At 24, Niki Poonacha, who won the Fenesta National Tennis Championship recently, has already seen precious time being taken away from his nascent career.
If months lost to injuries often dealing a body blow to his vulnerable body weren’t enough, the Tamil Nadu boy was forced to end his training stint in Spain for lack of financial resources. This, despite his parents selling most of their properties to ensure that their son’s tennis career doesn’t get derailed even before getting on track properly.
After turning 18 and deciding that he wanted to take up the sport professionally after a decent showing in the junior circuit, Niki, who was based in a small town called Neyveli and now stays in Anantapur, checked into the Arena Tennis Academy in Alicante.
However, barely a couple of years on, he realised that it was burning too big a hole into his and his parents’ pockets.
“When I started going abroad to train, there were a lot of expenses to take care of. My parents had to sell some of our properties every now and then,” Niki said.
“At one point of time, all our resources were sold out and empty. When I was 20, I stopped going abroad because of my financial constraints. I decided to train in India all by myself, but I couldn’t find a good coach or a proper set up. So, I wasted that time in between, and those two years were so critical. But the situation was such that I couldn’t do much except train by myself from whatever I learned from my previous coaches,” he added.
From cutting a lonely figure to becoming a national champion a few years later, it’s no wonder that Niki has a tinge of pride in his voice. And, satisfaction that the sacrifice of his parents – both of whom took retirement from their respective central government jobs – wasn’t for nothing.
“We don’t have that great a (financial) background, and we couldn’t find anyone to support us financially. Tennis is a very expensive sport, and it’s really difficult to pay for the travel, training and everything else. But my parents sacrificed everything for me, and then I also got committed towards tennis,” Niki said.
Just like his father, Poonacha KB, was committed to place his son on the tennis journey, so much so that he picked up the nuances of the sport himself.
“My dad was an athlete, but he learned tennis coaching for me. He had the passion for tennis and he introduced me to it. It wasn’t my goal from the first to become a professional tennis player, but he kept teaching me and I was getting better at it. I started playing tournaments at the age of nine, and was doing well in the juniors,” Niki said.
During one such ITF junior tournament in Chennai, Rohan Bopanna spotted him. And when India’s doubles star started his academy in Bengaluru in 2016, Niki’s hazy tennis road was starting to clear up.
“When he was starting his academy, one of his coaches invited me to join. From having nothing to having a very good professional set up, it was a big turning point for me,” said Niki, who is now coached by Sujith Sachidanand and veteran M Balachandran.
The training part taken care of since the last couple of years, Niki began playing on the ITF circuit – a level below the ATP tour –again, and clinched a title in Indonesia last year. Placed at 912 in the ATP rankings, he now hopes to play a few Challenger events and gradually climb the rankings ladder.
“My main priority is to stay healthy and focus on my fitness. And from next season, I want to play close to 25 tournaments a year. Long term, my dream is to be in the top 100, and represent India in the Davis Cup,” Niki said.