Nirupama Vaidyanathan doesn’t possess the most spectacular of Australian Open records.
In four appearances, there were three losses in the final round of qualifying (one of them, most heartbreakingly, when she had to retire after fracturing her ankle) and one main draw victory in 1998.
And yet when Niru, as she likes to be called, looks back on her tennis career, the Australian Open is not only her favourite event, but also profoundly significant. That victory over world No.92 Gloria Pizzichini marked her first such win at such a high level – and was the first time that any Indian woman had claimed a main draw victory in a Grand Slam tournament.
“I had very good memories of the Australian Open,” she relates of the milestone, which attracted much media interest in her homeland.
It says much about the odds that she’d overcome that the achievement was one of the few that caught the attention of her country’s national tennis federation, Vaidyanathan receiving her first-ever cheque from them – she recalls it was around $2000 – as a reward for the breakthrough.
But then, with no history of Indian women forging professional careers in the game, it took some hard work for the young Niru to convince her family to allow her to play tennis at all. At first, the focus was on her brother Ganesh, with Niru consigned to picking up balls during practice sessions with their father in Coimbatore, in southern India.
“My dad had no real aspirations for me, because I was a girl,” explains the warm and candid Vaidyanathan. “Eventually I got very interested in it and he said ‘okay, you can also play’ … I wanted to get my Dad’s attention all the time, because he was giving more attention to my brother, so I had to do my best to somehow make it count.”
Vaidyanathan recalls that she was “not that young as the kids these days” but aged around eight or nine when she started playing tennis seriously. Her father, who’d played state level cricket in India, became her biggest supporter and at age 37, Niru still fondly considers him the most important influence on her career.
In many ways he had to be. While the young Vaidyanathan soon became the most prominent female junior in India, there was no development pathway at all for her to follow. She was a national women’s champion at age 14 but the family’s only insight into professional tennis was through rulebooks and procedures manuals obtained from the ITF.
Financial limitations meant the only junior events contested were Wimbledon and the French Open. “It was kind of hard because everything was on us,” she says. “Everything.”
Still, Vaidyanathan is far from bitter or focused on the what-might-have-beens in her playing days, in which she rose to a career high No.123, noting only that had she received the same support of some of her colleagues in the women’s game, she “might have” achieved a top 50 ranking.
In one instant she explains that the lack of official support meant virtually every tennis opportunity was of her own creation but in the next, she’ll gratefully add that her ambitions were never deliberately thwarted either. “Nobody had ever seen a female tennis player from India so until then, nobody had thought about that process,” she reasons.
That focus on the positives makes for some quality reading in Vaidyanathan’s recently-released autobiography The Moonballer, which is now available through Amazon Kindle as an e-book or through Angus & Robertson in Australia. Even the title symbolises Niru’s “can do” approach in overcoming seemingly impossible odds to achieve her tennis dreams.
“I started tennis moonballing – hitting it nice and high, you know, breaking down an opponent that they get so mad at you that they just give up the match. So many times it happened,” she relates with a laugh.
“I wanted to tell people that even if you can start with really modest beginnings you can really get somewhere.”
And while her tennis records are unlikely to stand out in the long term, Vaidyanathan will always be the first Indian woman to succeed in the professional game. While reluctant to take any credit for the success of Sania Mirza, who achieved a top 30 ranking in singles and was No.7 in her still-active doubles career, she’ll at least concede that she might have made her countrywoman’s progress somewhat smoother.
“I would hope so,” Vaidyanathan agrees. “I think I kind of cleared a little bit of a path for Sania but she actually is the one who popularised the sport for women in India. While I might have just started the process she did a really good job of it by reaching top 30 in the world.”
Vaidyanathan, now married to Sanjeev Balakrishnan and a mother to a daughter, Sahana, has unsurprisingly achieved success in her post-playing days as both a commentator and founder of Niru’s Tennis Academy in San Jose, California.
Who knows who she’ll inspire next? While she doesn’t specifically target girls in her coaching roles, Vaidyanathan admits that “she gets a little bit excited” when she sees one with both the talent and desire to achieve at a higher-level.
Such players would be wise to stick with the former professional as their mentor. As role models go, there are few who have worked so hard for their credentials as Niru.