A true NCAA success story: Meet Sansitha Nandakumar
By Sansitha Nandakumar
I was born in Coimbatore, India. At the age of 5, I followed my dad’s steps to watch athletes practice on the track field. Of course, I felt like running on the track, so my dad made me run with him to complete a lap. We started spending more time on the athletic fields and my father’s passion towards tennis made me follow him to watch some adults play tennis.
That’s where it started.
I stayed on the tennis court for hours to just watch my dad and the others play. I wanted to hold the tennis racquet to just know the feel. I had the urge to hit a ball but my time wasn’t there yet.
Eventually, my dad started teaching me tennis using an old fashioned heavy tennis racquet, and that’s when we both started realizing that I might be good at it just because of the love I had for the sport.
It wasn't long until I won my first award at a club in Coimbatore for winning third prize in a club tournament, competing against players older than me, who were 10-18 years old.
Well, after a few years, the trophy count would be more than 150. From more practicing and dedication towards the sport, I won my first title in the under-12 district tournament in Coimbatore, by then I had received a couple of “Most Promising” awards.
This is when my family and I found our first challenge: We could not find a tennis court to play on in the whole city. Clubs, academies, and schools would not let us play because my father was entitled in coaching me. We asked if we could pay for an hour to just hit with my dad, but were told ‘no.’ The coaches did not like me and my dad hitting because I was winning tournaments.
With no court to play on, we tied ropes between two trees on a road, and started hitting near our house where no one could stop us from practicing and working. Honestly, the push-back from the ‘no court to hit’ issue made me work even harder to hit inside the house with the smallest area, do conditioning and eat healthier. After playing an under-18 tournament and being a finalist in a state level tournament held in Coimbatore, a person who watched me play told me to hit in a University which was very close to my home where he was working and that he would help me get permission to hit there.
Now that we got what we wanted, my determination to win was more practical. At the age of 10, I had to face a challenge by playing against boys. The most prestigious tournament of the State was held in State Capital of Chennai, and not once had a girl to ever won the tournament.
I had to trust myself to take step by step in the tournament, many accused me of age cheating (to register yourself younger than you actually are so you can compete against younger players to win the tournament). Some suggested that since I was a girl, my power would not be enough to win the tournament. But nothing stopped me from beating boys and not giving anyone more than three games in the whole tournament which I won.
From district to state, the next step was nationals, being a ten-year old I had to face Indian No. 1 tennis player in Under-12 in Delhi. No one expected me to even win a game from her because she was unbeatable. Pulling her to the deciding set, an article was published all over the country that I was “a promising kid.” The article made some people take me seriously which acted in a negative prospect for me as it pushed me from the University to play tennis. What if I did not have any tennis court to play again? My dad had to stop coaching me on the tennis court for a few days, so I could practice in a club and he would coach me once we are home. I won my first nationals in Mumbai to become India number one in the Under 12 category. That’s when a call came from the National Tennis Association for a tryout in Under 14 Federation Cup team. This was held in Gurgaon, which was very far from home, so we left immediately. Competing against top-8 Under-14 girls and beating 7 out of 8 of them made me the second player to make it in the team.
Former world No. 1 doubles player Mahesh Bhupathi, in collaboration with Apollo Tyres company, organized an event to select players who had the potential to become professional. The Top-8 from the whole country were selected in different age groups and I became one among them and train at that academy. I got to travel to many countries in Europe and in the United States and gained experience by competing against top level players from all over the world. Mahesh had mentioned me in an interview that I was ‘very promising.’ Later, without my dad’s coaching my game went down and started losing to some players who I would beat before coming to the academy. So my dad started helping me but the coach at that academy did not like that. So, we started sneaking out of the academy to improve my game. My parents would visit me in the academy every weekend to help me. Then I won two national titles held in Delhi and Mumbai in the Under 14 category. Two years later, an issue between the sponsors had closed down the program.
I came back to Coimbatore. My dad’s coaching was back, but I did not have enough hitting with good players. I was in my 10th grade then, so we had to make the big decision: Either play tennis or focus on school.
Unlike in the USA, top athletes in India must chose: Either sports or education. You can’t do both.
If I played tennis professionally, I would have to move my family out of town and it was a huge risk since my dad had his business in Coimbatore.
Or, I could give up tennis and focus on school completely.
But giving up tennis or my education didn’t seem like a good option. My dad suggested college tennis in the USA. In the USA, playing college tennis would give me full scholarship. I could play tennis and study any major that I wanted.
So, I started playing Under-18 International tournaments. We did not have the funds to travel the whole world, but we played tournaments as much as our funds allowed us and gained enough points to play the juniors Australian Open. But during the Australian Open I had exams and it was very expensive to play the Australian Open. So, I missed the opportunity to play the junior Grand Slam in 2011.
But, I was recruited by University of Texas at Austin, California at Santa Barbara, Tennessee, Winthrop and Hawaii with scholarship in 2012. Virginia Tech was the last school I was recruited by in 2013. After talking to Head Coach Terry Ann Zawacki Woods, I felt more connected to her and the school. Tech offered me full scholarship to study any major I intended to and play tennis for Tech.
Moving away from my home was extremely hard. I’m an only-daughter, so it was hard on all of us. I was lost when I came to the USA. I was overwhelmed because everything was different here. Academic system, culture and food were completely different. Slowly I started adjusting, eventually loved it.
It was the right decision to come here as it helped me build a future while I was playing tennis. Now, as an alumnus of Virginia Tech, I am very grateful to both Tech and the NCAA for offering me such an opportunity that I couldn’t get in my home country: to play the sport I love and get a world-class education.
About the Author: Sansitha Nandakumar graduated from Virginia Tech in December of 2017. The Coimbatore, India native won three straight national titles (2007-09) in India, ranking No. 1 in the country. She played women's tennis collegiately in the USA at Virginia Tech and was a member of The ACC Academic Honor Roll.