WTA Mumbai Open: Sahaja Yamalapalli stuns top seed in a glimpse of India’s next-in-line

WTA Mumbai Open: Sahaja Yamalapalli stuns top seed in a glimpse of India’s next-in-line

Around this time a couple of years ago when she captured her first ITF title, Sahaja Yamalapalli was ranked in the 1000s. On Monday playing her first match at WTA level as India women’s No. 2 at 336, Sahaja produced the biggest victory of her career by knocking out top seed and world No. 92 American Kayla Day 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 in the first round of the WTA $125,000 L&T Mumbai Open.

Sahaja Yamalapalli produced the biggest victory of her career by knocking out top seed and world No. 92 American Kayla

The 23-year-old was among the four singles main draw wild cards handed by organisers MSLTA (Maharashtra tennis association) to Indian players. Sahaja not only cashed in on the opportunity but also added to her reputation as the leader of Indian women’s tennis’ next-in-line set of players, five of whom are aged under 25 and are among the country’s top eight.

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The youngest among them, 19-year-old Vaishnavi Adkar, also took a set off a player ranked over 500 places above before eventually losing to Korea’s Park So-hyun (world No.309) 2-6 6-2 1-6.

Sahaja had never played, let alone beaten, a top-100 player before. But just being around these top level players here and having a hit with them gave her the belief that “I belong here”.

“So, I went into the match thinking: I can do this,” Sahaja said after her win.

“Getting this win at this point of my career, it is incredibly motivating to get more such wins on the bigger stages. I want to build on this.”

The Hyderabad-based Sahaja has come through the American college route (she played for Sam Houston State University, Texas). Her career picked up when she returned and joined the PBI (Peter Burwash International) Tennis Academy at the Padukone-Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence in Bengaluru in 2022. The same year she bagged a couple of ITF titles, and in December she captured the ITF Solapur crown beating two-time Slam semi-finalist Ekaterina Makarova, now 35, in the final for her first win against a top 200 player.

Two months on, she has her first top 100 scalp. Confident from the baseline, Sahaja matched southpaw Day — she appeared to be struggling a bit physically — stroke for stroke, being especially lethal with her forehand crosscourt. She brushed aside a second-set blip and kept her composure in the decider, even after squandering two match points.

Forehand her biggest weapon, Sahaja said she has improved her physical strength and serve over the last couple of years.

“I have big groundstrokes, but I have been working a lot on my serve,” she said.

Also getting her first taste of the WTA level was Vaishnavi, another wildcard who gave a good account of herself against Park. Seen as among the brightest female juniors in India, the Pune teen switched to the pro ITF circuit in late 2022. Last year, she reached one final in Monastir and a couple of semi-finals.

“Just having a hit with these players, I got to learn a lot of things,” Vaishnavi, who trains with coach Kedar Shah in Pune, said. “Even the match was pretty close. I just lost focus in the third set. I feel like my game is right there.”

Inspired by Serena Williams’s game, the teen’s aggressive style of play and attitude was on show on Monday. Possessing a solid forehand and an equally effective backhand, Vaishnavi executed some crips winners but that game was also littered with errors. She, however, wasn’t shy of pouncing on second serves and ripping balls from the baseline. Tall with a good physique, her serve too is decent although the second serve needs work.

“I do believe I have the game to be a top 100 player. In a few more years I feel I can be there,” the 19-year-old, currently ranked world No.841, said. “By this year end, my goal is to be in the top 500, 400, and play a lot more higher-level ITF events and do well there.”

Also in the main draw among the next-in-line pros is 520th-ranked Shrivalli Bhamidipaty. She pounced on her first WTA opportunity by dishing out two strong shows in the qualifiers (she beat Greek world No.206 Valentini Grammatikopoulou) and earning the right to play Japan’s 94th-ranked Nao Hibino on Tuesday.

The reigning singles and doubles national champion strung a good run on the ITF tour in late 2023 with two back-to-back finals to go with a couple of semi-finals. Her serve, she believes, remains her biggest strength.

“I’ve always been an aggressive player, but these last few years I’ve developed staying a lot more patient in points and lasting longer in them. Just getting better at the rallying game,” the Hyderabad-based Shrivalli, who trains with Anand Kumar and former Fed Cup captain Vishal Uppal, said.

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