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Karman Kaur Thandi aiming to crack top-150 by year-end

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'Indian women's tennis is getting better' - Karman (3:20)

Karman Kaur Thandi talks about her journey (3:20)

Little separates the restrained excitement that rings in the voice of 20-year-old Karman Kaur Thandi - India's second highest-ranked women's singles player at World No. 215 - when she talks about the fruitful run she's had in 2018, and the racquet she got from Serena Williams while competing in the WTA Future Stars in 2014.

"I met her at the Opening Draw ceremony at the WTA finals," Karman, a wild card entrant at the Mumbai Open 125K series, told ESPN after losing 2-6, 4-6 to World No. 47 Saisai Zheng of China at the Cricket Club of India (CCI) on Wednesday. "I was excited because we were told the top eight players will be giving racquets to us, the WTA Future Stars. I wanted either Maria Sharapova or Serena Williams. I got the World No. 1 at that time."

Against top-seed Zheng at the CCI centre court, Karman's own racquet spewed sparks of brilliance early and late into the game, the fightback an improvement on her 4-6 0-6 loss against the Chinese in Nanchang, in July.

At 6-feet tall, Karman rode on her powerful serve and groundstrokes - launched mostly from the baseline - to bag a 2-0 lead with eight straight points. She broke Zheng in her opening game, but in the nine subsequent games, her forehand turned too erratic and serves inconsistent for her to turn the early promise into an eventual upset.

"I'm taking positives [from this game] like coming to the net to volley," she said. "This year, yeah, it's been a good year, but it's not over yet. I still have my goal to reach 150 by year-end. I'm going try and get it."

"[There have been] a lot of matches this year, including getting my first title in Hong Kong and playing another final last week. But the job is not over; the aim only gets higher. [My] future goal is obviously to play the Grand Slams, starting with the Australian Open in 2019."

A little over a month after she won her maiden ITF singles title - the Prudential Hong Kong Women's circuit 25K - in June, she cracked the top-200, becoming only the sixth Indian woman to do so. Subsequently, she touched a career-high of 196, made her Asian Games debut and reached her second final of the season last week, at the USD 25000 ITF event in Nanning, China.

Much of that goal to play the Grand Slams, said Karman, has been fueled by playing and training with some of the world's best over the past three years.

Last month, she stretched two-time Grand Slam champion and former World No. 2 Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia in the first round of the $250,000 WTA tournament in Guangzhou, where she took the opening set 6-3 before going down 3-6, 2-6 in the next two.

"That was one match which was to test where I am right now at this level and what I have to do to improve and go ahead and beat these girls and be ready to compete at that level," Karman said.

In the two years prior to November 2017, her time at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy - run by Serena's coach Patrick Mouratoglou - in Nice, brought her the opportunity to train alongside top professionals, including the World No. 46 French player Alizé Cornet.

"I felt I really improved a lot [playing there]," Karman said. "Practicing with the top 50s and top 30s is different. I practiced with Alizé a couple of times, like three or four times. The intensity while practising with her was always high on court. Obviously, I had to play my best tennis, so I could level up my practice sessions for myself and for her also. That was one thing that made me push myself and get better."

Following her stint in France, Karman shifted her base back to Delhi in November last year. She has been training under Aditya Sachdev, who has been her coach since she first immersed herself in the competitive set-up that saw her debut at age 16, in 2015.

"Adi sir is a great coach; we have spent a lot of years together. He knows me inside out; if there's some problem in my game, he can fix it in no time. On the court, too, if I am getting frustrated - like the players do get upset or something - he handles it pretty well," said Karman, explaining her decision to move back.

While Sachdev's presence at the CCI - this was the first time he had been travelling with Karman this year - failed to inspire a win, her road to Mumbai itself had been noteworthy. The 25K ITF event in Nanning saw her beat three top-200 players - Julia Glushko (World No. 123), Katie Swan (163) and Carol Zhao (189) - en route to qualifying for her second final of the season.

"It was a good 25K level [in Nanning], though it felt like it was a higher-level tournament because I wasn't even seeded in a 25K," said Karman, who arrived in Mumbai a day prior to facing the higher-ranked Zheng. "Everybody I beat was ranked higher than me, so [they were] all good matches.

"Intensity-wise, and everything was really high. I would say [I had] a lot of things to learn from the finals over there and even winning those matches against those girls in the top 200 and 150. It felt good that I was able to beat those girls and I can move up to that level soon, so I can set my goals according to that and focus to keep improving and set higher goals for the next challenges."