CHENNAI: At the inaugural WTA Future Stars event in Singapore in 2014, a then 16-year-old Indian girl toyed with the field to win the tournament.
Starved of success in women's singles following Sania Mirza's transition to the doubles circuit, it was sort of assumed that Karman Kaur Thandi would eventually lead the way in singles.
Over the next four years following that Singapore title — the Future Stars event was among age-group players in the Asia-Pacific region — she carefully compiled a body of work that ultimately lifted her to world No 196.
After excelling in ITF meets, two good tournaments in 2018 earmarked her as the present. At the Nanchang Open (a 250) in July 2018, she won her first main draw match at that level. Having advanced through the qualifiers, she earned 48 points for her effort. Two months later, at the Guangzhou Open, she again won both her qualifying matches to reach the main draw (she had lost to Svetlana Kuznetsova).
At the beginning of 2019, she wanted to jump up a level to the 250s and beyond. So, her first match of the year was the first qualifying round at the Australian Open (she lost). Her next match was against Frenchwoman Chloe Paquet in the first qualifying round at the Thailand Open.
Further losses followed in the first time of asking (Acapulco and Miami). Following that loss in Miami, a shoulder injury laid waste to her in 2019. The next time she played a competitive match, her ranking slid from 203 to 587.
From then, it's been a period of struggle for one-time India No 1. That's why it was so heartening to see her power her way through Pacquet — the Frenchwoman she had lost to previously — in the first round of the Chennai Open on Monday.
Injuries are very common for tennis players just because of the very physical nature of the sport. Even then, she had been served a rough hand when she missed seven months of competition in 2019. There was another abrupt halt to her career thanks to Covid. She viewed the break as a positive as it allowed her shoulder to heal properly.
To also prepare herself better, she had a small session with fitness coach Gerald Cordemy (he has worked closely with Serena Williams). "Gerald Cordemy had come down for 3 weeks," she had said in the post-match press conference on Monday. "Those 3 weeks were really intense, only eating, sleeping and training. He has experience at the highest level and working with him helped me learn not just the physicality but also about the mental aspects."
"After reaching the top-200 in 2018, my body took a toll as I was playing a lot of tournaments," she said. "I injured my shoulder and I was away... it was a tough time. Then Covid happened and nothing much happened but I took it as a positive as it gave me time to recover. I'm feeling very good physically now and I'm really happy to be back competing at this level."
The end result was that win against Pacquet. That win was also no flash. Aided by her powerful forehand drives that frequently left her opponent running from coast to coast to hunt it down, she prevailed in a very physical match that went the distance (4-6, 6-4, 6-3).
After dropping to 568 by the end of 2020, she's now up to 359. The win in the first round is bound to give her another push. If she can beat Eugenie Bouchard in the second round on Wednesday, it will be a new high for her — a first-ever quarterfinal at this level.
Top-seed Alison Riske bowed out in the first round, losing to Russia's Anastasia Gasonova 6-2, 6-3. The American, who had reached the fourth round of the US Open, just couldn't get her rhythm going. It was filled with unforced errors and the passing shots from the baseline were off the radar all evening.
"I didn't expect the win," Gasonova said after the match. “After the US Open I wanted to take a break,” said Gasanova, after her third win over a top-25 player (Riske is ranked 23 in the world).