals right, and let the natural ability of the child take over. There are many challenging factors. Skill and technique are not going to change. You have to handle situations,’’ says Uppal watching the Asian men’s tennis tournament organised in memory of his grandfather, Krishna Kumar Uppal.

“My grandfather was an Army officer, father a lawyer and mother a doctor. I was given the freedom to choose my career. Tennis was plan A and studies plan B. I was good at both,” says Uppal, who graduated from the Shri Ram College of Commerce. “I never ignored my studies and tell my students that tennis should not happen at the cost of education.” He himself made a decision to quit his job at the Gas Authority of India Limited to focus entirely on coaching.

‘I learnt to embrace whatever came my way’: former tennis player Vishal Uppal
 

As a coach, he has guided the Junior Davis Cup team: Siddhant Banthia, Adil Kalyanpur and Megh Bhargav Patel, who qualified for the World Group final in the under-16 event in 2016. He was the coach of the team when Sacchitt Sharrma and Mahak Jain won the U.K. under-14 championship on the grass courts of Wimbledon in 2015.

Delhi ward

Uppal loves the city he has grown up in: “There are great facilities but there's great chaos too. It has a great culture and the food is excellent.” He particularly enjoys Colonel’s Kababz at Defence Colony. “I once took the Road To Wimbledon team (including former World No. 4 Tim Henman and the late Paul Hutchins, the British Davis Cup captain) there and they fell in love with it.”

Despite being devoted to tennis, Uppal does find time for golf, and has many friends from both the circles. “Tennis is my first love, and golf is a dangerous fling. I do enjoy playing golf, and doing some events,” he says. His wife, Neha, is one of India’s foremost TV presenters and a corporate MC. Uppal is also much sought in the media for his forthright views. “I enjoy doing TV work. It helps me contribute to the growth of the sport and to better awareness,” he says.

On his career, Uppal has a philosophical view. “There is no point regretting what I did not achieve. I had a lot of hunger but not many opportunities. I like to see the glass half full. My only regret was my tennis career getting cut short because of my allergy to dust. I am blessed to be in a family with caring people.”

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Printable version | Nov 20, 2020 8:43:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/tennis/i-learnt-to-embrace-whatever-came-my-way/article28986347.ece

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