Tuesday, March 4, 2008

INTERVIEW - Sunitha Rao's coach Bill Eastburn

It's the premier tennis event in India and yet no Indian player progressed to the second round of the WTA Bangalore Open 2008. Sania Mirza opted out while wildcards Isha Lakhani and Shikha Uberoi were no match for their opponents.

But why was 22-year-old Sunitha Rao, India's no. 2 player, denied a chance to shine in the main draw of the event? Why were the wildcards handed to players ranked below her? Although Rao eventually faltered in the final round of qualifying; some would argue her game was affected by needless controversy.

In a free-wheeling interview, Rao's coach Bill Eastburn told the Indian Tennis Blog what he thought of the situation. (Please note that the views expressed in the interview are his own and not necessarily those expressed by Sunitha Rao)

How long have you coached Sunitha Rao?
I have been the full-time private coach for Sunitha since September 2003. I have travelled with her to just about every one of her professional events since this time, travelling with another one of my players as well. We live and train in Sarasota(Florida), returning there between events and typically spend our off season in Perth(Australia).

Despite being India's no. 2 player and a part of the Fed Cup team, Sunitha was not given a wildcard for the Bangalore Open. Why do you think she is being treated this way?
This is the one question I have been waiting for. Everyone involved with this tournament, as well as the so-called officials of Indian tennis are passing the buck here. No one wants to step up and be the one to say "it was my/our decision". Reason being, in my opinion, is because they simply know that it was wrong, unfair and unjust.

No matter how you approach this, there is simply no way that a country's number two ranked player should not get a wildcard into an event on her home soil. It's on the border of being criminal if you ask me. They are taking money out of her pocket and taking an opportunity away from her that she deserves - that she has earned.

At the time the decision for the maindraw wildcards was announced, Sunitha was 168 ranking spots above Lakhani and 643 ranking spots above Uberoi - are you kidding me? No disrepect at all intended towards these young ladies but as of today, Sunitha is 808 ranking spots above Uberoi! And let's get the facts straight, there are 3 wildcards available here. One is for WTA Gold/Silver Exempt, leaving two for the discretion of the tournament.

Are you going to tell me that they can confidently say that they made a fair and honest decision? No way. The Bangalore Open Tournament Director, Sunder Raju and the Tournament Manager, Sunil Yajaman, along with the AITA and whoever else was involved in this grotesquely dishonest decision should be ashamed to put it mildly. At least they should be man enough to step up and take responsibility and not push the blame back and forth between the other. I hope you print every word of this. What they did to Sunitha is deplorable.

Does the problem also stem from Sunitha being a U.S. citizen till last year?
I don't think you understand. Sunitha Rao is still a U.S. citizen. Sunitha has been cleared by the ITF to represent India in international play such as Fed Cup and the Olympics. She plays for and represents the country of her heritage, where she was born and spent some of her childhood. Her plan was to relocate and set up a training base in Bangalore to start the 2008 competitive year.

Due to not receiving some funding that she was promised, along with far too many question marks about how she would be received by the AITA, among others, we decided to wait until we find her a new financial sponsor. Decisions like not to give her a maindraw wildcard in the Bangalore Open this year support our decision to hold off on her relocating.

How does the number two ranked professional tennis player, male or female, from a country the size of India with an equity market that doubled in 2007, not financially back this promising young athlete. But that's another story - don't get me started.

Will this affect Sunitha financially? Doesn't her family support her in any way?
An answer to the first question - absolutely yes. This grotesquely unfair decision not to grant Sunitha the maindraw wildcard she deserves will and already has cost her. Hypothetically, if Sunitha were to have lost in the first round of qualifying, she would have earned $640. That would not have even covered one half of her round trip airline ticket.

Where as if she would have recieved a maindraw wildcard that she readily deserved, she would have earned a minimum of $4175, with the opportunity to earn significantly more.

Fortunately, however, despite the circumstances, while all other Indian players lost in the first round, Sunitha advanced to the third and final qualifying round. And, fortunately, she is in the maindraw of the doubles event based on her own very respectable doubles ranking of 121. That will give her the opportunity to make a little more. (Note: Rao later lost in the first round of doubles)

No, Sunitha does not receive one penny of financial support from her family and hasn't for almost two years now. It's a personal issue for her and I am not at liberty to go into detail. We will leave that alone for now please.

Do you plan to take up the issue with Indian tennis authorities or the WTA?
The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour does not have anything to do with Sunitha not getting a maindraw wildcard. They are removed from this situation and have no control over who the tournament grants these to. As far as taking it up with "Indian tennis authorities", the answer is yes. My email box is overflowing with requests for interviews from the largest newspapers in India. I am delaying this interview until after the qualifying. Trust me when I tell you that nothing will be held back. It's criminal what happened here.

How do you view Sunitha's game? Is her best yet to come?
When I began with Sunitha, she was one of the top 5 juniors in the world, actually seeded number one at Junior Wimbledon in 2003. She was an amazing competitor with a one dimensional game and limited athletic prowess. Almost four and a half years later, we have moulded her into an exceptionally strong and powerful athlete for her size.

She is a pretty strong mover, has developed exceptional balance and coordination and has come a long way in terms of controlling her body the way a top athlete needs to. Her game has grown in every facet. She now has variety with her ground strokes, able to hit with much more spin, as well as varying her targets and utlilizing more angles in her game.

Her transition and net play stand out among female players in her ranking area. She is exceptional in transition, moving forward to the net, sneaking in and taking balls in the air. She has great court awareness in the middle zone of the court where most girls are lost. Because of this, she is a solid doubles player, playing more of a classic doubles style of play, more in transition and coming forward than just staying back and pounding away from the back court.

Her forehand has come a long way. While her backhand has always been "money", her forehand is now much more in line with her backhand, thus eliminating a considerably "weaker" side. So, overall, Sunitha has developed her game consistently year after year, making improvements in every area we have addressed from strength/fitness and movement to technical and tactical issues.

Unfortunately, there has been a lot going on in her young life off the court that has affected her competitively, making it very difficult for her to compete consistently. However, I believe we are past that now, she is settling down, quieting the noise in her head and slowly starting to get back to her old competitive ways. The ways that made her one of the top juniors in the world for years.

And yes, her best is definitely yet to come. Outsiders don't understand. Every player follows a different time line. These girls develop their games, their minds, the bodies at different rates. Some players for instance, like Jill Craybas and Akiko Morigami didn't break into the top 100 and then top 50 until they were 24 years old or older. They grew into their games, gaining experience along the way and finally making their breakthrough.

Some girls, like Julie Ditty, Mashona Washington and Tzipora Obziler didn't make breakthroughs until much, much later. The issue has been that the young teen superstars disrupt the averages and grab the spotlight so the layperson thinks that you have to be a teenager to be a superstar.

I believe Sunitha is still a couple of years away from really hitting her stride. She is obsessed with fitness and conditioning, eats properly and is extremely disciplined with her training and taking care of her body. This greatly increases the career longevity for these girls. Sunitha is doing all of this. The big thing for her, however, is that she has some emotional issues to put behind her, some things that are not easy to move past. "Anchors" if you will. When she sheds these anchors I believe we will see her hit her stride - in full.

[An email sent to tournament director Sunder Raju to get his version of the issue was not answered - although he was later quoted by the DNA newspaper as saying that the wildcards were given based on the All India Tennis Association's (AITA) recommendation.

The same article quoted AITA Secretary-General Anil Khanna as saying that Rao "had got a wild card for the Sunfeast Open (at Kolkata in 2007). We are just trying to be fair to all the players."]


  1. I would say this interview is a coup of sorts! You should have run it in print or something...
    Also: was wondering if you could link up to the DNA article - useful for folks who have been out of the tennis loop for a bit!
    Great blog, Tony! Look forward to reading more updates.

  2. This is crap....he just sounds a frustrated guy. Instead of teaching her how to win..Sunitha's coach is crying like a baby!


  3. Discovered your site by accident, and its nice.
    Unfortunately we dont have that many number of good quality players when compared to its population.

    Raj, krkumars@gmail.com

  4. Yes that does seem unfair. I bet the AITA just doesn't like her since she lives in the USA. They really need to get their act together. Look at what Sania Mirza has to put up with. All the mental and verbal abuse from some complete idiots in India. Why should any female in India wish to be a Professional player. Sunitha Rao should have been awarded a wild card because she deserved it...more so than the other two young ladies did. It must be frustrating to not be playing on a level playing field. And she still wants to represent India and move back to build a training centre in Bangalore. I wouldn't bother. I would stay in the USA and look out for myself. Let India struggle since they don't value their great female players. She owes India nothing especially if they want to mistreat her in such a way.

  5. Hey Ria you sound like a typical stupid Indian villager male chauvinist pig. You don't know her coach or what he has accomplished in his tennis career as both a player and a coach or what he has helped women the world other accomplish in their careers. So keep your mouth shut and go sit in your hut and eat some more curry and leave the tennis to the professionals like Sania Mirza, Sunitha Rao and their coaches who have helped them improve their games and careers despite people like you trying to stop them dead in their tracks.


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