For the love of the game

YOU WOULDN'T suspect that the man patiently explaining the nuances of tennis is a bureaucrat. For this IAS officer who is currently the Joint Secretary, Information Technology, tennis is not a trifling passion. Kolaventy Praveen Kumar's love for tennis hasn't diminished, despite the lack of support and opportunities in his days as a player of promise. As a keen follower, his views are not only informative but definitive too.

The game and its players mean much to him, as is evident from the support he has extended to Hyderabad's own Davis Cupper, Vishal Punna. The state has produced many tennis titans. Vishal should continue that tradition, he says. Praveen is presently trying to help Punna get sponsorship.

What do you think of Punna Vishal? Can you identify his strengths?

Vishal is doing a great job without a coach, practice partner or sponsor. The talented youngster needs to consolidate his game and learn more about playing in different situations. He's an attacking player. When you keep attacking all the time it refines your instinct greatly and you become a menace to your opponents.

How do you rate Sania?

Sania Mirza is a great champion in the making who is still growing up. Her groundstrokes are nearly top of the world. But there is still room for improvement. I observed that 60 per cent of the errors she makes on a forehand are on shots, which come in swinging into her body and on to the backhand side, which she tries to hit with a forehand. Her game is to camp at the baseline and blow away the opponent with awesome power. But to do this to the topmost women is going to take quite some power! Alternately she can learn to attack the net much more.

As good as she is, I feel that her fate will depend on her serve in the world of power-hitting women where today frequently the height of the champions is nearly six feet. Her serve will make or unmake her. What about Indian tennis?

Leander Paes is devastating when he's at the net. Mahesh Bhupathi's serve and groundstrokes are powerful but better mobility would have produced superior results for him. Bopanna has chances of rising further. Prakash Amritraj's rise has also been rapid, but of course, not comparable to his dad, Vijay Amritraj.Vishal Punna is among the younger lot and this makes him a hot prospect for the future.

The scene in Hyderabad and future prospects?

S.P. Misra is the father figure of the game in the State. Vasudeva Reddy is an amazingly gifted player who should have skyrocketed to the top but for his injury. S. Narendranath was once the fastest moving player in India. His speed, anticipation and net game were his strong points. Anjan Viplav is a big guy at six feet five inches and his 120 mph serve is complemented by bazooka-like groundstrokes. There are quite a few good kids coming up. Teja, Keertana and Unnati are going to inherit the mantle from Sania Mirza. The boys, Vishnu Vardhan, Vikas Punna, Siddharth Alapati and Saket Sai are all good and waiting for their chance.

How good is Hyderabad as a hub of tennis?

It is showing those qualities now. With the IMG Academy about to be set up, the new tennis stadium and the rise of tennis stars Sania and Vishal, there is a definite momentum right now. There's been a very supportive tennis community as well. There are dedicated coaches such as Praveen Bhargava, Narendranath, Ravi Chander, Jain, Stalin, Chandrashekhar, Sanjay, Ganesh and many more. But the problems still persist. Tennis is still a game in which a young player doesn't get a court to practice for himself the way he likes to train. Young players have to always wait for all the club players to finish their doubles. The equipment is also costly.

Who are your favourite players and why?

Many, but Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras are tops. For me it is touch more than power, which fascinates. Nastase was a touch player. McEnroe had magical touch. Edberg never hit two groundstrokes in a row, he always took the net on the first one itself! There was Miloslav Mecir with his deception, Leconte with great talent, Rios with amazing footwork. Today we have a Hicham Arazi with magic hands, a Fernando Gonzalez who is more famous for his forehands than his results and finally a man who is destined to be the greatest all rounder of all time- Roger Federer.

Is the game dominated by power now?

Yes, too much power is taking the joy out of the game. Artistry is sacrificed for power. And the breed of attacking players who enthralled viewers for decades with their serve and volley skills is vanishing.

Any pleasant memories from your playing days?

Every victory is sweet and unforgettable. After eight years of not playing I was selected and was undergoing training as an IAS officer in Mussoorie in 1991 and it so happened that a National Ranking tournament was held at Mussoorie. I had to qualify. Picking up a racket after so many years I won three rounds of qualifying and two rounds in the main before I fell to Arjun Kapoor, the then UP State No.2 and top seed of the tournament. That's one of my good memories.

And disappointments?

Yes, not getting selected to my University team. Missing it by a whisker really pained me.

What advice would you give to young players?

To me desire is always more important than talent in terms of how to strike the ball. There are several strikers of the ball in history who did not have a natural flair for it, that is, talent. But still they are in the champion's seat because they loved the game and worked out for it. Jim Courier is a great example of this. The hitting is the easier part. The moving is the difficult part. Without desire you won't fit enough to get anywhere even if you are born with a magic touch in your hands. And of course the parents have to share the dream and create the support structure. Another important thing is not to neglect your studies. Vijay Amritraj and Anand Amritraj achieved what they did in tennis and were also the first-ranked students in their school and college days. This is especially important in India considering that you need something to fall back on if you are injured or things don't go as per plan.

Have you coached any players?

Yes I have. Not for fees or professionally but just for love of the game. It's important to me that they should ask and should value my advice. I don't seek out pupils myself. All those I coached are people who asked me and convinced me that they are serious. But my limitation is that I can spare very little time only on Sundays owing to the pressures of my job.

I feel disappointed when they are not sufficiently serious. Some disappear after just the first or second lesson as they feel the regimens I prescribe are too tough. They seem to be in an awful and unrealistic hurry for results. They must be more persistent and more hard-working. Today's kids have too many distractions and too many enjoyments. They don't want the hard life of a tennis player. However, if I get a chance I want to pass on my skills to the next generation. I do not feel motivated by kids who aim low and want a local or national rank or something like that. I still would like to encourage and help and coach a deserving kid if he approaches me seriously. But his goal should be to win the Davis Cup for India, no less!