A rasping forehand down-the-line shot lands on the line for a winner, and the sparse crowd responds with a warm round of applause. The next point starts with a strong first-serve down the “T”, and this induces a mistimed forehand to the net. The miffed receiver, having just handed a game-point to his opponent, duly shows his disappointment with a loud grunt of frustration; which in turn sends a couple of pigeons scurrying away from their perch on the roof. The game, played under the cosy December morning sun at Bangalore, would pass like any other nondescript weekend tennis match. But this game is far from just a regular game of tennis, for the players have physical disabilities and play while strapped to a wheelchair.
This past week, the best wheelchair tennis players from across the country descended upon Bangalore as the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association (KSLTA) played host to the 3rd Tabebuia Open. Their disabilities notwithstanding, the players display fierce competitiveness. The doubles players huddle up before each point and celebrate every success with an overhead high-five. And needless to say, there are plenty of fist pumps along the way as well. That said, the off-court camaraderie between the players is plentiful.
I caught up four women players courtside.
The women’s doubles finals featuring Nalina, Amu, Prathima Rao and Shilpa had just drawn to a close, but they appear in good spirits and great shape for another round. As I began chatting with the beaming ladies, it struck me – I couldn’t tell the losing finalists. Such was the enthusiasm of the quartet.
“Tennis has given us an opportunity to overcome our challenges.”
“We are so happy just to be on the court, to play the game and to show people that we’re no inferior to others,” says Amu. Polio inflicted her legs as a child and she has been battling society ever since. “My parents forgot to administer polio drops,” she says, but not for a moment does she hold it against them. Amu fought her way through school and college, embraced sports with badminton first and after that, tennis. “I am the top-ranked wheelchair badminton player in the country today, and I am ranked 23rd in wheelchair badminton in the world,” she says with pride.
The other ladies echo similar sentiments of strife. “Owing to my disability, I was brought up in a protected environment, and over time, it became an emotional barrier,” says Nalina, who picked up wheelchair tennis in 2015. “But I battled the stigma, started a family and then began travelling alone to tell myself that I will not be cowed down by my disability,” she adds.
And disability isn’t the only aspect of the minds of these women. Prathima Rao is a single mother and her doubles partner, Shilpa, is on the lookout for a job. That said, armed with callipers and modified scooters, these women continue to stay independent.
“Tennis has given us an opportunity to overcome our challenges,” says Shilpa, who took up the sport in 2010 and won the national singles championships that very year. While wheelchair tennis is a medium of expression for most of these players, for some, however, it is bread and butter.
As a 15-year-old, Bangalore’s Shekhar Veeraswamy worked as a ball boy at the KSLTA courts in Cubbon Park to support his family. He had a knack for tennis and soon began to harbour aspirations of playing competitive tennis. But destiny had other plans.
A road accident led to the amputation of Veeraswamy ‘s left leg, and the dream evaporated. Remarkably, armed with a prosthetic leg, he continued to play the game and is today’s India’s top-ranked wheelchair tennis player. What’s more, the KSTLA employed him as an in-house Assistant Coach to train kids under the age of 10, and the hard-court is now his everyday workplace.
Wheelchair tennis has been a medal-awarding Paralympic sport since 1992 and features in the Grand Slam program as well. There is even an ITF Wheelchair tennis tour in place, akin to the ATP and WTA tours for mainstream tennis. “Playing matches on this tour helps a player earn vital points and in turn boosts his world rankings,” says Subramanian Balachandar, a player who hails from Chennai. The top 40 ranked players in the world make the Paralympic cut. Veeraswamy, despite his high India ranking, is rated a lowly 191 in the wheelchair tennis world rankings.
While the direction of this conversation is somewhat predictable, I still ask the question – what hinders a wheelchair tennis player’s development in India?
With an apologetic smile, Balachander responds – “The sport is expensive, and we just don’t have the money to travel overseas on a regular basis to play tournaments and garner ranking points.”
No Indian manufacturers for Tennis wheelchairs
The wheelchairs that these players use aren’t the ones that we witness at hospitals. The wheels noticeably, slant inwards to enable the use of hands to navigate across the court. And a rear mono-wheel helps maintain equilibrium. The chair itself is made of titanium to reduce the overall weight and facilitate movement. And some players need to have their wheelchairs modified to suit their bodies. While these enhancements boost mobility, they also inflate the manufacturing costs.
“There is no Indian manufacturer of wheelchairs for tennis,” says Amu, while adding that an imported wheelchair costs as much as 4 lac rupees. Prathima Rao chuckles alongside, “Even the tyres have to be imported.”
Nalina meanwhile, laments the fact that wheelchairs imported fall under the luxury goods category. “There’s also the local dealer’s margin that adds to the cost. And the banks are reluctant to give loans to the disabled,” she says. “When a car loan EMI defaults, the bank takes a car back, but they can’t take back a wheelchair over defaulted EMI payments owing to a possible backlash. So, right at the outset, they refuse to give loans to the disabled.”
Every wheelchair tennis player is today dependent on a benefactor to sponsor the requisite equipment.
“I am the top wheelchair badminton player in the country, and the government promised me a wheelchair. But after that, I had to visit government offices and meet people a hundred times over to get this wheelchair,” says Amu, while pointing at her customised set of wheels. Others fare worse. Mariappan, despite being one of the first players on the Indian wheelchair tennis circuit, still rents a wheelchair for tournaments.
“The lack of funds, facilities and organisation ail the sport in India,” says Sunil Jain, the Chairman of the Indian Wheelchair Tennis Tour, an initiative to promote wheelchair tennis in India. According to him, disability, more often than not, hampers a child’s education and after that, life becomes an uphill battle. “I stayed the course and education paved the way for my progress. And now, I want to lead the change and offer greater accessibility for the kids to play the game,” says Jain, a practising Chartered Accountant.
Individuals such as Sunil Jain are, however, few and far between and the support is lacking for the roughly sixty players in the country. The All India Tennis Association (AITA) has recognised wheelchair tennis in India and governed the ranking guidelines for the sport. But this helping hand stops with that.
It is then left to organisations such as Astha to support the cause of wheelchair tennis in India. Sponsors are reluctant to open their purses for wheelchair tennis. Pulling off an event such as the Tabebuia Open, therefore, is a challenge. “The total tournament expenditure is 8.5 lacs, and I have raised 1.5 lacs on my own. We still face a shortfall,” says Jain.
Everybody recognises these challenges and therefore, fights his or her own battles.
Armed with a Pharmaceutical Degree, Balachandar works the night shift at a BPO company in Chennai and is a proud Team Lead. After his change concludes in the morning, he sleeps for four hours and then wakes up to train a set of wheelchair tennis players. This is followed by his practice session. After that, it’s a four-hour nap, after which he’s off to work again.
“I work at Thomson Reuters as a Sr. Process Analyst,” says Amu. She works the 4 pm to 1 am shift and addresses customer enquiries on the job. “I am a B.Com graduate but even getting this job wasn’t easy. I had to go through an NGO which spoke to the company to hand me an interview. But now, I am so good at my work.”
Seldom do non-disabled individuals realise the strife of people with physical disabilities. “Public infrastructure in the cities for the disabled is appalling,” says Nalini. “And the lack of easy access to washrooms only makes matters worse.”
And a wheelchair doesn’t in any way make for easy tennis, according to Amu. “Guiding the wheelchair to the ball is the biggest challenge.” Having to work for their livelihood requires most of these players to work through the week and training, therefore, is relegated to the weekends. Add to this the unavailability of coaches and what we have is a system where players are each other’s mentors. They spar together, spot each other’s weaknesses and, quite simply, help themselves get better. Albeit a novel mechanism, the learning curve is limited if not non-existent.
Faced with towering everyday challenges and seemingly insurmountable financial strife, what is the eventual goal, I wonder. The response comes like a tracer bullet from Prathima Rao – “Tokyo 2020. That’s the dream. We will continue practising and getting better. Let’s see where it takes us.”