Now and then | Tennis

From tennis coaching to SRK movies: Ankita Bhambri looks back

Ankita Bhambri.

Ankita Bhambri.   | Photo Credit: File Photo: V.V. Krishnan


Former tennis player and now coach, Ankita Bhambri, talks about her approach to the game, and of how her only concession to fun is watching Shah Rukh Khan’s movies

When Ankita Raina won the Asian Games Bronze medal in Palembang, Indonesia, last year, there was someone in the background who prepped her for every match. Ankita Bhambri was the team coach, who worked quietly in the background, without basking in the kind of celebrity glory only cricket coaching commands.

But Bhambri has always been the quiet, diligent worker, even in her prime playing days. In 2001, she and Sania Mirza won the national women’s doubles title when the two were just 15. In the following year, when the duo, with Kartiki Bhatt took India to the best-ever No. 5 spot in the world in the Junior Fed Cup under-16 tennis in France, she was the under-the-radar girl in Sania’s star-personality shadow. This was ironical, because Bhambri was the one with the big serves and explosive strokes — she could rattle a player across the net, inspired by Rafael Nadal, whose game she silently admired.

Today, at 32, she takes the same discipline to her coaching, at the Team Tennis Centre in the Siri Fort Sports Complex, often waking to be on court at 6 a.m., hitting the ball with the country’s best, and returning home late. She didn’t allow her focus to waver, even in the first few months after her wedding. “I am blessed to have a supportive family,” she says. Her in-laws aren’t much different from her parents, even though they don’t have a background in sport (her husband, Karan Jassal, is an investment banker).

Name and fame

Bhambri is a well-known surname in Delhi’s sporting circles. Her younger sister, Sanaa, played tennis on the international circuit, and her brother, Yuki, and cousin Prerna, still do, while another cousin Prateek coaches. Ekta and Esha, the set of cousins she shared their Gulmohar Park house with, in a big joint-family set-up, played table tennis.

Growing up, “my dad used to follow football, table tennis, cricket,” so dinner-table conversation centred around sport, but they also chatted about movies watched, places visited on their trips abroad, and food. As a treat, they’d go to Moti Mahal (in Greater Kailash) or the restaurants in Defence Colony or on Pandara Road. She carries this practice into her new relationship — she and her husband both like to try new cuisines and restaurants. “We make it a point to have nice sit-down dinners. They are unhurried and can last up to two hours. We have realised the joy of doing small things together.” They also make sure to meet for coffee at least once a week.

However, when it comes to daily food, she’s even more strict than she was in her playing years, avoiding roti and cutting down on carbohydrates, but eating protein-rich dal, chicken, and mutton. “I tend to put on weight easily, if I don’t control my diet now. Earlier, apart from playing, I also used to have a physical workout for about two hours every day. So, I could eat anything then,” she says. She completely avoids white sugar now: “I have never liked chocolates,” but her one allowance is an ice cream every now and then.

It’s not surprising. Growing up, she was so focussed on her sport that Delhi was reduced to a three-point city, where one of her parents would drive her between home in Gulmohar Park, to school on Mathura Road, and tennis court in Siri Fort. But it wasn’t always tennis that preoccupied her.

Making a choice

When she was in school, Bhambri played table tennis. “We lived in one big house, and Ekta and Esha were playing the game. But our parents felt we had better options with tennis,” she says, referring to the scale of the game, both in terms of exposure and prize money (playing a Grand Slam game in the first round can fetch even the person who loses $50,000).

Being on the international circuit, she often had to travel, and says that Mohammad Iqrar Hussain, the principal of Delhi Public School, where she studied, and the sports head, Kusum Kathuria, were very supportive. But it wasn’t a cakewalk. Bhambri remembers studying until 2 a.m. in order to win permission for tennis engagements. At home, “we were told firmly that education was not to be ignored. If we performed well in the exams and played tournaments, they [parents] supported us totally. I never had any tuition. My dad used to teach me maths, and my mom, English.’’

She went on to study Mass Communication, French, Philosophy, and English while graduating from Jesus and Mary College. “I can find my way in Paris with my French,” she smiles.

Bhambri gave up playing international tournaments in 2009, a year before the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. “Sanaa was leaving for the U.S. for her education and tennis. I did not fancy travelling alone,’’ says Bhambri, who won eight doubles titles on the international circuit, six of them with Sanaa. She also won seven international singles titles.

“It was an education travelling overseas with Sanaa. Dad would not always be there to travel abroad and we learned to look after the trip, beginning from buying tickets and arranging for accommodation. There was no Google for us to get information at the click of a mouse. We weren’t always comfortable, but we managed. We had basic allowances and could afford just one phone call a day back home, mainly to convey the result of the match.”

When she travels with the team today, or engages with kids in school and college as she scouts for talent, she says it’s not just about being a mentor or talking technicalities. It is also about the responsibility of promoting the game. That’s the reason she wanted to stay in Delhi even after marriage, though she agrees another reason was that she likes the familiar: “both places and faces”.

“We do events for schools, and have noticed good players like Shruti Ahlawat, Sandeepti Singh Rao, Jagmeet Kaur.” As coach of the Fed Cup team, and the Indian women’s teams for the Asian Indoor Games and the Asian Games, Bhambri has also been investing in the country’s best players, like Ankita Raina and Karman Kaur Thandi, under the guidance of chief coach Aditya Sachdeva.

Her coaching philosophy is for parents to invest in basic training, rather than focus on winning tournaments. “The serve is key in tennis. We used to start the session with it and end with it. Just jumping onto court was not an option,” she says, adding that she does just that with young players, some of whom come in from other academies that don’t stress on this.

The only time she takes time off from tennis is to catch a movie with her family every Sunday. But if it’s a Shah Rukh Khan film, she gives herself the luxury of a first-day-first-show.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 2:16:52 PM |

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