The COVID-19 pandemic, undoubtedly, created havoc and disrupted many lives but, on a brighter note, it has also brought smiles to the faces of a few, presenting them with unexpected opportunities.
Such once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came for Neha Gawal, Chhaya Warthi and other tribal youngsters from across the country, who got a chance to witness world-class tennis action from close quarters as ball men and women at South Asia's only ATP-250 tournament, the Tata Open Maharashtra, courtesy COVID-stricken new guidelines and protocols.
With safety protocols and controlled environment in place and only fully vaccinated being allowed inside the stadium, these tribal youngsters have replaced 'traditional ball kids' as ball men and women in the tournament.
"Usually, we have kids from different academies. But unfortunately, due to Covid protocols, this time we were not allowed to have kids in the stadium. I and Prashant [Sutar] (Tournament Director, Tata Open Maharashtra) were contemplating what to do and then we decided to reach out to these youngsters from all over the country whose lives have transformed because of Tennis and give them this life changing experience and opportunity," the Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association (MSLTA) Secretary Sunder Iyer said.
With an aim to develop tennis and train tribal youths by creating career opportunities for them in the sport, the MSLTA had launched a special training programme in 2014. It was the brainchild of Mrs Pallavi Darade, then Additional Commissioner of Tribal Department, Nagpur and Sunder Iyer along with Prashant Sutar.
The program has now changed the lives of as many as these trained youngsters are working as qualified coaches across the country. Through this initiative, they have been given training in coaching, court maintenance, all of them have acquired the skill of becoming qualified markers. They can also now double up as groundsperson as well as conduct tournaments.
"We had a very struggling financial situation at home earlier. I joined the Tribal Tennis Academy when I was 16 and now, I have been associated as a coach with various tennis academies and schools in Hyderabad, Delhi and Mumbai. Tennis has completely changed my life. I earn close to Rs 30,000 per month now. I have supported my sister financially in her marriage and also ensured a better life for my mother in Nagpur," said 26-year-old Neha.
With no background of tennis and struggling to manage two square meals, the programme has transformed the lives of these youngsters and helped them to be a part of the mainstream.
Coming from humble backgrounds but now living a better life with financial stability thanks to tennis, most of these youngsters have a story to share.
By virtue of this initiative, 80 youngsters have so far successfully completed their training and close to 78 of them are employed. They are all AITA Level 3 certified coaches and are aiming to get certified further to become umpires and chair umpires one day.
"There is a constant dearth of quality technical people in India. I hope our efforts to make these youngsters self-reliant will not only encourage and create more and more coaches and other technical officials that the game needs, but this initiative will also help to promote Tennis with a purpose," Iyer further added.
A life-time opportunity in Pune has resolved the purpose of these youngsters and they believe anything is possible now. The MSLTA also aims to replicate this programme in future so that more success stories can be heard in future.