The new Indian No. 2, Riya Bhatia has just won her first women’s singles ITF $25,000 title in Lagos, Nigeria.

It took her just over a year but she entered a career high ranking of 380 at the WTA. She is not from the biggest tennis academy but is the one who believes in the system. Delhi-based Riya is making a mark steadily and playing in the ITF Pro-circuit from the last few months. A true testimony of perseverance and hard work, 21-year-old Riya is now to be known in the elite group that consists of Elina Svitolina, Ivan Dodig, Borna Coric, Pranjala Yadlapalli and the country’s pride Sania Mirza after winning the title in Lagos.

Riya spoke to SheThePeople.TV about playing Pro-circuit, fantastic results, and her Nigerian experience. She also explains her future plans for the year to come.

How will you describe your childhood? What inspired you to take up a career in Tennis?

Sports have always been a part of my life and my parents are the inspiration behind it. They played table tennis at state level, so they always encouraged me and my brother to participate in sports. They always believed that sports and studies both are equally important. I initially started learning swimming at the age of five and then after couple of years I started learning table tennis from my mother. Our family used to be member of a sports club near our home and that’s where I first found my interest in tennis and asked my father if I can pursue it. After four or five months of playing tennis, it just became a part of my life. I didn’t want to play it as a hobby anymore. I wanted to compete and I loved the feeling when I played my first match. I still remember that feeling and that’s how I started dreaming about making a career in tennis.

Can you recall any instances when you had to deal with criticism or roadblocks? 

Yes, definitely there was criticism, as I was never an athletic kid, I was chubby and slow when I started. There were many people around who used to say that I can’t be a professional in this sport. But as I said tennis is a part of me, I don’t feel complete without it. So people’s opinions don’t matter to me. I have self-belief and my team believes in me. That’s what matters to me the most.

Tennis star ​Riya Bhatia

You are one of the professional female Tennis champs in India. How did your life change with sports?

Sports teach you a lot, especially if you are pursuing it professionally. I am way more punctual, confident and independent than I would have been without tennis. I also have more experience than most of the people who are my age as I have travelled a lot and met diverse section of people. So, all this combined makes you a better person. Plus how many 21-years-olds have given interview for SheThePeople. It feels great to be an inspiration to others.

I am way more punctual, confident and independent than I would have been without tennis. I also have more experience than most of the people who are my age as I have travelled a lot and met a diverse section of people.

What did you learn from legends of your field?  

Never Give Up! No matter what. Losing and winning is just part of the game. The most important thing is giving your best in every situation. Always try to learn something new because even if you are good, there is always something that you can learn and improve upon. And most importantly, enjoy and be happy.

Tennis star ​Riya Bhatia
Winning is an attitude

What do you think India lacks in terms of appreciating all kind of sports?

In sports, facilities, infrastructure, good coaches, fitness trainers, sports physiotherapist, sports studies and an insight towards sports is very important and we definitely lack in them. As I said before for Indians academics is more important, that’s why we have the best scientists, doctors, architects, engineers etc. But for sports, sadly, we don’t have that insight. For example in tennis most of the top professionals from India have to do their training abroad, which is definitely more expensive and tough. What if we have the same facilities like abroad in India, won’t there be many more tennis professionals from India then? India is a big country, we can have everything we want here, and it’s all about investing in it.

For example in tennis most of the top professionals from India have to do their training abroad, which is definitely more expensive and tough. What if we have the same facilities like abroad in India, won’t there be many more tennis professionals from India then? India is a big country, we can have everything we want here, it’s all about investing in it.

Do you struggle to get sponsors to continue with your passion? 

Sponsors are definitely a big problem in India. It’s not about sponsoring players or giving them advertisements when they have made it big. It is about helping them at the initial level, when they need sponsors to get better skills and more exposure.

Tennis star ​Riya Bhatia

In most of the other countries like China, Japan or Germany, the top five or ten players in every category starting from the age of 12 are sponsored by their federation, government or club which pays for their training, travelling to tournaments with coaches or physiotherapist, rackets, clothes etc. If we get the same facilities, India will definitely have better professionals then them, since we have a lot of talented and hardworking players.

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What were the challenges that you overcame before making it big?

There were many challenges along the way. The first one that I faced was my body weight. As I was a chubby kid, who wasn’t a big fan of running, so to be better in tennis; I had to work harder than the other kids who were my age. I had to always come earlier for my practices to do more fitness training and I would also be the last one to leave and doing this with school was really not easy. Then the next challenge was me starting tennis at the age of 10, which is quite late if you want to be a professional in this sport. Usually, you should start earlier to develop a good ball sense and good technique. So, because of this also I had to spend more hours on the court.

Since you come from a traditional background, what was the reaction from family and society?

I was very lucky that I have never faced any kind of discouragement from my family or from the people I have known. Things have definitely changed over the years, as we can see many women professionals in the sports field. Of course it’s not really as big as other countries, so it’s still a little surprising for Indian people to see a women sports professional but it’s definitely not weird anymore.

Tennis star ​Riya Bhatia
Always focused

How is the Tennis scene in India for women and girls?

Tennis has definitely been growing in India. I see tennis courts in most of the schools these days. Kids want to learn tennis. I think Sania Mirza has definitely been a great influencer for girls to take up tennis. But this sport is not popular with girls in terms of taking it up as a profession because they just want to play for fun until a certain age and then concentrate more on studies. This is also because of our upbringing. In India most people prefer studies than sports as a profession. Parents still think that sports are just to maintain health and be active and studies is a safer and reliable option for their kids’ career.

I see tennis courts in most of the schools these days. Kids want to learn tennis. I think Sania Mirza has definitely been a great influencer for girls to take up tennis.

Could you briefly tell us about your goals and upcoming tournaments you’re aiming at? 

Well, my aim is to get my singles ranking better so I will be able to play Australian Open grand slam qualifying in January 2020. But of course the main goal will always be that I stay healthy and injury free, so I can compete longer.

Tennis star ​Riya Bhatia
Tennis star ​Riya Bhatia

What is your message to young girls who aspire to be like you?

You should dream different! Everyone has something special in them, something in which they are really good at. It’s just that you need to recognise it and work hard for it. And, if you really work hard towards your dreams, your family will definitely support you. Maybe not in the beginning but eventually they will. And your parents’ support is what matters. So, I think girls you should dream different, in fact dreaming different is good. That’s the first step.

I will keep this simple and easy, tennis is my life. I love the feeling when I compete, I like that adrenaline rush I get when I have to push my limits and this is what drives me towards the sport.

 

Share your strategies and insights. What are your thoughts before a game?

We definitely have different match strategies against different players. But before every match, I usually listen to some fast and motivational songs. I have my own playlist. Before starting my match, I always think I will just give my best no matter what the score is, work hard and enjoy. Not many people get a chance to compete where I am competing, so I’d rather enjoy and live the moment than be scared, nervous or tensed.

READ: 83-Yr-Old Granny Is A Tennis Champ

What do you think was your most testing time that came on your way?

The toughest test is travelling alone and leaving my family and home comfort behind. I started travelling alone since the age of 13, I had to go to Germany for my trainings for months together and had to do all my stuff myself starting from cooking, cleaning to grocery shopping and of course practice and matches. So this was really a big challenge.

Tennis star ​Riya Bhatia

How do you balance life?

Like all Indian families my family was strict about my academics also. I still remember my mom helping me with my studies, especially while travelling in trains and flights. I also couldn’t spend much time with my family, especially with my brother and father, mostly because I am always travelling. But they have been really supportive over the years. I try my best to spend as much time as I can with them whenever I am in Delhi at home.

READ: How Naomi Osaka Rose To The Top From World No.72 In A Year’s Time

Tennis star ​Riya Bhatia
Goal set

What has been the most amazing moment? 

I have quite a few of them but I think there are two best memories for me. The first was when I won the women’s nationals in 2016 and the second was when I represented India in Asian Games 2018. In both these moments I could see the pride and happy feeling in my father’s eyes, which was really an emotional moment for me. It’s always a child’s dream to make their parents proud.

Feature Image Credit: Riya Bhatia

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