Men’s tennis player Kunal Pawa will never be confused with Andy Roddick.
He did not grow up in Texas or California, was not blessed with a legion of coaches or sports psychologists as a child, and certainly has not followed the easy road in his tennis career.
Pawa, a third-year whose family is from Singapore, has taken a very different path, with stops along the way in Florida, the Singaporean Armed Forces, the College of William and Mary, and finally in Chicago.
His love of tennis began as a child in Singapore, where the game still lags in popularity.
“It is definitely behind soccer, rugby, badminton, and other sports,” Pawa said. “They are all cheaper to play.”
Pawa only became interested in the game through his father, an avid recreational player who took it up after he could no longer play squash with his friends. When a 15-year-old Pawa wanted to start playing highly competitive tennis, his parents fully supported his venture and allowed him to attend IMG Academy, multi-sport training and education facility in Bradenton, FL that is popular among many burgeoning athletes.
“I visited the IMG Academy in Florida when I was 15, and I really liked the atmosphere there,” Pawa said. “A coach there really believed I could go far in tennis if I started to train intensively. Our training daily consisted of about four to five hours of tennis and conditioning, and we went to school for about four to five hours a day.”
Pawa spent three years in Florida before returning to Singapore at age 18 for two years of mandatory national service training. All able-bodied male Singaporean citizens must undergo a term as full-time servicemen in the armed forces, police, or defense force until they become “operationally-ready” reservists.
“I underwent three months of basic military training before I had to complete two months of vocational training as a signaler,” Pawa said. “The posting to be a signaler was by random chance. For the remainder of my service, I worked in a department concerned with operational exercise protocol and control.”
Although this administrative job allowed Pawa some flexibility to continue his tennis training, it was no easy task to keep his game in top form or to adjust to military life.
“The biggest challenge was not being able to practice tennis for a long period of time, and not being able to participate in tournaments,” Pawa said. “Also, it was difficult to get used to a life of discipline and regimen, and always being subordinate to superiors.”
Despite the strain it placed upon him, Pawa supports the system of conscription in Singapore and is ultimately glad he served in the army.
“I feel my time in the service was worthwhile because it made me appreciate certain things more, and also taught me to be responsible and maintain discipline,” Pawa said.
After his two years of training was completed, Pawa returned stateside, enrolling at the the College of William and Mary as a first-year when he was 20 years old.
“I was there for two years, in a strong Division-I program and did not compete much,” Pawa said. “I chose William and Mary because I really liked the tennis program there. At
the same time, it is a very good academic institution, and the community of students there is something special.”
The desire to play more consistently, however, ultimately led Pawa to look into transferring elsewhere. The opportunity to compete immediately, receive a high quality education, and work with head coach Marty Perry made Chicago the right choice for him.
“I liked [Coach Perry] a lot because he is an honest and helpful person, and he is committed to having a strong team,” Pawa said.
On the whole, Pawa feels he made the right choice in coming to Hyde Park.
“I have enjoyed my time at UChicago so far. It has been a new experience and a new
environment, but I am growing to like it and am adapting here quite well,” Pawa said.