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The shy kid with smokin’ footwork

Sanam Singh Dalal was brought to my attention as an eight-year-old. His cousin was my best buddy in college and all too familiar with my struggles on the junior tennis circuit. He took me along to size up this shy kid who seldom spoke. Sukhwant Basra writes.

sports Updated: Nov 23, 2010 10:26 IST
Sukhwant Basra

Sanam Singh Dalal was brought to my attention as an eight-year-old. His cousin was my best buddy in college and all too familiar with my struggles on the junior tennis circuit. He took me along to size up this shy kid who seldom spoke.

Playing on a dodgy grass court at the Lake Club in Chandigarh — one of the most beautiful settings for tennis in this country, though — Sanam was just another boy who clutched his racquet fiercely while trying to get strings to meet ball.

A year later, Sanam moved to the Chandigarh Lawn Tennis Association facility and already was no longer just another kid. He still spoke seldom but, once in a while, he smoked.

Hitting the rising ball is a skill that few master. Sanam, however, was instinctively moving up from the baseline to cut down angles.
The ones he got swing and contact correct on, smoked. They left a scorched court and a singed opponent in their wake. Great talent but frail of build, I recall thinking.

Sanam won the junior Asian title, was ranked world No. 4 among the boys and hit a sublime ball, building upon his natural affinity to spot it far quicker and then move just that much as required to execute a shot good enough to prevail over the babes. Too soft for the big boys, I recall thinking.

As an 18-year-old, the boy seemed destined to go the way of most Indian tennis players - great hands but no legs and no direction. It was then that help came, in the form of Somdev Devvarman, who urged him to go to the University of Virginia. I next saw Sanam at the Chennai Open this year. The boy had morphed.

I wouldn't know the amount of International Affairs (his major) he's learnt but those Americans have taught him a thing and ten about his body's internal affairs. He was moving incredibly fast, had put on athletic muscle and that hand-eye coordination had been honed to a lethal potency.

The transformation was astounding. Sanam now has the strength to stay low while moving up to rip his strokes. That does not make him just dangerous, it makes him deadly, for he cuts down on the opponent's reaction time and spends minimal effort while using the other's pace to whack the ball back harder.

He comes from an illustrious family in Haryana. His grandfather, Chaudhary Subey Singh, was one of the first IAS officers from the state. He owns ancestral land in village Jakhahoda in Jhajjar district.

But, all the material support apart, Sanam is a product of the diligence and drive of his mother, Roopa, who brought up her two sons with limited support after her husband passed away at a very young age. The lady's doggedness and sheer strength of will seem to have been passed on to Sanam, now 22, who won gold in his first Asian Games on Sunday.

He still speaks little; his racquet, however, has started creating a racket.