On Saturday, Brazil won its first Olympic medal in tennis. The nation previously came close in Atlanta 1996 before Fernando Meligeni’s dreams in the bronze medal match were dashed by Leander Paes, India’s first, and only, Olympic medallist in the sport.
One man was key to the two ‘firsts’, 25 years apart. Sanjay Singh — the physiotherapist who helped Paes stay injury-free for three decades as the Indian added 18 Grand Slam titles to that bronze — is the coach of Luisa Stefani, who won the women’s doubles bronze partnering Laura Pigossi in Tokyo.
The biggest difference between the two triumphs?
“In Leander’s case, we knew that he would be getting in, so everything was ready,” Sanjay tells The Indian Express. “Here, Luisa had no idea whether she was even going to Tokyo.”
Stefani and Pigossi were the last-minute entry into the women’s doubles competition.
“From number seven on the list, they got to second. That night, I said to her, ‘I wish, in one hour somebody else also pulls out. If you get in, it would be magical’. She replied ‘No, I have dropped that idea from my mind’”.
Sanjay and Stefani had fruitlessly waited for a piece of magic when she was an alternate at the 2019 Wimbledon and US Open.
In the morning, she woke up and went, ‘Sanjay! I’m in!’ We were on an island (4,000acre Daniel Island in South Carolina), preparing for the singles in Charleston. We quickly moved to high-altitude training in Michigan,” Sanjay says. “Everything was rushed. Getting everything organised. Visa, tickets. Checking and double checking. The day of departure, till 2 in the morning, she was waiting for the tickets from Brazil federation.”
Sanjay — who settled in the US five years ago and coaches Stefani and her regular partner American Hayley Carter at the Saddlebrook Tennis Academy in Florida — first saw the Brazilian in action while travelling with Paes 2017.
“A friend recommended her to me, saying she is a collegiate player in California and wants to turn pro. I saw her play and went ‘wow! This girl’s game has some spice,” he says. “After Leander, I hadn’t seen anybody who comes to the net and volleys with such fast hands. She was on a student visa so we finally were able to begin training in late 2018.”
In April the following year, a day after his wedding, Sanjay flew out to Prague to join Stefani for a tournament.
“She played well in Prague. Then she won the trophy on the grass courts of Ilkley, UK. After that, we could not get into the Wimbledon and US Open draws. It’s been a tough journey but she’s building momentum now.”
The 23-year-old Stefani is ranked a career-high 23rd in doubles. Along with Carter, she reached the third round at Australian Open and French Open and the quarters at the US Open. They won the Italian Open last year and reached the finals in Miami Masters in April. In Tokyo, Stefani-Pigossi beat eventual singles silver medallist Markéta Vondroušová and Wimbledon runner-up Karolina Pliskova in the second round. In the bronze medal match, the Brazilian pair beat Russians Veronika Kudermetova and Rio gold medallist Elena Vesnina.
Sanjay, who could not be in Tokyo under prevailing circumstances — “While she was leaving, Stefani said to me, ‘Wish I could’ve taken you.’ I told her, ‘hey, you go, get the medal’ — sent detailed pointers every night.
“Before the bronze match, I told her, ‘attack Vesnina, she chokes at crucial points’. You could see she was paranoid by how Stefani moved at the net.”
Sanjay rewinds to similar nightly phone calls with Paes in 1996, and lights up remembering the bronze medal match against Meligeni.
“After that win, Leander called me. ‘Dada, we did it! I’m landing on this time, be at the airport’,” Sanjay recalls.
Upon his arrival at the Indira Gandhi international airport in Delhi, a mob awaited Paes, who asked Sanjay to sneak away and meet up at the hotel.
“We hugged, he said, ‘Dada, now everybody’s my coach. Where were they when it was just me and my dad struggling?’ He realised it was the people’s feelings and blessings and told me, ‘I will not change’. And he never did. For 29 years, we have had different opinions but never an argument.”
It was during a tournament in Bhubaneswar where Sanjay, who worked at a health club in a hotel nearby, had to leave his match midway to assist a cramping player. Physiotherapy came calling and while he was adept in practical skills, Paes prompted Sanjay into finishing myofascial massage therapy courses, and later towards getting coaching certifications.
Leander was one to give credit to the masseur, the trainer, who actually brought players back to the level where they can implement what coaches tell them,” he says. “Now I can help the players in both departments.”
On Monday, the reception at the airport will be much less chaotic, Sanjay expects. The celebration, too, would be muted — “I don’t drink, but I will be making chicken tikka because she loves Indian food” — as the teacher and the student will get back to the grind.
“After the match, at 3:30 in the morning, Luisa texted me saying, ‘I am not able to sleep’, ” laughs Sanjay. “I had a simple message. Enjoy it now. Enjoy the moment, because next week, we begin a new chapter.