Zeeshan Ali
Zeeshan Ali Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: National team coach Zeeshan Ali has predicted untapped Indian talent to rise to the top following the launch of the ambitious National Tennis Centre (NTC), earlier this month.

“I believe India has the capacity and capability to produce a whole load of top international players and even Grand Slam champions through this new initiative,” Zeeshan told Gulf News. “These are very interesting times and I am excited to be part of this change that is taking place in Indian tennis. I am looking forward to doing my bit in producing the next generation of tennis champions from our country.”

A former Indian Davis Cup player who donned Indian colours at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, Zeeshan Ali scaled at world No. 2 on the ITF Juniors and No. 126 on the ATP Tour while still three weeks short of his 19th birthday.

Located on Africa Avenue in New Delhi, the NTC is situated at the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association complex that houses 13 courts along with two gymnasiums, a swimming pool and a residential facility with a dedicated kitchen and a running track.

Zeeshan Ali
Zeeshan Ali Image Credit: Supplied

“The facilities are amazing and the infrastructure is already in place and I am looking forward to starting the programme from the beginning of April,” Zeeshan said. “I believe the standard of tennis in India will improve once things start to happen here. The process has already started as we had a three-week camp with 22 of the top junior boys from the beginning of January, and now a similar camp is starting for the girls from February 1. These camps also serve as a selection process for the NTC. There are a lot of ITF junior tournaments in India this year that will give our players a chance to accumulate ITF points and aim for junior slams.”

The NTC programme, scheduled to begin in April, includes 100 per cent scholarship for 20 boys and 20 girls. Chosen residents will have access to all facilities to make their tennis dreams comes true. “Everything will be taken care of including accommodation, food, education, top trainers, physiotherapists and everything that goes into producing a tennis champion,” Zeeshan said. “Of course, the most important is the funds to travel for tournaments in India and abroad. We lose a lot of talented players who either opt for college tennis or who give up playing tennis due to financial reasons. This new programme will give them the ability to travel without worrying about finding sponsors. At the same time, it is meant for players who are making their transition from juniors to seniors.”

In 1986, Zeeshan won a total of 14 ITF junior tournaments and reached the semi-finals of singles at Wimbledon juniors. Later that year, he also reached the juniors doubles final at the US Open. Zeeshan stopped playing on the professional circuit in 1995 due to a back injury, after which he turned his attention to coaching.

The Indian was based in the UAE for a few years, during which time he successfully ran an academy before shifting to Bengaluru to run his own full-fledged academy there. Zeeshan also took up the important assignment of coaching the UAE national Davis Cup squad before his move to India.

“With all my experience, first as a player and now as a coach, I believe I can help these youngsters make the transition and help India achieve top goals in tennis. I have more than 25 years to back me, and having played tennis at the highest level, places me in a position where I have a lot to pass on to the younger generation,” he said. “The AITA has its reasons for appointing me to this responsible position. It’s a huge honour to be in this position as national coach and head of the NTC. I am excited that I can now operate on a much wider scale in this new position.

“There are a lot of good coaches in India to teach the fundamentals of the game. But given the number of juniors who want to turn professionals, we don’t have so many coaches who can help these young players make that transition.”

The idea of having the best juniors from across the country training in one place would also ensure a huge saving for individuals who have hitherto been travelling to Europe.

“India being a large country makes it difficult for players from various places to assemble in one place and train. So a lot of them make their way to Europe paying large sums of money for the same facilities. One of the goals for the NTC is to provide these facilities and the know-how so that all of them can come and train in one place in India instead of making those trips abroad,” Zeeshan said.

However, the European element will not be lost as the NTC has plans to probe various openings with academies abroad, particularly to provide the youngsters with exposure to playing on clay courts. “We are in the process of getting top-class senior coaches who will be travelling with players for tours and camps in Europe. We are also in the process of tying up with academies in Europe for this process. I believe that it is very important for junior players to learn how to play on clay courts. So tying up with academies in Europe is an absolute must,” Zeeshan said.

“This will also include top-class physios, fitness trainers, sports psychologists, nutritionists and hitting partners who will all be part of the NPC programme. This is a first of its kind tennis programme in India that is being spearheaded by Anil Khanna (a former ITF Vice President and current President of the ATF) and Rohit Rajpal the Davis Cup captain. The new AITA committee is also determined to take tennis to a higher level in India and this is a top priority.”