How the lockdown inspired a former tennis prodigy to make a return
- Bengaluru’s Sharmada Balu gave up on tennis at her peak in her 20s because of a lack of funds and frequent injuries. Now she is back to winning ways.
Sharmada Balu was a national junior tennis champion by the age of 14. By 17, she won her first ITF (International Tennis Federation) trophy, becoming one of the youngest Indians to win an international title. By 18, she was picked to represent the country at the Fed Cup. By 22, she had 17 ITF titles to her name. By 23, she has stopped playing tennis.
At an age when professional Indian tennis players - at least the promising ones - look to find their peak, Balu pulled the plug on the sport due to a damning mixture of injuries and dried up finances. From travelling the world, she switched to the 9 to 5 routine of a corporate job.
That’s until one July day of the pandemic-induced lockdown last year, when Balu, 28, decided to get back to tennis again.
It has been a happy return for the Bengaluru woman, who, despite spending more than four years out of the game, won the doubles title at a AITA (All India Tennis Association) event in her home city in January. Then, in March, Balu played her first international tournament in five years at the ITF W15 event in New Delhi, winning her three qualifiers to make the first round in singles and entering the doubles quarter-finals. She followed that up by winning the doubles title at a ITF W15 event in Tunisia partnering with Sravya Chilakalapudi earlier this month.
“It’s super exciting to be back,” Balu said. “I’m happy to be healthy and playing some tennis again. It took a while to get the feel back. It’s very different playing matches after so many years. But after each match I got a little more comfortable with the atmosphere of tournaments.”
Picking up tennis aged seven, Balu was one of the brightest young prospects in the country. She won back-to-back junior national titles in 2008 and 2009, played the 2010 Australian Open juniors and was part of the ambitious 10-year Mahesh Bhupathi-Apollo Tyres Mission 2018 programme that took the cream of talented Indian kids under its wings. Balu turned pro in 2011 and three months on, bagged her maiden ITF singles title in Lucknow. At that point, the teen believed the sky was her limit.
“I was always in the top-5 in India as a junior. After turning pro, I started beating some good players and gaining confidence. I really felt like I could get up there in the professional tennis world,” she said.
Two years into it, the Mission 2018 programme wound up in 2010, leaving Balu on her own. It meant pumping in money herself for her tournament travel and training stints in Barcelona and Germany, where she shifted base for 18 months. Her father did everything possible - including selling off some personal property - to keep his daughter’s career going. “My father knew that this was going to be an expensive sport, and he tried his best to help me out,” she said.
The financial strain coincided with frequent injuries: a couple of ankle problems and a wrist injury on her primary hand. Training in Germany while not playing tournaments, and therefore not earning money, began to take its toll. Balu chose to return home.
After a couple of years of draught, Balu won her second ITF singles title in 2015 to go with four doubles trophies that season. The following year she earned the country a doubles gold at the 2016 South Asian Games, before adding five more ITF doubles titles. By the end of 2016, she had two singles and 15 doubles ITF titles.
Around then, the wrist gave up again.
“I literally could not hold my racquet,” she said. “The problem was no one could figure out what was wrong with it. I felt a bit shaken. The future didn’t seem very bright at that moment.”
Balu last played on the ITF circuit in November 2016, before making up her mind that it wasn’t worth carrying on.
“I wanted to see who I am apart from tennis, because clearly tennis was not working at that point,” she said.
After some time off, a college degree and a few internships, Balu landed a job with a software company in Bengaluru as a data specialist.
“It’s so different for an athlete to switch to corporate. But it taught me so much. I would not have known a different side to life. I had a good time; I never thought I would say that,” Balu said with a chuckle.
The lockdown changed that feeling. Working from home since March last year, tennis crept back into Balu’s mind in July. “One day sitting at home, I was like, OK, time to get back on court. And the next day, I quit my job,” she said.
Balu began working out simultaneously while completing her notice period, and focused on full-time tennis training from November at the Rohan Bopanna Tennis Academy in Bengaluru under coach Balachandran Manikkath (who also coaches India’s top singles player Prajnesh Gunneswaran). Deep inside during all those years of tennis slumber, Balu knew this time would eventually come. “At some level, I felt like I could step back on court and things wouldn’t have changed. When I went back, it didn’t feel like I haven’t played in four years,” she said. “Tennis wise I didn’t feel too off. But physically I felt I needed to start from scratch and get stronger. It took around four months to be at a level where I could compete again.”
She also turned vegan after reading about it in detail during the lockdown phase. She had given up on meat after her tennis, and what started as an experiment in April played a big part in her feeling physically stronger on her return. “After initially finding it a bit difficult, I stuck to being vegan. I saw a huge change in my body, and it’s been working brilliantly so far,” she said.
For now, she is digging into the savings from her job to fund her travel and hopes that as she plays more matches and gets deeper into tournaments, the income cycle will start churning again. She is also in the process of reaching out for corporate support. “I’m hoping that some time by the end of this year I will have some support from some people. I’m more optimistic that more people are going to come forward this time, because times have changed,” she said.
Balu knows it’s going to be a slow, hard grind but is looking forward to travelling again and seeing where her second tennis gig leads her. “I know that this is probably going to be my last shot, given how old I am. So mentally I’m more prepared. My will is much stronger, and I’m also training my body the right way,” Balu said.
“I came back with zero expectations. A lot of young players are coming up and I don’t know how they play. But so far, each match has given me confidence, and I know that I belong here.”