India’s northeast is often monikered as a hub of sporting talent, and rightfully so. Many sports have seen athletes emerge from those hilly terrains, including boxing, weightlifting, football…and tennis.
No, that’s not right! Apart from Somdev Devvarman making it big on the court, these regions haven’t had much of a steady supply of racquet wielders on the tennis court. However, Jennifer Luikham, a 23-year-old Tangkhul Naga girl from Ukhrul – Manipur’s highest hill station, where the Shirui Lily blooms – wants to start the trend.
“Tennis is an expensive sport and you don’t get quick results in it. For one to invest in it for a long time is quite a challenge. Maybe that’s why many don’t come out (from the Northeast) and play for long,” she told The Bridge.
Ranked the 9th best woman tennis player from India already, Jennifer said she was luckier than most sports aspirants in Ukhrul, a remote, hilly region, as her parents moved with her to Gurgaon when she was just five.
“Being from the northeast, I was blessed with a lot of natural strength and physical ability. Playing as a junior in the Delhi tennis circuit, I was recognised a lot because of my fitness. People appreciated that,” said Jennifer.
But that was the good aspect of being an ‘outsider’. There was also a negative aspect, which eventually led her to return to her roots and play tennis for Manipur.
“Initially, I used to play for Haryana. As I grew, I did not get any support from the state because, well, I’m not originally from Haryana. That is when I switched to playing for Manipur, also because there was no recognition for the Manipur community,” she said.
Even 50 years after Manipur’s statehood within India, the region remains away from mainstream India in many aspects. Tennis is definitely one aspect where the region’s flag is conspicuously absent.
And this is how the Pro Tennis League (PTL) gives Jennifer, who will be part of the DMG Delhi Crusaders in the upcoming edition, and others like her a unique platform.
“I would really like to do well for the team and for myself so that I get recognised not just as an Indian player, but as a northeastern player, a tennis player representing Manipur,” Jennifer said about the league.
Jennifer in tribal attire at her village Ukhrul, Manipur
“The PTL is a great platform for players like us to get such opportunities. They are promoting tennis in the country through the Indian players rather than getting the international players into the picture and promoting tennis through them,” she explained the difference between the PTL and a league like the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL).
Long way ahead
While being part of a group in a sport like tennis is quite rare, Jennifer is looking forward to playing with the great players the PTL lineup has on offer and having a fun experience. But, she’s looking for a bit more from the event, at least on a personal level.
“I’d like to draw some attention to some sponsorships, if possible (from PTL participation). I need financial support for me to pursue and reach greater heights. That’s another thing I hope to get from PTL, some if not a lot,” she said.
Currently ranked 729 in the WTA Women’s singles world rankings, Jennifer won the first-ever UTR Pro Tennis Tour event in India last week. “It was quite eventful,” she said on her PTT experience.
“Coming into it, I didn’t have any clue about the scoring system, the round-robin, or anything. In European countries, I’d see my friends take part in these PTT events and I would envy them. I always wished to participate in one of these to support myself with whatever money I win, and I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it,” Luikham added.
Jennifer wants to go much higher in her career. People tend to manifest what they want to achieve and try their hardest to will it into existence, but she chooses not to get on that bandwagon.
“Earlier I used to declare the rank I want to achieve or the numbers I want to attain, but then I thought doing that would take me further away from achieving it. I decided not to say my goals publicly,” Jennifer concluded with a chuckle.