Matt Zemek

It is a subtle but powerful and important part of life: Human beings need to know what they don’t know.

Gaining an awareness of what is not yet understood enables a person, in any circumstance, to cultivate and maintain an open, active, inquisitive mind. This fundamental stance of openness to new information is a central driver of learning, growth, maturity, and development, both personally and professionally. Acknowledging that one doesn’t yet know a lot of important details about life is precisely what leads human beings to greater and fuller knowledge. Self-honesty — knowing there is more to be learned — enables a person to make levelheaded and rational decisions, steering clear of distractions or knee-jerk responses which can hijack a career.

Knowing what you don’t know is hard to do at any point in life, but especially for a 20-year-old tennis player who is trying to make her way in a cutthroat profession. That said, Karman Kaur Thandi gives the impression that she is trying to identify what she doesn’t yet know.

When Thandi spoke to Saqib Ali and Tennis With An Accent, she didn’t have profound things to say in response to a number of questions… but that’s part of the point: After winning her first WTA main-draw match earlier in the week at the JiangXi Open in Nanchang, China (over Lu Jiajing), Thandi is aware of how vast the waters of the tour really are… and she is just beginning to dip her toes into this ocean of competition. It would be surprising if Thandi reacted with the nuanced, multi-pronged specificity that Serena Williams or Angelique Kerber can display when analyzing their performances. Thandi is an open book who is just beginning to process and understand what it takes to win in the big leagues.

Her win over Lu in the round of 32 was followed by a loss in the Nanchang round of 16 to Zheng Saisai. The scoreline (6-4, 6-0) was relatively lopsided, but Thandi took encouragement from her loss by noting one detail of the match that, if not mentioned, would easily have remained unnoticed:

“It’s been a great week and a great experience, the first time playing at this level,” Thandi said of her tournament in Nanchang, which included wins in the qualifying rounds before her main-draw breakthrough against Lu. Speaking of her loss to Zheng, she pointed out that “all the games were close and there were a lot of deuces on my serve.” The second set got away from her, but not as severely as one might think.

Thandi spoke like a person who knows she can compete but is trying to figure out the recipe for the special sauce which catapults hard workers to a higher level of crunch-time performance. The longing to know what one doesn’t yet know is very much in evidence.

“The players are more experienced,” Thandi said about moving up from the ITF circuit to the WTA Tour. “As the level goes up you have to improve to compete.”

The observation is not original, but the awareness of a stiffer challenge was firmly imprinted on Thandi’s mind. That mind — its gears turning — is trying to process all the internal details which, if applied on court in the coming months, can move her career forward.

Thandi told Tennis With An Accent that with a ranking near 200 after this week, her short-term goal for this year is to get to the top 150. Her long-term goal? To play in major tournaments, whose value as both a personal experience and an income producer is impossible to overstate for a player in Thandi’s position.

Thandi knows she has a long road to travel in order to graduate to a higher level of achievement, but her life experiences have equipped her for the struggle which every young tennis player must endure.

Thandi was eight years old when she started playing tennis, encouraged by her parents. “Every day I was doing well and winning,” she said, which gave her the early taste of success a young person needs in order to pursue a passion. The fun of winning gave Thandi all the inspiration she needed to chase her tennis dreams.

One particularly revealing set of insights Thandi offered in her interview with TWAA came when Saqib asked her about the difficulties of balancing tennis with academics. The intellectual agility Thandi displayed in her teenage years — she turned 20 in June of this year — should serve her well in the demanding world of professional tennis.

“I was able to balance my studies and tennis, but I had to give more time to tennis, 5-6 hours a day, including fitness,” Thandi said. “My mom was always there with me on the court… (but) it gets harder. I attended school regularly until eighth grade, and then after it got a bit less. I completed my school and it was challenging, but I liked doing both.”

That process of handling multiple responsibilities — carrying out an educational journey while devoting oneself more to tennis — mirrors the life of a professional on the WTA Tour. Players have to compartmentalize and exhibit discipline in many ways, chiefly in devoting time to many aspects of the sport without overcommitting to any one aspect. Giving too much time to one piece of the puzzle leaves the other pieces scattered and disordered. Balanced attention to the big picture creates holistic development and enables a player to shore up her weaknesses, making it harder for opponents to expose vulnerabilities in match play. Thandi’s life journey is conducive to the cultivation of a wider sense of awareness… one in which she can know what she doesn’t know, and grow even more exponentially as a result.

Thandi has the 1-2 tennis foundation a lot of other players own. She told Tennis With An Accent that she has played on hardcourts more than any other surfaces. What is her bread and butter? “My biggest weapon is my serve and forehand,” she said, placing an emphasis on power more than placement, “but variations also help.”

Developing those variations — building the other facets of a game which is just beginning to confront the higher level presented by the rest of the WTA Tour — is the long-term project which is necessarily consuming Kurman Kaur Thandi’s focus. The woman who juggled an academic life with a tennis life is now dedicated to the study of how to win tennis matches.

She knows she can use all the help she can get, as she acknowledged in a brief message to Indian tennis fans who are cheering her every step of the way:

“I want to thank them for supporting me — I’m gonna try my best to be the best I can.”

Knowing what she doesn’t know, and then pursuing those vast oceans of fresh understanding, will enable Thandi to build on her current successes and forge a career she will remember with great satisfaction.

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