Even as she closed in on winning her maiden ITF singles title -- the Prudential Hong Kong Women's circuit 25K -- on Sunday, an unpleasant thought crossed Karman Kaur Thandi's mind. She had come close to opening her account on the professional circuit a few times before - having played four finals ever since her debut as a 16-year-old in 2015. She had lost in the decider on two of those occasions. More recently, at the USD 25,000 ITF tournament in Hua Hin, Thailand at the start of the month, she had frittered away a one-set lead in the semi-finals.
"Of course you are trying to think you have to play each point on its own merit but you can't help but remember what stage you are in. I was in a final and I really wanted to win," she says. "I had been maybe a bit cautious in the past where I shouldn't have been. I would lose and then make reasons for why I lost afterwards. I didn't want to feel that way anymore."
And so Thandi -- India's second highest-ranked women's singles player, currently at World no. 261 -- played in the way her mentor, multiple Grand Slam winner Mahesh Bhupathi, had advised her a day before the final.
"Just believe in yourself," Bhupathi had told her over a phone call.
Thandi went for her shots, not giving her opponent -- World Number 185 Jia-Jing Lu -- any quarter, before wrapping up a 6-1, 6-2 victory at the Victoria Park Tennis Stadium. That win followed much in the manner of the 20-year-old from New Delhi's performances all week. Neither did Thandi drop a single set over five matches, nor did she commit a single double fault. It was as complete a performance as had been possible.
"My serve was coming out well and my forehands were hitting the spot," she says.
While pleased with how she played, the win, Karman says was a significant one since it was her first. "It was important to get this title out of the way. Winning is a good feeling. I need to keep going with this now," she says.
She's had her fair share of experiences, not all positive in the year so far. Just a week back, she had lost in the first round at a tournament in Singapore, one of four occasions where she had faltered at the initial hurdle of a competition this season.
"The first six months have been tough but it's been a good learning experience. I've learned from the matches I lost. I've played a few of Federation Cup ties too (including a 3-6, 2-6 loss to World no. 53 Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan and a 2-6, 2-6 loss to World no. 80 Wang Yafan of China). What I've learned from playing top 100 players is that it isn't just about playing a match with intensity, you have to play each point the same way," she says.
While the 6-foot-tall player has always had a powerful serve and ground strokes, she has found her spot in attacking a lot more now. "I'm just going for my shots a lot more now," she says. "The areas I have improved the most have been in my second serve and ground serves. In Hong Kong, I was using them as my primary weapons." Another key improvement for her has been in the fact that she has managed to stay focused and mentally strong in crucial points. "You have to stay mentally strong for the weapons to work," she explains.
Having got her first win out of the way, Thandi is now setting her sights on bigger targets. She has another couple of ITF tournaments in China next month, while the Asian Games in August are coming up fast too. "The Asian Games will be huge tournament for me. It will be important to see just where I am, and how I do will also have an effect on the funding I get from the government (Thandi is a part of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme)," she says.
The Games are only just one of her goals though. With India women's no. 1 Ankita Raina competing in the qualifying rounds for the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, Thandi is hoping to put a step further. "My short term goals are to crack the top 200 in the world rankings. But by next year, I hope I will be in the main draws of the Grand Slams," she says.