x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

What It's Like to Play Tennis for India

I still get goosebumps when I think about walking out into the roar of the stadium during the opening ceremony of the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

I still get goosebumps when I think about walking out into the roar of the stadium during the opening ceremony of the Seoul Olympics in 1988. I have played tennis for my country since I was 14, but nothing has come close to that feeling. The noise of the crowd and the atmosphere was indescribable. The only word that comes close is 'electric' and that is not adequate. For any sportsman, representing your country is the ultimate goal. When you are playing under your country's flag there is a special kind of pressure. When that country is India, the fans expect you to perform wonders, no matter if you are ranked 126 in the world and you are playing the world No 1 - which has happened a few times.

Every time I played in the Davis Cup, Asian Games or at the Olympics, I would spend days telling myself to treat it like any other match. But the moment you walked out on court and the fans chanted and waved the Indian flag, everything you told yourself over the last 48 hours just went down the drain. I played Davis Cup for India for nine years and although you get better at handling the pressure, it never goes away. When I finished my junior career, I was ranked No 2 in the world and No 1 in Asia. I was so excited to turn professional and so hungry for success. But then I did not win a single match for 13 weeks and it really brought home to me the tough transition from junior to senior tennis.

I do not play professionally any more but I am still part of the tennis scene. I hit with the girls on the WTA tour when they come to Dubai for the tennis championship. It is good for them because they know I understand the pressures of high-level competition and it is good for me because it keeps me in touch with everything that is going on with the circuits. I have hit with Martina Hingis, Anna Kournikova, Justine Henin, Ana Ivanovic, Jennifer Capriati and the Williams sisters, and I can tell you that the Williams sisters hit very, very hard.

I am in touch with [Indian No 1] Sania [Mirza] too. I have been an occasional coach and hit with her when she comes to Dubai. I also played against some great players during my senior career. I was around during the Jim Courier-Ivan Lendl-Stefan Edberg era and played all of those guys. But my best victory came against Pete Sampras. It was in an invitational tournament and one month before he claimed his first US Open in 1990. Obviously I cannot take credit for his grand-slam win, but the odd defeat does keep you honest.

Zeeshan Ali runs the Matchpoint Tennis Academy in Dubai and is certified by the Professional Tennis Registry. He is a visiting coach of the Harry Hopman Tennis Academy in the UAE and at the Deer Park Fitness and Tennis Club in New York. He is a former UAE coach and son of long-time India coach, Akhtar Ali.