PUNE, India - In July, Karman Thandi quietly made history for her country in a small way at the WTA Tour stop in Nanchang.
No Indian had competed in a WTA main draw in over six years, since Sania Mirza's final singles match - a first-round loss to Monica Niculescu in Brussels in 2012. The last Indian victory at this level had come two months prior - Mirza's first-round win over Kristina Barrois in Indian Wells.
To paraphrase the saying about London buses: wait six years for another Indian player, and two come along at once. Ankita Raina had already gained direct entry to the main draw - and Thandi navigated smoothly through qualifying to join her before going one better in winning her opener, a three-set battle against Lu Jia-Jing.
The 20-year-old, champion of the inaugural WTA Rising Stars event in 2014, cracked the Top 200 with that run - over the course of the season, she would improve her year-end ranking from No.310 to No.198 - but that wasn't the end of her impact at WTA level. In September, she once again came through qualifying in Guangzhou, where she led two-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova by a set and a break before succumbing in three tight sets.
In both runs, Thandi impressed with both her weaponry - like Mirza, her game is built around a formidable serve and forehand combination - and her attitude. After falling to eventual finalist Zheng Saisai in Nanchang, she posted on social media: "I know I'm on right path because things stopped being easy." This same commitment to working hard shone through as wtatennis.com caught up with the rising trailblazer as she prepared for a series of ITF events in India to firm up her spot in next month's Australian Open qualifying draw.
1. She's gained a ton of confidence from this season.
"This year has been special," smiles Thandi. As well as the aforementioned milestones, there are a couple of trophies that she treasures: a maiden ITF $25,000 title in Hong Kong in June and, in November, a first WTA doubles title at the Taipei 125K alongside compatriot Ankita Raina.
2018 is the first year that Thandi has been able to test her game against the best players in the sport, and she draws positives from how well it has held up. "When I qualified for Guangzhou, I played a girl [Danka Kovinic] who has been in the Top 50, and I won. And then it was my first time playing somebody who has won a Grand Slam [Kuznetsova], so it was very exciting for me to go all out and give my best shot."
The match against Kuznetsova was particularly memorable, recalls Thandi. "Stepping on the court there was no pressure, but you still know that you're playing somebody so you have to give your best game," she explains. "And I gave everything out there, I won the first set, and in the second set I was 3-1 up, but after that her experience came into play and I did a couple of mistakes. But overall it was a great experience.
"Obviously my weapons helped me get there - my serve and forehand, mostly. It gave me confidence that even at that level my serve is big, I can use it as my weapon in the future.
If [my game] works at that level also, I just have to increase the percentage and get more wise as to when to use what. I'm confident that what I'm doing and working upon will work at that level, and I have the ability to get there myself."
2. She still treasures the memory of winning the inaugural WTA Future Stars event.
In 2014, U14 and U16 events were hosted alongside the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global for the first time to showcase the region's best junior players. Thandi was the very first champion of the U16 tournament, defeating Huang Hsiang-Wen in the final, and still cites it as a special experience.
"It was actually really interesting," she recalls. 'When the draw was made, they told us there would be two groups, the final would be played on the WTA Finals centre court and Li Na was going to give the trophy. It was an amazing feeling hearing that - and I wanted to feel it as well.
"We could also see the WTA women practising, so we learned a lot watching them - how they're playing on that level. Plus also I got a racquet signed by Serena [the eventual WTA Finals champion] at the draw ceremony, so that's one memory to cherish always!"
3. Thandi is an alumna of the Mouratoglou Academy.
Until last year, Thandi had been based at Patrick Mouratoglou's academy in the south of France for two years, where she honed her game with elite trainers - and players, too. "The coaches are very nice, the team is great and hard-working, so the time there was very professional," Thandi recalled. "Plus the comfort of enjoyment during training - I think enjoying the game is the most important part. If you enjoy it, you want to improve."
One particular famous name went out of her way to help. "I got to play with Alizé Cornet a lot," reveals Thandi. "As a player and as a human she is really nice - she really helped me as a junior."
Funding issues meant that Thandi had to relocate back to India in 2018, where she reconvened with her childhood coach Aditya Sachdeva. "He's known me since I was a kid, 12 or 13 years old, and he understands me well - so it's still a good time training here," says Thandi. Still, this month she is set to return to the Mouratoglou Academy for off-season preparations.
On the subject of finances, Thandi acknowledges that building a career in tennis is challenging for any player while grinding through the ITF circuit - and says that she has been lucky so far. "I've had sponsors - Asics saw me and recognised me from Grand Slam juniors, and to get clothing and gear is one thing that really helps an athlete in practical terms," she says. "I had a manager and mentor behind me and government funding, and my family has supported me throughout the ups and downs - my mom always travels with me. To have people behind you, it helps on court when you know there is a back-up whatever result happens."
4. Off court, Thandi is a fan of Bollywood and autobiographies.
The daughter of an electronics engineer father and national-level athlete mother, Thandi laughs when she talks about how she "loves to do all the girly things" in her down time, listing her hobbies as "going out shopping, makeup, nails, reading books and movies."
Bollywood is her preferred film genre, while she has turned to autobiographies by the legends of the sport for inspiration. "I've read Rafa's book, Sharapova's book, and of course Sania Mirza's book - it's more interesting when you know someone personally."
In each case, what stuck with Thandi was knowing that, even for superstars at the pinnacle of the game, their career arcs have not always been easy. "There have been struggles for everybody," she muses. "Problems with losses and growing up. What's important is how strong they have been - the mentality of not giving up and fighting is crucial."
5. Thandi doesn't intend to let home pressure affect her.
Sania Mirza, whom Thandi grew up watching, was India's first female superstar in tennis, winning three Grand Slams and reaching World No.1 in doubles and making the Top 30 in singles. With the 32-year-old currently on maternity leave, the country is craving a successor - and Thandi is seen by many as the best hope of following in Mirza's footsteps.
That's a lot of pressure to put on a young player, but Thandi is unfazed. "There's always pressure in some way or the other," she shrugs. "It could be the crowd, it could be the ranking, it could be anything. You have to cope with that - you have to step up and focus on what you have to do to get to your goals and follow your path. The pressure's always going to be there."
In any case, Thandi adores playing for her country. In August, her Nanchang run gained her direct entry to US Open qualifying, which would have been her Grand Slam debut - but it "wasn't that hard" for her to opt to play the Asian Games in Jakarta instead. "The Asian Games comes once in four years and you're representing your country," she says. "Obviously the US Open qualies were in my mind, but once you choose to play for your country, all the excitement goes to that side."
6. Thandi is not the only rising Indian at the moment.
It helps, too, that Thandi is not shouldering national expectations alone right now. 25-year-old Ankita Raina has also risen into the Top 200 this year and the pair are sometime doubles partners - last month, they paired up to win the Taipei 125K - while 19-year-old Pranjala Yadlapalli halved her ranking in 2018 to finish at No.287. "We help each other on court, in practices, and it makes a difference when there are a couple of Indians playing the same tournament - you just feel more at home," says Thandi.
For 2019, Thandi's goals for herself and for her compatriots align. A belated Grand Slam debut at the Australian Open awaits - "it's one step to where I want to be in my career and my life - and definitely I want the winners' trophy one day!" - but Thandi is looking forward to having company there. "If a number of Indian girls get to play the Grand Slams, that has never happened before - it would be amazing," she says.
Quick hits with Karman Thandi:
Which tournaments is she most looking forward to playing next year?
The Grand Slams. I played all four in the junior circuit and the atmosphere is so different - especially Wimbledon, with the strawberries and cream and all the fresh green grass.
Which players would she most like to face in 2019?
I would say the legend Serena, and also Naomi Osaka - she is one or two years older than me and she has had a really great run. I played against her once in Fed Cup and she had a big game.
Where have you most enjoyed playing so far?
There are a lot of tournaments in China and the infrastructure and organisation is always really impressive. They take care of the players really nicely.