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The Rediff Interview/Sandeep Kirtane
'I am not someone who looks
back and regrets'
April 08, 2003
Regrets. Yes, Sandeep Kirtane has had to live with them throughout his career. No matter how much he hated to lose, disappointments came his way. Not when he was enjoying the best phase of his tennis career during 1995-98. Not when he was on a high in the Bombay Satellite event in 1995, when he would have ended up playing Leander Paes, in the quarters [Paes was the eventual runner-up]. Not when he lost to the then world No. 66 Sandon Stolle, in the Indian Open in 1998 after beating the world No. 180 in the qualifiers. Not when he was 4-2, 40-15 in the third set of the second round qualifiers at the 1998 Gold Flake Open against Russian Vladimir Voltchkov [the 2000 Wimbledon semi-finalist] and lost due to a groin injury. Voltchkov went on to play Becker in the first round and beat him.
"That would have been the greatest match of my career… imagine, just to play Becker," says Kirtane.
Although Kirtane rues his missed chances, he philosophises by saying, "At the end of the day, no matter how good you are, if you are not at the right place at the right time, if you cannot play the big tournaments when you are playing well, then what's the use."
Ranked a career-high 520 in singles and 280 in the doubles with cousin Nitin, Sandeep feels he never did justice to those figures by getting stuck in the what he calls the 'rut' of defending the points at the Satellite tourneys. Exposure, no PR and marketing by the parent body, financial support, and difficulty in securing the wild cards, says Sandeep, were the major impediments he and his batch faced.
But the realist that he is, he knew someday life would smile on him. And that did happen, when the Indian government bestowed on him the Arjuna award, the country's highest sports honour, in 2001. A couple of more feathers were added to that crown when he defended his doubles crown and won the team gold in the 2002 National Games, in Hyderabad.
Although coaching is most prominent on his roster, Sandeep continues to compete, at least when he has enough time; like last week when the Kirtane cousins lost in the quarter-finals of the ITF Futures tournament, in Mumbai.
In a candid interview, Sandeep talks to Nagraj Gollapudi about his career.
So how did it feel to win at the National Games once more?
For me, playing at the National Games always has been like representing the country. The support you get from your team bench is tremendous and when the chair umpire says team Maharashtra, it is a good feeling; like an honour. It is very important to feel like doing something. You can't just go out on the court and think, 'I got to do something. I got to win this match.' You can't just think about yourself. If you think about the others: the team, then the confidence, motivation and passion fire up.
On the court it was nice to pair up with Nitin [Kirtane] and defend the doubles crown. The only regret was my record of not losing a match as part of a team since 1995 came to an end, when I went down to Vinod Sridhar of Tamil Nadu at Hyderbad.
Have you achieved the goals you set yourself when you started playing tennis?
I think I have achieved most of them. You start off with realistic goals. When I started playing tennis there was no such goals as winning this or winning that. But as I started getting older and playing more and more tournaments, and when I was 12 or 13, that's the time when you get a chance to play for your country like playing the World Youth Cup and all those things, slowly you start setting targets. When I was 14, I was part of the Indian team that went to Hong Kong in 1987, to take part in an event called the Rice Bowl, and who had in its ranks Leander, too. Just the thought of representing India when I was that age was a major turnaround in my career. Then I felt playing for your country is different and from then on I started setting myself goals.
At present are you a contended guy?
Well, every sportsperson doesn't feel satisfied at the end of the day with whatever he or she has done. I am not somebody who likes to regret.
Are you happy with your career?
Ahhh... I am pretty pleased. There are few regrets...
Any major regrets?
There are a couple... for me, the problem was more of physical. I got injured a lot of times, you know, at the wrong time. Whenever I was doing well, like during my best phase, between 1995-97, I got injured. '95, for the simple reason that there was a $75K ATP Challenger in Bombay and I had qualified and had progressed past two rounds in the main draw. And I met this player form Israel, El Ryan, who was ranked 200 in the world at that time. I was supposed to meet Leander [Paes] in the quarter-finals, but, unfortunately, I got injured against Ryan. I had a groin strain, couldn't progress to play Leander, who was the runner-up to Byron Black of Zimbabwe. So, things would have been different if I had played Leander, as I was playing very well and probably a win over Leander would have changed things. That was one setback.
Then, in 1996, I qualified for the inaugural Indian Open, sponsored by McDowell. I started off well by winning two good matches in the qualifiers and beat this guy from Holland who was ranked about 180 in the singles on the qualifying Sunday. I had to play my first round the very next day and so requested the ATP officials to defer my match, but they said they couldn't as they had already given a day off to the wild cards, Leander, Mahesh and Srinath, who had just come from their Davis Cup tie against Sweden from Calcutta. I lost to Sandon Stolle, then ranked 66 in the world.
Then, I think the greatest setback of my career happened at the 1998 Gold Flake Open in Madras. I played this guy called Vladimir Voltchkov of Russia, who made the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 2000. I played him in the second round of the qualies and was 4-2, 40-15 in the third set and I managed to lose and he went to play Becker in the first round and beat him. So, if I had won that match I would had probably played Becker, which, would have been probably the biggest match of my life...just to get a chance to play him. So these things, happening at wrong times, plays on your mind. But I am not someone who likes to look back and regret. I look at it in a positive way.
You have done very well at the international level...
Yes, internationally, my record has been sound. I was in the Davis Cup team in 1997 for the tie against Chile, where Leander and Mahesh [Bhupathi] played and I didn't get a chance to play. But I have been part of two Asia Cup teams -- in 1997, against Korea in the final, I got to play three singles and I won all three matches and we beat them. Then in 1999, when we finished third, but the match I played, I won. So, as far as the Asia Cup record goes, I think I have the best record among Indians. Leander, Mahesh, [Syed] Fazaluddin, [Pralhad] Srinath, Harsh [Mankad], all have lost.
What makes you perform better, internationally?
It depends on how most players look at it. When I played at international tournaments I really took it up as a challenge while playing bigger and better players. Look, I don't have the ideal physical build for tennis since I am on the smaller side. I won't say most Indians are, but a couple of them are and have been. So I looked at my strengths than my weaknesses. I have always looked at the game in a very positive way. And playing to my strengths, I have always done that effectively.
So, in spite of better results you never played a Davis Cup match?
I have read and heard that my physical fitness has always been a question mark. I don't react to criticism much. The selectors have kept saying that I am not in the best physical shape and that I am very injury prone and stuff like that.
Do you agree with that?
I wouldn't say I would... injury prone, yes, I have been, but then everytime I have been injured I have come back and proved myself. When they raise a question mark over my fitness it obviously means I need to play tournaments and perform, which I did whenever I have been injured. But at the end of the day it's their [selectors'] decision and I just kept on playing.
When did you give up?
This is one question that I have answered quite often and I have tried to explain that I have not quit playing tournaments. The way I look at it is, in 2000, I won a Satellite singles and then I did not perform consistently, which has been my problem throughout my career -- I lost in the second round in the second leg, then went out in the quarters in Delhi and again in the last eight at the Masters. Harsh was much more consistent during that time. I finished number two behind Harsh. That day, Vishal Uppal played a doubles tie along with Leander against South Korea. Subsequently, in the team, against Sweden, which Leander didn't play, Mahesh, Fazaluddin, Srinath, Harsh and Vishal were picked. I thought, maybe, experience could have gone my way, with due credit to Harsh, who obviously showed more consistency, But I think I should have made it. And as the tie was on clay in Sweden, where my record is better than Uppal's in singles, I stood a better chance.
I was 27 then. I just looked at this way: MSLTA [Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association] had this vacancy. Gaurav Natekar and Nandan Bal were in Bombay for some time and had left and they were looking for someone who had played the game at a higher level and since I had been playing for many years they wanted someone to help the youngsters in Bombay. Since I was comfortable with the MSLTA I thought why not. It obviously was giving me a definite option as far as my tennis goes and so far its turned out very nice because I get two months off in year to play my matches. And I am also happy to be associated with the younger players, like Isha Lakahani, Rohan Gajjar (he is now started doing well), Sonal Phadke (is a good player though she is going through a bad patch) and Megha Vakharia (is coming back strongly). I was looking at giving something back to game by not just saying that, but I was looking at associating myself with coaching, which was always a definite option once I really decided not to play any more. Then I look at this way that why not, I practice with kids myself and I am having a good time.
Did you see yourself as a coach someday?
I would say it was on my mind, at least after my interactions with Bal, with whom I have been very close right from a young age. And after that Satellite in 2000, the options were limited and I wanted to be part of something exciting. And this is a pretty exciting programme and the kids are good players and that's what I wanted.
What are the pros and the cons of being semi-active player?
The most difficult part about playing and coaching is, at times I definitely miss out on playing events like the Futures. At times I did feel like just go out and play because I know I am still good enough to play with these guys, but on the other hand I have to be here [Mumbai] at MSLTA and be responsible for the other players. But now its more in the mind. I know in the mind I just can't play the circuit as the other players can, so I just take things as they come, which is very important for me so that I don't feel bad and frustration does set in.
Are you a happy man?
The one thing that got into my way apart from the injuries was the financial support. That was a problem most of my batch faced. Nitin [Kirtane], Gaurav [Natekar], Prahlad [Srinath] and Asif [Ismail] have more or less achieved similar results. Leander and Mahesh, of course, set themselves apart from us and did really well. But if all of us were given a chance we also probably had the talent to do good.
What are the major concerns which affected your batch?
I think tennis needs to be reached out to corporate houses. They need to understand what a loss in the first round of Wimbledon qualifying means. If they do not understand the value of getting a chance to play a Grand Slam qualifying event, how difficult it is to get there, it is going to be tough for them to give money to any player.
The AITA is now looking into it, although their PR and marketing exercise during our time was bad as they never made the corporates understand, but now it is much better with more and more young players getting the exposure.
How much does wining the Arjuna award mean?
To be very honest, winning the Arjuna Award is something that I will always cherish with whatever achievements I have.
Were you surprised?
I knew the AITA had nominated my name along with Nirumpama's [Vaidyanathan]. I have got quite a bit of criticism for getting the award over her, and a lot of people said that I didn't deserve the award. I never went after the award. The normal procedure is to apply and the AITA forwards your name. But here the case was the AITA had already nominated mine and her names. And when someone like Prakash Padukone is the chairman of the Arjuna awards committee, you really cannot question him as he is a legend in his own way. If he and the panel thought I deserved the award, I am very happy.
It has been a very satisfying event for me because I have always felt that I have not got help from lot of people with regards to wild cards and stuff. But then this award proves that if you play straight all your life you definitely get things back.
Photographs: Jewella C Miranda