International wheelchair tennis player, Prathima Rao has her eyes set on the 2020 Paralympics to take place in Tokyo. The only thing holding her back is an old wheelchair.
Bangalore-based Prathima Rao was all of 3 years old when she lost the use of her right leg to polio. She was forced to use a caliper to move around, and continues to do so till date. This has not stopped her, however, from making a name for herself as an international wheelchair tennis player.
Prathima’s tryst with tennis can be traced back to the days of her divorce. Battling depression and struggling to cope with the changes in her personal life, she sought – and found – solace in tennis.
Prathima, a mother of a 10-year-old, maintains a packed schedule. On weekdays, her day begins with a two-hour practice session that starts at 6 am and goes on till 8 am. From 8:30 am to 5:30 pm, Prathima is busy with the front-office job that helps her support herself and her son. While most might be tempted to take things easy on the weekend, Prathima is seen sweating it out in intense, day-long practice sessions at the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association (KSLTA).
Her hard work paid off when she qualified for the Malaysian Open.
This was also the time when KSLTA’s chief trainer, Ramesh, recognised her immense potential and decided to train her for free.
Prathima only realised the many ways in which her antiquated wheelchair held her back when she participated in the Malaysian and Bangkok Opens.
Wheelchair tennis demands continuous sideway movements in order to cover the court. The heavier and slower the wheelchair, the greater energy and time lost by the player. In this sport, that could be the deciding factor between a winner and a loser.
Prathima was using a wheelchair given to her by the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association. The old wheelchair hampered her performance and the Indian para-athlete faced a 0-6, 0-6 loss in her first singles match in both the tournaments. However, in the doubles event, she managed to reach the semis in Malaysia and the quarter finals in Bangkok. This in itself is an achievement, considering the drawbacks of using an old wheelchair.
Wheelchair tennis gained popularity back in 1976, thanks to the efforts of American player, Brad Parks. Before Parks’ intervention, most able-bodied individuals could not imagine the possibility of playing tennis on a wheelchair. Parks struggled, travelling from city to city, breaking stereotypes, questioning prejudice and paving the way for the countless differently abled who were waiting to hit the tennis court. Parks’ efforts led to the induction of wheelchair tennis into the Paralympics and the Grand Slams.
Wheelchair tennis has since been accepted and acclaimed in countries across the world and by international tennis bodies. In India, however, para-athletes struggle to gain recognition and funding for their basic equipment; a fact that became painfully clear to Prathima during her time in the Malaysia and Bangkok Opens.
After observing international players, she found that to even be considered on equal footing as her competitors and to ensure a fair match, a new wheelchair was crucial.
Although Prathima earns enough to give herself and her a son a good life, a new wheelchair of international standards is, economically, out of her reach.
Countless attempts to raise money on her own failed, before she decided to place her faith in the people of the country. She started a crowdfunding campaign on Wishberry, and is painstakingly raising the funds required to buy her a new, state-of-the-art wheelchair that will her win gold for the country.
A faster wheelchair will help her give her best in international tournaments and make India proud. It will also give her a winning chance to improve her world ranking, work her way into the top 100 and qualify to participate in Grand Slams as well as the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
A win in these competitions, she believes, will help her get one step closer to fulfilling her long-term objective of improving the support system for para-athletes in the country.
During her time in Malaysia and Bangkok, she was left awe-inspired by the facilities available to international para-athletes. Many players travelled with an entire team of coaches and support staff. This crew not only monitored the player’s game, but also constantly captured and analysed an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. The most crucial thing which she learnt was the financial support a lot of these players received from their country’s sporting bodies; in order to encourage them to focus on tennis as a full time career, players are given a daily allowance for their personal expenses. This allows them to practice 5-6 hours everyday.
Lack of sponsors is the biggest problem faced by an Indian para-athlete. Like any other sport, this sport can only attract sponsors if at least one player emerges as the national star, a star the entire nation looks up to as an achiever. Once the sport begins to attract money, it will also attract more players and give them a chance to be trained and groomed in high-end facilities.
Prathima is optimistic about participating in the 2020 Paralympics, and strongly believes in the potential that India has to produce the world’s best wheelchair tennis players.