Last week, 13-year-old tennis prodigy Ajay Singh won the National Tennis Championship Under-14 title at the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association. But unlike many other champions, he does not have a dedicated professional coach, his own racquet, or even a court to practise on.
The young ace, who began playing at the age of 10, did not have access to courts when he started. His father, Ajmer, a retired subedar in the Indian Army, owned old agricultural land that the family had begun to convert into a sporting ground – a project that the father broke his pension fund for.
“We used to use it for wrestling, kabaddi,” says Malik Senior, “but my son was more interested in tennis. Woh bade bhai ko dekh ke tennis me interest hua, usne bhi tennis khelna chaha” (he wanted to follow his elder cousin, and play tennis), he adds.
Young Ajay watched older cousin Sombir play – with naked tennis balls – and would practise with his cousin’s racquet and the worn-out tennis balls. The inadequate equipment had even caused the older boy injuries that curtailed his tennis career.
Despite this, Ajay soldiered on. “We have kabaddi on the ground too, but now there is a tennis court,” Malik Senior says. But it is far from meeting any standard. “Koi dekhega toh khelna hi nahin chahega” (Nobody who sees these courts will want to play on them), he adds.
But his son did, and quickly, his game got better. “He does not have a regular coach,” his father tells me, “uska cousin jo hai, wahi coach hai” (his cousin is his only coach). Professional racquets, which are quite expensive and nearly inaccessible even to someone with significant funds or sponsorship, were also difficult to come by.
“He used his cousin’s old racquet, and then we got him a second-hand one from some high-calibre player,” his father says. Ajay's game got him noticed, but that has not appeared to help the family much so far. “Everyone has watched my son play, these people say they want to get him racquet, practice, but nothing happens. My son is very talented, and I want people to see it!”
It is this talent that won the 13-year-old the National Championships Title, but it has not been easy playing tournaments; it has taken a toll on the family. Mr Malik, the sole bread-winner of the family, tells me has put his entire Army pension into his son’s tennis career. Travelling has been even more difficult, and the father’s voice breaks slightly as he speaks about the struggles his son has seen.
“Sometimes he would come home late in the night,” he says, and Ajay had to make do with what he had on those occasions. “Raat ko aana ho toh kisi na kisi se lift leke aa jata hai” (at night he hitchhikes home when there is no option, as it is expensive to travel), Malik says about his son.
The feisty Ajay also manages to keep himself fed. “Woh langar jata hai” (he goes to a langar), says Mr. Malik. ‘Langar’ is the free meal given to all visitors at a Gurudwara, or a Sikh house of worship, and is doled out specifically with the purpose that nobody goes hungry. In addition to eating the meals, Ajay has also taken shelter in a Gurudwara before.
Ajmer has made several pleas for funding, that have, he says, fallen on deaf ears. “Many promises are made,” he says, “but nobody follows up on them.”
But the family, and both father and son, refuse to give up. “Bete ka dream hai,” he says. “My son has a dream, and he wants to fulfil it. And I will be right there with him, supporting it every step of the way.”