How three girls chased their tennis dreams from India to U.S.
If you had told them they'd be moving across the globe to pursue their tennis-playing dreams before they would even hit their teens, they'd have said you are bluffing.
But that is exactly what happened for India's Nandini Das, Ojasvinee "OJ" Singh and Shweta Sangwan. The three girls were 11 years old in 2010 when they packed their bags, said goodbye to their families and moved 14,000 kilometers away to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
They did not realize how much their lives would change when they were selected from hundreds of young Indian tennis players for the IMG Reliance Scholarship Program (the same program that first brought Satnam Singh, the first India native to be selected in the NBA draft, to the United States). All they could think about was that they were going to train and study at legendary coach Nick Bollettieri's facility, which is widely recognized as one of the best tennis academies in the world.
It wasn't easy for the families involved, but it was an opportunity to pursue lifelong dreams that was too good to resist.
"We wanted her to improve her tennis in ways which she couldn't in India and then try transitioning to professional tennis," said Aman Sangwan, Shweta's mother.
Pro careers remain goals for the future, but all three already have made the transition to major college tennis -- Das as a freshman at Florida State, Sangwan as sophomore at the University of Oregon and Singh as a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania.
To get to where they are today as 18-year-olds, they had to do more than just work on their tennis games; they had the added responsibility of "raising themselves," as IMG tennis coach Margie Zesinger described it.
With families halfway around the world, the girls couldn't just pop home when things got rough. Other than a few weeks each summer, they were at IMG year-round. They had to learn to balance academics and athletics, adjust to life in a foreign country and be disciplined through the turbulence of their teenage years.
"You have to be your own parent and set your own goals from a young age, and that was challenging," Singh said.
The cultural differences were daunting, too. They were so used to speaking Hindi that it was intimidating being surrounded by English-speaking peers and coaches.
"I feel like it's a lot easier to make friends or talk to someone when you share the same language, so I definitely miss [that the most about India]," Sangwan said.
India is built around the culture of "respecting elders" -- for example, students are expected to stand up when talking to teachers. Learning to loosen up and be comfortable around coaches and teachers took time, Sangwan said.
They were the hardest workers of the entire academy. They set the culture for the entire academy.Margie Zesinger, IMG Academy tennis coach
One thing that came naturally to the trio was hard work.
They'd be the first ones to warm up at 5:45 every morning, and they'd be the ones to stay back to learn more after practice, according to Zesinger, who worked with the girls from their arrival at from IMG until their graduation.
"They were the hardest workers of the entire academy," Zesinger said. "They set the culture for the entire academy."
Despite all their own responsibilities, they found time to work on the court with athletes with disabilities every Monday night.
Not surprisingly, given all they'd experienced to get this far, their transition to college tennis has been seamless.
Here's a closer look at each player's journey:
Speed and versatility are the two words that best describe Das. Bollettieri and Zesinger affectionately nicknamed her "Cockroach" because she was "tiny but moved like a bolt of lightning."
Das' roots lie in Odisha -- she misses speaking Odia, her first language -- but she grew up in Mumbai. Before coming to the States, she'd gotten a taste of training away from home at the Mission 2018 program in Bangalore that was led by 12-time Grand Slam doubles champion Mahesh Bhupathi.
When she was 14, Das played in her first ITF event and reached the final. Despite twice needing surgery to repair a torn meniscus while in high school, once in each knee, she broke into the top 300 junior rankings during her senior year at IMG.
"The day I walked in I remember thinking, 'This place is huge. Who I am going to be in this place?' The day I said goodbye to the people at IMG, I knew I had made an impact and that I left behind a family," said Das, who was chosen to speak at her graduation.
Her strong, outgoing personality caught the attention of Florida State head coach Jennifer Hyde, and it's been a perfect fit (although Das still misses the spicy Indian food back home). In her first year of college, Das is playing at No. 1 doubles and No. 2 singles.
"Competitively, she is as good as it gets," Hyde said. "She has the capacity to work herself to being the top-20 player in the country. She wants to go pro and she should, because she has all the tools in her toolbox to make her strengths better and her weaknesses manageable."
Growing up in Chandigarh, Sangwan often played tennis against her older brother. Like Das, she spent time with the Mission 2018 training program in Bangalore before getting her scholarship offer from IMG. The long move, however, wasn't easy.
"It was very hard, but whenever I talked to my parents, they would say, 'To win something, you have to lose something,' and that would put me in the right mindset," Sangwan said.
Zesinger recalls reinforcing that message to Sangwan once while riding to a tournament.
"It was just me and her in the van for 3½ hours, and we just talked throughout, and I kept reminding her that all her sacrifices will be worth it in the future," Zesinger said.
Among Sangwan's successes during her time at IMG was a victory over American Kayla Day, who is currently No. 2 in the ITF junior rankings, at the prestigious Orange Bowl Junior tournament in 2011.
Sangwan went on to graduate when she was only 16, but not before catching the attention of Oregon coach Alison Silverio.
She has blossomed into and all-court player -- growing both physically and emotionally -- during her college years, Silverio said. Already the team's No. 1 singles player, Sangwan has adopted an aggressive style and gotten better at finishing points at the net.
"She has the ability to become the most successful player at Oregon," Silverio said.
That would be an impressive achievement, but Sangwan's dreams go beyond that.
"I definitely see myself playing for India in the pros," Sangwan said.
Singh was raised in New Delhi and trained with Aditya Sachdeva's Team Tennis academy at Siri Fort before moving to the United States.
Despite the cultural changes that were thrown at her, Singh developed into one of the IMG's top tennis recruits. In 2014, she earned a spot representing India in the Junior Olympic Games in Nanjing, China. Although she lost in the first round, it is her fondest memory of her time at IMG.
By her junior year she'd entered the top 100 of the ITF junior rankings, and she peaked at No. 78 in her senior year before moving on to the challenges of playing and studying at Penn in the prestigious Ivy League.
With big ground strokes, an aggressive net game and strong serve, Singh went 12-10 in singles, including 2-2 against Ivy League opponents, as a freshman.
Penn coach Sanela Kunovac says Singh knows "what it means to be a good teammate and to sometimes sacrifice yourself for the better of the team. She has a very good pulse for the energy of the team and has a nice way of contributing to the locker room."
Although playing professional tennis has been her dream, Singh said she wants to pursue law after finishing her political science degree. She has a couple of more years of college before she has to decide what comes next.
"Whenever you leave your family to pursue [a sport at a professional level], you have a very big singularity of purpose, and you are very focused to do something that matters a lot, and that is what has been serving [Singh] well in college," Kunovac said.