Arthur Kapetanakis | August 16, 2019
After transitioning from a successful technology career to private consulting in the same field, Rajesh Bhakta now applies many of the strategic principles from his work in his concurrent role as primary coach of his 14-year-old daughter Ria.
Born in India, where he was first introduced to tennis, “Raj” (pictured above, right) now lives in Saratoga, Calif., with his wife, Geetha, and two children, Ria and Rishi. Rishi, 17, plays on his high school team, though he is more focused on his studies, particularly computer science, as he nears college.
In her first introduction to national competition, Ria (above, left) reached the “Little Mo” nationals final at 9 years old. One year later, she returned to win the title without dropping a set. This January, she won a USTA Gold Ball as the USTA Winter Nationals girls’ 14s singles champ, and in March she reached the Easter Bowl 14s final.ADVERTISEMENT
The results are promising, but with an analytical mind, Raj remains process-driven rather than results-oriented in his coaching.
To get the best training for their daughter, the NorCal family utilizes what Raj calls “subject-matter experts”—a term borrowed from his tech career—to create a well-rounded coaching team. Raj’s consulting work enables him to travel with his homeschooled daughter for additional coaching; they are frequent visitors to the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla., and the USTA Training Center - West in Carson, Calif., which is five hours from their home.
Raj chatted with USTA.com about raising a high-level junior tennis player, his approach to coaching and more.
USTA.com: How did you first get into tennis?
Raj Bhakta: I grew up in India and I was very fortunate that our home was right next to an officers’ quarters where lawyers, judges and government officials lived. They had what’s called an officers’ club and they put in a brand new red clay court—just a single one with lights. I was always constantly going there to play with friends.
That’s how I started playing tennis before I came over to the US in the late 1980s to do my studies. I got my masters in information systems at Southern Illinois. I didn’t get much of a chance to involve myself in the tennis program. We had a doubles duo that had a tremendous reputation, Ken Flach and Robert Seguso, who went on to win three Grand Slams and an Olympic gold medal. They predated me, but they had built a terrific SIU tennis facility, and so I hit there as well.
I’ve always been interested in tennis.
USTA.com: How did you transfer your love of the game to your children and introduce them to the sport?
Raj Bhakta: My wife actually took them to a summer tennis class. Not a big deal, they went and bought a couple of Wal-Mart racquets. I was happy because they were doing something useful.
And then one thing led to another, they wanted to watch some pro tennis. What really turned the switch on was in 2013 when we went to watch the semis at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. By that time, they were playing a fair bit, but not to the level of now.
Djokovic was playing del Potro and Nadal was playing Berdych. So we saw the semis and it was really close seats, a fantastic environment. We went to the practices, just to see what these guys do. Then there was doubles, we saw the Bryan brothers play in the evening. It was an all-day experience for these kids and they wouldn’t leave.
My daughter, Ria, said, “I wanna do that. I want to play like that.” This is 2013 so she’s probably under 9, maybe 8 years old.
USTA.com: Is your wife involved in Ria’s tennis? How do you both support her? Do you have specific roles?
Raj Bhakta: My wife is not involved in the coaching aspect, but she supports in many other ways.
Pretty much I do the bulk of the coaching with Ria. But we work with coaches at the USTA a lot also on specific things.
I’m the coach, the manager, getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning to prepare all her stuff, so that a 6 o’clock we go to hit, and then at 7 o’clock her matches start, depending on the tournament. For a few years, my job was keeping me extremely busy and my wife was doing what she could with local coaches and hitting here locally. But then I figured it’s something that I really need to focus on if she wants to do bigger and better things.
A couple of years ago, I was able to switch from full-time work to consulting. I think 2017 is when we really started doing more and focusing on her coaching and spending time with her, getting outside expertise and the advice.
USTA.com: How do you mix in the outside coaching with your own input?
Raj Bhakta: The way I look at it, in technology, where my experience is, nobody knows everything. So what do we do? We put together a team that has what we call SMEs, subject-matter experts, and I took that and extrapolated that to tennis.
I don’t know all of it. We need a good subject-matter expert in fitness, coaching, mental conditioning, whatever we need. And so we started referencing and working with USTA coaches.
The mental coaching… this year, she got invited to the mental camps. They had so far I believe two mental camps, and there’s one more coming up. That was a unique opportunity for Ria to actually focus on and work with Dr. Larry Lauer [the mental skills specialist for USTA Player Development] in Orlando to focus on how do you channel your energy, what do you do between points to manage the stress level, the energy.
I tell this to everybody; I saw a tremendous amount of difference. You see this even in WTA or ATP players if they hit a bad shot. What do they do? They look at the coach. In my case, she’s looks at me, like I have the answer. I have to keep a complete poker face, and even then, she would read something: “You’re looking angry,” or, “You’re looking happy.” But my face doesn’t change (laughs). I have my glasses and my hat.
It’s funny the way the mind processes all of this information. But since these sessions with Dr. Larry, it’s just tremendous. She looks through me. I’m happy about it, that she looks through me. She’s focusing on some object somewhere, or she looks at her strings, turns around and breathes. It’s a process but it has grown tremendously and helps us quite a bit, in my opinion.
She was somebody who did not like to miss a ball. So for her to hit and be aggressive was a big, big transition. Now it’s just a completely different situation, where she’s very comfortable with what she does.
Q&A continues after photo gallery.
USTA.com: Did Ria play multiple sports growing up? How and when did she choose tennis?
Raj Bhakta: When she was young, she was a three-sport athlete. She was in gymnastics, tennis and swimming. And we had to wean off one after another.
Gymnastics, she grew too tall. My wife used to take her and one day I took her and she had to dismount off the parallel bar… my heart was in my mouth (laughs). And swimming, she was doing extremely well, but of course it required a lot of commitment. So we had to choose one and she decided to focus on tennis.
She started playing all these sports around 6, and continued for about two-and-a-half years. At about 8, just before she played “Little Mo,” she decided to focus on tennis.
USTA.com: What is your approach to balancing tennis with school and social life?
Raj Bhakta: One of the things we were concerned about as parents was exactly that. We were concerned that she would miss birthdays or she would miss some opportunities to hang out because of tournaments, or during the week, if you’re playing ITFs or national championships.
We tried to make sure that we somehow find a way to make it up. One of the things we try to do usually after a tournament is, if possible, take a couple of the other kids as well, her friends, and do something fun. She loves go-kart racing. Something completely different. Or the golf driving range, they would go there, and of course it becomes competitive… but you get to go there, hang out, hit some balls, make fun of your own self, miss a ball, look goofy.
We try to do things like that any opportunity we get. When she was not playing tournaments, she spent time with an all-girls team, building and programming robots. She competed in robotics tournaments for five years, until last year.
USTA.com: Is Ria homeschooled? What went into that decision?
Raj Bhakta: We shifted; we had no choice. We were in a school district that was very strict and has very high standards. We worked with them as long as we could. We had to skip Orange Bowl, for example, a few years ago because her midterm finals were the week of the Orange Bowl. They couldn’t do exceptions.
One thing led to another and so eventually we made up our minds. She’s likes online school. It is a public school, so we get tremendous support from them. And it is very conducive to her schedule. Last year, for example, I had an opportunity to go to Barcelona, and I took her. And we practiced there at a tennis facility.
USTA.com: What is your approach to dealing with winning and losing? How much do you focus on results?
Raj Bhakta: Almost always never. Everybody asks me during the match, what’s the score? I’m not even actually following the score. I’m actually watching what her shot selection was, was she doing the right stuff. The majority of the time, I would forget what the game score is.
The reason I do that is, is she applying what are practicing? Is she actually comfortable enough to transition over from the practice court into a match? For example, if we’re working on slices, how many slices did she use? Or if we’re doing drop shots, did she try a drop shot when she had the opportunity, or did she do it at the right moment? Those are the things that I’m more focused on.
Of course, she takes losses harder than wins. Even if she loses, my thought is, “Hey, there are things that you did well but there are things that you could have done better. What can we do next time around to focus on that?”
Results are… everybody can have a bad game, bad day; we have had our share. I’ve seen parents who go extreme. That’s super sad. It’s difficult to manage emotions, I get that. But they’re kids; they’re just putting their heart out there. It’s a big commitment at this level, and the opportunities you have are tremendous. And also at this level is the pressure.
The biggest challenge is to keep these kids focused, because there’s so many different distractions these days. Unfortunately, the good and the bad of the social media is that you can get sucked into it and it can take up a lot of your time.
USTA.com: As Ria enters her high school years, how do you envision her career progressing?
Raj Bhakta: Everybody asks her if she wants to go pro, or this or that. The answer I keep saying is, “You’re just one injury or whatever it is from everything changing.”
Build your game and wherever it takes you is up to you.