There are just a handful of sportspersons in Goa who have made a name at the national and international level in sports. Natasha Palha is one of them and her name echoes in the Indian Tennis arena. She is reaching heights of success at a young age, and her dedication and passion are to watch out for. Being focused and determined to reach the 300 WTA ranking, she is currently training in one of India’s leading institutes in Pune. Natasha has made a name not only for herself but also for the state of Goa. At 580 in the WTA ranking (as of April 14, 2017), she is the sixth best among the Indian women’s singles players. Natasha is called Goa’s Serena Williams in the making and has won the Doubles titles in Cairo and Gwalior last year.
Here is Natasha’s story of her journey from a simple city girl, to a national Tennis champion.
Natasha started playing Tennis at the young of 8 years. Her aspirational tennis-loving parents wanted both their daughters to play some sport and excel in it. Goa is a football-frenzy state but Natasha chose the highly competitive and skilled sport of Tennis. She received her basics training from her father – Brian Palha. Although he is not a professional player, his love for the sport made him study it to its very depths. That is how he coached Natasha by watching the game and reading about it. Natasha has been athletic since childhood and would regularly participate in games at the inter-school level. She says, “I was never into Tennis specifically. In fact, I was a football fanatic. Since there were hardly any girls playing this sport, I was apprehensive about playing with the all-boys team. My parents would often encourage me to go for it but somehow, and with time, I saw my interest deviating towards Tennis. My parents love sports tremendously. Since they had no one to encourage them at their young age, as their parents pressured them to concentrate only on studies, they are living their dream by training me. My father has supported and inspired me throughout, and has pushed me encouragingly into Tennis. He is my mentor, my coach, and guardian at every tournament.”
Natasha shares, “Goa lacks a proper academy that could support, sponsor and coach aspiring tennis players. All the training that I have received until now was from my father, until recently,” says the 20-year-old champ. She formerly trained under the guidance of Valentino D’Silva, but for the past two years, she is being coached by Hemant Bendrey at Pune’s PYC Gymkhana. Her participation in tournaments all over the country has raised a lot of eyebrows, drawing queries like, “Goa? Do they have tennis courts there? What about coaches? How on Earth did she start playing Tennis there?” The baffled spectators, despite these questions, were no short of admiration for this young tennis pro. Especially, when they knew the ground realities and the challenges faced by this tennis playing aspirant.
Tennis isn’t something you readily associate with Goa. Natasha became somewhat of a trendsetter of the game in the State. But, with no support from any institution, this young go-getter reached the national level with her own efforts. Natasha played her first tournament at the age of 10 years in Mumbai. In 2005, she made it to the final of an Under-12 tournament at the Khar Gymkhana.
She has been participating in national and international games on her expanse, bringing in laurels for the state and the country. She shared, “I would usually reach the tournament city five days before the games to prepare. Here in Goa, someone would voluntarily help me with feeding the balls at the Panjim Gymkhana. But it’s difficult to do things without a coach. Also, nothing beats actual hitting practice with another player.”
The struggle for players like Natasha in Goa is intense. If the sports academy of Goa provided the much-needed support to them, sportsperson like her can do wonders by winning bigger games at a global level.
The Progress of the Champion
Tennis is considered to be an expensive sport because of the consistent participation that is needed in national and international games to get to higher rankings (at least 20-25 wins to reach the next higher level), and constant travel to the destinations for the games. Hence, for any tennis player at this level, sponsorship plays a vital role. The first time Natasha experienced a financial crunch was when she had to travel overseas to play at Junior ITF tournaments. “I was fortunate I didn’t have to go to looking for sponsors. I received it from the House of Dempo, and they have been supporting me since then. They have been very encouraging,” she said.
Natasha won the number one position in India at the Under-14 level, at the year-ending ranking tournament in Bahrain in 2008. In one of the events where the top players from each country had to play with their counterparts from Asian countries in two tournaments, she reached the finals in one match and made it to the quarterfinal in the other. She stood at the top-three position at the end of both the tournaments. Seeing the success, Natasha was chosen to play in the European Junior Circuit. The five-week tour encompassed tournaments in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. This exposure was critical for her development. She said, “I couldn’t even reach the quarterfinals in any event. I realized the girls in Europe were much taller and stronger. The European court was different, and I had to get high balls in. It was a learning for me, and it helped me train myself mentally.”
Natasha trains and practices for almost five hours each day. Four hours in the morning of Tennis, and one or two hours of fitness training in the evening. She feels that the game has now evolved tremendously and has become more physically challenging than before. “Everyone puts in so many hours in the gym and sometimes when we see ourselves lifting more weight than boys it makes us feel proud. I think tennis is very physical now and we have to be very strong both physically and mentally to reach our targets.”
The Future that Beholds
Natasha has made us proud by winning the Cairo and Gwalior tournaments last year. She says, “It’s an achievement considering that I have been accomplishing my goals on my own, without any professional coaching. Winning international tournaments like the one in Egypt always gives a sense of accomplishment. There were only two Indians compared to multiple players from other countries. Bringing home the title is a different kind of high altogether. I feel privileged that I could do something for the country and put it on the world map. The Gwalior title was also a great achievement for me. Even in the recent games in Thailand, I reached the semi-finals in the doubles, with my partner Lorraine Guillermo from the USA. Unfortunately, we couldn’t qualify for the finals. I am now putting all my efforts in training for the upcoming ITF tournament in Uzbekistan.”
Natasha has her eyes fixed on her goal to reach the top 300 ranking at the WTA. At present, she stands at #776 (singles) and #681 (doubles). “In India, the #1 ranking is 278 in doubles. I have achieved my highest ranking of #2 in India and #497 international,” she shared with a smile. An admirer of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Natasha aims for the sky and wishes to accomplish her dream goal of top 300 WTA rankings soon. She will be playing for the $25,000 ITF tournament in Uzbekistan next month, which will bring her closer to her goal.