Varsity tennis player founds coaching organization

Sophomore+Dhruv+Balivada+warms+up+at+a+Cy-Fair+match.+The+varsity+tennis+player+lunges+for+the+ball+and+hits+a+forehand.

Rilina Tran

Sophomore Dhruv Balivada warms up at a Cy-Fair match. The varsity tennis player lunges for the ball and hits a forehand.

By Ariana Castañeda and Michael Liu

The sparkle in a kid’s eye.

Their crooked smiles.

The joy radiating off of them.

Despite the obstacles he has faced, those moments make everything worth it for him.

Last summer, sophomore and varsity tennis player Dhruv Balivada founded Tennis For All, a coaching organization intended to cater to children from low-income backgrounds, unable to afford tennis lessons.

“I wanted to find a way to give back to the community,” Balivada said.

In the U.S., tennis lessons can range from $40-100 per hour, not including equipment, attire or court fees. When it comes to competitive tennis, the costs pile up even more.

“I wanted to solve all of that,” Balivada said. “I know those expenses can’t be paid by people coming from poorer areas, so Tennis For All caters to them.”

The long process in building TFA started with three friends.

“I came up with the idea, and I got my three friends to help me start it,” Balivada said. “We came up with the website. We came up with business proposals. We advertised. We handed out flyers. It was a long process.”

TFA offers free group lessons for elementary and middle schoolers, along with private lessons starting at $20 per hour.

“Our focus really wasn’t about the money, because we can’t expect money from people and give back [to the community] at the same time,” Balivada said. “But, as for our private lessons, we do have to charge them because it takes up a lot of our time.”

Freshman and varsity tennis player Saachi Gupta coached sessions with TFA last year.

“We’re all an extremely close family at Tennis For All,” Gupta said. “Dhruv and everyone, they’re like my brothers. Dhruv is a really great person and I’m so glad he started this. I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Over the summer last year, Balivada and his team had group lessons once a week with about four to five students. The team limited group lessons as the coaches adjusted to teaching for the very first time.

“This year, we’re going to start doing lessons again during the summer and we’re going to try to make it more organized,” Balivada said. “It’s a tough process, especially since last year, it wasn’t organized that well. This year, I’m hoping to take the load a little bit off myself and distribute everything evenly between everyone.”

Although he has started an initiative to coach the sport, Balivada recalled a time when tennis didn’t always conjure happy memories.

The scorching Houston sun blurred the 13-year-old’s thoughts, filled with all the ways he could “crash and burn.”

At the match, Balivada could not stabilize his performance as the score gap widened. His first tournament marked his first defeat.

“It was one of my worst experiences,” Balivada said. “It was embarrassing because I knew that I was able to compete. I just couldn’t for some reason.”

Since tennis requires the player to be in isolation, often for long periods of time, Balivada said he thinks the sport is one of the most mentally challenging.

“It can be a really long, stressful journey when you’re playing a match,” Balivada said. “You’re not allowed to get coaching. You can’t really talk. It’s just you and everything going on in your head for three hours.”

For a while, Balivada said he associated tennis with feelings of inferiority and inadequacy.

“There were times in these tournaments when I didn’t perform like I knew I could,” Balivada said. “It was just really disappointing to me and everyone around me to know my potential but not be able to see it.”

However, during the summer before ninth grade, Balivada saw drastic improvements in his performance. The shift was so immense, it stunned him.

“That’s what makes me stay in the sport,” Balivada said. “I somehow made so much progress that I had never made before. Knowing that I’m capable of getting to that level was pretty unbelievable to me.”

Regardless of his “love-hate” relationship with the sport, Balivada said his connection to tennis is unforgettable.

“I’m glad I was able to persevere through all of the bad experiences because in the end, there’s a lot of memorable experiences that I wouldn’t want to trade for anything else,” Balivada said. “It’s all about perseverance, right?”

This story was originally published on Three Penny Press on March 29, 2022.