Tennis player Ajay Malik overcomes poor background to stand with the best
Ajay Malik is different from most other promising tennis players from India. Because he did not have a TV in his childhood, the first time he saw a Grand Slam was in 2015.
Tennis is usually known as a rich man's sport. Wrestlers' sons brought up on Haryana's red soil are not usually known to wander into a tennis court. But 19-year-old Ajay Malik has always been an anomaly.
As a child training in his father's akhara in Haryana's Gohana village, he saw people getting injured while trying to pull off moves on the mud, and decided that wrestling was too combative for his liking. Instead, he spotted a tennis racquet gifted to his father hanging on a wall, and decided he wanted to try that instead.
"How children get into sports in the city is very different from how I started playing. There was no TV on which I could watch Roger Federer playing Grand Slams, I only knew how to play myself," Malik told The Bridge.
The first time Malik remembers watching a tennis match on TV was the 2015 French Open final between Stanislas Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic. All the Federer vs Nadal classics he has only heard of, not been a rapt audience of, unlike most of his peers who he plays against.
Less than a year after that, Malik was crowned the U14 national champion.
His U14 national title pushed Malik into the spotlight, but he remained in his village even after that. He continued training in mud courts, where the tramlines were marked with rope and not lime so that less money would be spent on that. As for the net, it was supported by electricity poles. Every time there was a storm, the net had to be tied to the poles again.
"There always remains a thought that I am not able to afford some of the things some others are able to, but my economic background has not been an insurmountable obstacle. I don't worry about what I don't have, I believe I can go out there and win with willpower alone," Malik stated.
'Got lot of help from countries like Switzerland'
Currently ranked 1725 in the world, Malik got an opportunity to test himself against some elite players in the Pro Tennis League in New Delhi over the last week.
"The PTL was a big opportunity for players like us to play with top professional players. I watched all of them closely, tried to learn their strategies, how to read opponents, how to fortify mental strength," Malik said.
The PTL was also a chance for Malik to test himself after a long injury layoff. Though he has been staying in his New Delhi flat via the sponsorship he received earlier this year, an 8-month layoff meant that he is now just starting to get into tournament mode.
As Malik readies to return to full form, there are many who have a stake in his progress. After media reports of his U14 national title - which said he only played with one racquet and strung it himself to save money, only drank water during matches because he could not afford energy drinks - there were many who jumped in to back him.
"I got a lot of help from foreign countries like Hong Kong and Switzerland. Coaches from there used to call me and give me tips. They used to be of big help to me because I had no idea about many things about the sport back then," Malik said.
Malik trained with India's Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali on scholarship for a year before returning to New Delhi, where he took a flat earlier this year after securing a private sponsor in April.
As Ajay Malik marches on in his promising tennis career, there are many of his well-wishers who hope this rare sporting talent can strike it rich.