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Basking in the aura of success

K. KEERTHIVASAN

"When I can beat international players ranked inside 200, I feel I have lot more left in me,'' says Jayaram Sai Jayalakshmy, National Grass Court champion.

"FOR THEM, tennis is just a `game' I play. They think I have fun travelling, enjoying and all that stuff. But I consider playing tennis a profession, equivalent to that of a software engineer or a doctor. My employer, Indian Oil Corporation Ltd., has given me a job for that," emphasises Jayaram Sai Jayalakshmy, the National Grass Court Champion, currently ranked Number Six.

Nursing an ankle injury sustained while training during the recent Masters event in Pune, Sai was relaxing at her new Kotturpuram residence, contemplating her next step, when The Hindu spoke to her. ``I have not yet decided whether to take part in the next $5000 tournament in Chandigarh on May 27. The pain persists,'' she says.

Injuries are nothing new to Sai. In a chequered career, spanning more than six years on the national and international circuit, she has weathered the worst of injuries. ``I suffered a lot of injuries during 2001. I was low on confidence that time, especially having started the year brilliantly,'' she recalls. Those difficult times, which saw her ranking slip from a career best of 333, were seen through, thanks to planned fitness sessions she had with the then coach, Rajiv Vijaykumar. However, her ``biggest source of encouragement'' has been physical trainer, Basu.

The ``revelation year'' for Sai was 1995. That was when she won her first junior National title (singles and doubles) at the MCC courts. ``Everybody was telling me I was talented. But that win showed I could play and win tournaments. It was really a huge boost for me,'' she recalls. ``The win also gave me the drive to pursue tennis with renewed vigour,'' says Sai, who was till then ``shy and withdrawn."

Having been ranked Number One (a career high) among the juniors in the country, Sai received a big push when she was selected for the Federation Cup in Thailand in 1996 (she had earlier represented India in the 1995 South Asian Federation Games). ``I was really surprised as I did not expect to be in the Fed Cup team. It gave a huge boost to my confidence,'' she adds.

More representations for the country followed — 1998 Asian Games, 2000 Asia Cup, 1999, 2000 & 2001 Fed Cup. In the 1997 National Games, Sai clinched gold in the singles, doubles and team event. Used to practising at the Nungambakkam and Egmore courts with little or no concern for regimental training, a five-day preparatory camp for the 1996 Fed Cup opened her eyes to a whole new world of training and fitness. ``I had never practised like this before,'' Sai admits. Morning and evening sessions of fitness and hitting the balls enabled her realise the importance of being trim and match-fit.

In December 1996, Delhi-based Dharam Hinduja All India Tennis Academy (now defunct) took Sai and Jhanavi Parekh under its wing. Sai developed as a player under Hinduja's care. As Sai puts it, ``I really grew up there.'' Strenuous workouts and weight sessions toughened her up. ``I played a lot of tennis and my fitness improved by leaps and bounds.'' She also learnt the nuances of training on and off-court at the Academy.

But she had to part ways with the Academy after a year. ``I missed the South Indian food, the people, my parents. And moreover, I felt I could have played more tournaments abroad (under the Academy she played 3 tourneys in Italy and 2 in Indonesia) had I been on my own.'' She then joined the Krishnan Tennis Centre and trained there from January 1998 to the end of 1999. Currently, T. Chandrasekar is coaching her. For a brief period in 1995, Sai trained under Hiten Joshi.

Sai has won more doubles titles than in singles.

In the Indian context, apart from the Paes-Bhupathi pair, one cannot look beyond the Sai-Rushmi (Chakravarthi) combination in terms of success attained at the international level. Together the duo has won 10 ITF women's titles. At the National level, they are an established and a top-notch pair. Says Sai on their success, ``It's important to have a good personal relationship.'' Rushmi and Sai have been good friends since school days, having studied in Good Shepherd MHSS and Ethiraj College.

Sai has strong views on certain issues regarding tennis; one being the relevance of holding a series of $5000 tourneys culminating in the Masters. Sai feels that such tournaments are of ``no use''. She argues that three weeks of slogging just to garner points to qualify for the Masters has ``no meaning''. ``All Ankita Bhambri (winner of Masters in Pune) got was five ITF points which is nothing, given the hard work she had to put in,'' Sai reasons. ``One bad day (in the Masters) after three weeks and all is lost. There are no ITF points till one reaches the Masters.''

Sai had paired with Radhika Tulpule and won the doubles title in the four legs — Mumbai, Nagpur, Kolhapur and the Masters in Pune in April, this year.

Sai suggests more $10000 tournaments be conducted where a player can win valuable ITF points. At 25, with a WTA ranking hovering around 600s, what lies ahead for Sai? The Grass Court title at Kolkata in March, after three years was ``really important'' and has given her the required spark to move on. ``I have lot more to achieve. I have not done full justice to my potential. When I can beat international players ranked inside 200, I feel I have a lot more left in me,'' she says.

Sai dreams of competing in the Grand Slam and in the Olympics, knowing pretty well that it is going to be difficult. ``Not impossible,'' she quips. ``It will take 10 or 12 months to know where I stand in the international level. It all depends on how much money I have and what kind of tournaments I play.''

Nirupama Vaidyanathan, the country's premiere player, has been a big inspiration for Sai. ``She (Nirupama) has shown us what one can achieve by sheer dedication and hard work. We have seen Nirupama playing along with us and going abroad'' to take part in the Grand Slam. ``If Nirupama can do it so can I,'' says Sai.

A course on `Art of Living' has made her more cheerful and calm. ``I have started to think and am not scared of losing now.''

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