When Leander Peas became the first Indian to win a solo Olympic medal at the Atlanta games in 1996, lawn tennis was a sport that struck chords with only a few Indians at that time. Today, the same can be said for the small Tangkhul community where lawn tennis is a sport that is still foreign to many. And as such, little is known about the 21-year-old Tangkhul girl that is taking Indian tennis by storm.
Born in the sleepy little town of Ukhrul, Jennifer Luikham knew very little about tennis until she was 6. Before that, she was running around in the wild with her sister, picking berries, eating wild apples and revelling in all the exotic wild fruits that are found in Ukhrul. She also remembers eagerly waiting for December to come around so she could enjoy the Christmas jaggery. “I loved eating the Christmas Chinikur,” she recalls.
And while a lot of things changed after moving to Gurgaon when she was just five, the energy of the little girl that ran around the wild picking berries remained the same. Only this time, her energy was channelled towards tennis.
“Our family started playing tennis daily as a form of recreation and for physical fitness but it became more than just a pastime for me.” says the former Indian U-16 number 1 in an exclusive interview with Ukhrul Times.
The prodigious talent of Jennifer was evident from the very start. Not long after she had picked up a racquet for the first time, she won the U-8 and U-10 singles in a club tournament organised by her Academy. By the time she turned 12, she had already made up her mind; it was going to be tennis or nothing else.
“I think I was about 12 or 13 when my parents sat me down and asked me to be sincere with myself and take the decision on whether I wanted to go down the professional path with the sport. It was a no brainer for me and I haven’t stopped since.”
At 21 now, she is ranked 11th (994 worldwide) in the Indian women singles category and is considered one of the hottest prospects in Indian tennis. For Jennifer, however, the journey has only just begun. Like every young footballer or cricketer aspires to play in the world cup one day, Jennifer also harbours aspirations to step out on a Grand Slam court. The majority of her community members have never seen her play even once owing to the fact that not many tennis tournaments are telecasted on TV in India except for the grand slams. Jennifer hopes that can change in the next three years:
“If everything goes to plan and the pandemic subsides, I hope I will be able to play in one of the Grand Slams in the next three years. It would be great if my Tangkhul community can see me play for the first time in a grand slam match on TV. That is also a big goal and a dream.”
Known for her fierce energy and relentless style of play, Jennifer admits she gets pep talks from her mother to channel her inner “Naga (Tangkhul)” whenever she plays. And while there is still no infrastructure nor any platform for the sport back home, she thinks Tangkhuls can do extremely well in tennis.
“Lawn Tennis is all about physical as well as mental fitness; at least for me. And we Tangkhuls, have great advantages in terms of our physical strength. I know we have the potential but it’s just that our exposure to the game is too little and so is the infrastructure which is still non-existent in our place.”
However, there is also another catch to playing tennis. It is a very expensive profession at the start. While professional tennis players who are highly ranked earn millions each year, for many players who are just starting out, the narrative is quite different. Along with the expenses that are usually incurred on training equipments and apparel, travelling expenses and such all have to be borne by the players themselves.
“I have been extremely lucky that I have my parents who fully support my passion and have invested in me to be able to play this sport.” Jennifer says.
This isn’t confined solely to tennis either. Many young talented tangkhul athletes have given up on their athletic profession just because they haven’t been able to bear the financial brunt of their dreams. The talent pool in sports is quite big but only the occasional one in a thousand tends to make it to the top. This is something Jennifer wants to change and make a difference in over the course of her career:
“I hope in the future I can make some changes in regards to this. I’m one of the fortunate ones but I want to help others achieve their dreams as well.”
When she isn’t busy fizzing shots on the court, Jennifer spends some of her time working as a fitness instructor and has also partnered up with her tennis partner Nidhitra Rajmohan to start a new line of sports clothing brand called Fertra which was started during lockdown last year.
“I work one hour a day for three days as a fitness instructor for some kids and all the money that I earn is invested back to a Fertra.”
The brand, at the moment, hasn’t officially launched any products/apparel but Jennifer believes it won’t be long before they do so.
“We’ve been working on our products for over a year now. The main idea behind our brand is to manufacture sporting apparel that is equal to Adidas or Nike in terms of comfort and quality but much more affordable in price. We’re also striving for our products to be appealing to look at, fashionable, and make the person that is wearing it feel as confident as he/she can be because confidence goes a long way in enhancing performance in sports.”
At the moment, the training and the hard work continues for Jeniffer who plans to train in Italy in the next few months, provided the Italian embassy grants her a visa. From there, she hopes to work her way up to more $25,000 events and WTA Challenger events in Europe.