- Name: Puja Patel
- Age: 26
- Organization: Tennis, Meredith College
Author: Patrick Kinas, DNAOfSports.com creator.
Eight months after picking up a tennis racquet, she won a state title.
Four years later, she was nationally ranked in her country of over 1 billion people.
At 17, she and her family moved 9,000 miles away to a North Carolina town of 1,564.
An U.S. state title and three Player of the Year awards later, India’s loss is Meredith College’s gain.
In three years on the Angels tennis team, Puja Patel has not lost a conference tennis match. She’s played every singles match at #1, and has been named USA South Women’s Tennis Player of the Year. Three times. She’s also been rookie of the year. Patel has been a one-woman tennis dynasty at Meredith. As an NCAA Division III school that is not allowed to offer athletic scholarships, Meredith College has never had a player like Patel before, and likely never will again.
Patel’s parents, both native Indians, were brought together in an arranged marriage, a custom widely practiced in India. In their 20s, they moved from Ahmedabad, one of the largest cities in India, to the United States, leaving the bulk of their families behind. Her parents were business owners in California.
Patel was born in San Jose, then lived in Boston until she was 7. Then her parents wanted Puja and her brother to learn their Indian culture, uprooting their lives from Boston and moving halfway around the world. Patel would spend years learning the Hindu religion, speaking and writing the language, mannerisms, food and all of the other components that makes the Indian culture unique. Even today, Patel gestures to her parents in the most respectful, Indian fashion.
“When my parents come to visit me at Meredith, being Hindu, I bend down and touch their feet,” Patel said. “When they put their hands on my head, they’re blessing me.”
Cricket is the most popular sport in India. While tennis is popular, it wasn’t a conscious decision Patel made to learn the sport. Her dad had an old graphite racquet laying around, and tennis courts were closest to the house. Off to the academy went the 10-year-old Patel.
“In India, everyone starts in an academy,” Patel said. “Indian parents are very precise on how things are taught. The coach who ran the academy took me in. It was just me, another girl and seven other guys.”
Patel took to the sport like a bird to flight. She was a natural.
“My first tournament in India, I obviously didn’t expect to win,” Patel recalled. “I played a match, won, played another match, won, I just kept winning. My parents were going crazy, carrying me around. I didn’t realize why they were so happy. It didn’t hit me until I was asleep in the car on the ride home, and I heard dad still talking to mom about it. They were so proud.”
Patel herself was thrilled, and the next day was the awards ceremony, with Patel anxiously awaiting her first tennis trophy. With her parents sitting in the crowd, Patel was called to the podium to receive her…. watch? Where’s my trophy she wondered?
“I’ve never been more disappointed to get an award,” Patel joked. “I wanted a trophy.”
The trophies would come en masse. Patel changed academies, focused on more personal instruction with more qualified coaches, and flourished. Four years later, Patel had developed into one of the top junior girls players in the country, ranked in the top 5 in the Under-14s and Top 10 in the U16s. She roamed all throughout India, dismantling competition in every state, and not winning more watches.
“The only thing on my radar back then was to play at Wimbledon or the US Open,” Patel recalled. “I shared a dream with my parents. “
At 17, with the cultural infusion of their two children complete, the Patel family made the decision to move back to the U.S., and settled on tiny Snow Hill, NC, a town of less than 2,000 to start a new life. A Patel relative had relocated to nearby Wilson, NC and Puja’s father found a Fast Break grocery store to buy, and Snow Hill became their new home. Tennis was still on Puja’s mind, but questions arose.
“We didn’t know the U.S. tennis circuit,” Puja said. “I played one semester at Green Central High School, won the 2A state title, then got a new coach, Mark Trail, whose daughter, Jackie, played in the US Open. He coached me for the next two years. Then the summer off after my senior year of homeschooling, but after a while, the expectations got too much for me and the sport I loved became a chore.”
“I needed to get into college.”
It was a classic case of burnout. A sport swallowing up a kid, who had dedicating her life to the game. Practicing for interminable hours, winning tournaments, racking up ranking points, but slowly Puja was beginning to resent the sport that she had loved for years. The enjoyment was peeling away like old, dry paint. A top-30 United States Tennis Association (USTA) ranking in the Southern region for Patel, but it was coming at a steep price. Those precious points accrued through tournament victories were atrophying away by Patel’s decision to stop playing competitively.
“My parents were very supportive,” Patel said. “I still wanted to play tennis and focus on a career. During the time of moving back to the U.S., I felt culture shock. I was born here, but yet didn’t know anything about the U.S. culture.” Patel, a U.S. citizen who spent more than half her life learning the Indian culture over half the planet away, was having a mid-life crisis in her late teens.
“I didn’t know the lingo, the dress, the way people talk, the mannerisms, but I adapted,” Patel said. “My parents still wanted me to play Division I (D1) tennis, but my downfall was that I didn’t talk to the D1 schools. I was in America for just two years, and I didn’t know anything about getting into college.”
College tennis calls were coming to Patel, but still was unsure about the process. That’s when Meredith College serendipitously entered the picture.
“I had a lot of colleges contact me, and Meredith was one of them,” Patel recalled. “Since it was in Raleigh, my mom suggested we go look at it. I talked to the coaches, and they explained that Meredith was Division III. I didn’t even know what that meant. As they explained the levels, they said it wasn’t as intense, and that was really appealing to me. They said that we’re not paying you to do anything. You need to want to be here.”
The perfect school coalesced at the perfect time for Patel. Meredith was the only choice.
Patel, who is a stunning 50-12 at #1 singles over her first three seasons, is 29-0 in USA South conference matches. During Patel’s junior year, she won 11 of her last 12 matches, and 32 of 38 sets during the season. Dating to the midpoint of 2012, Patel has taken 57 of her last 63 sets. It’s truly a Serena Williams-like run at the D3 level.
Patel, an inquisitive, culturally-intrigued rising senior, has been putting her time on the Meredith campus to great use. A psychology major, Patel has always been interested in how the brain works, and last semester, presented a research study on “Members of Two Cultures”, a study on how individuals adjust and adapt, something Patel has a bit of first-hand experience understanding. A future as a critical psychologist is Patel’s end goal.
Back to Patel’s sky-touching dreams of Olympics and Grand Slam tournaments.
“When I graduate, I will want to play more,” Patel said. “I’ll never say never on playing for the Indian national team. At this point in life, you never know. Passion is what drives people to do great things.”India qualified just one women’s doubles team for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London – Rushmi Chakravarthi (World Ranking – #506) and Sania Mirza (WR-#586).
Should the elite competitive fire be rekindled one last time, Patel’s passion could make a run for Rio in 2016.
Regardless of the path she ultimately travels, Patel is leaving an indelible legacy on Meredith’s campus. An Angels champion traversing the campus of Meredith like this, the school may never see again.
(Photo courtesy: Puja Patel, Meredith Athletics.)