Born to middle-class parents in Bengaluru, Prathima Rao’s childhood started off ‘normally’. For all of three years. At 3, the bouncing toddler, struck by polio, was left without the use of her right leg, for which she now uses a caliper.
That might have deterred anyone else from participating – but not Prathima Rao. Always fond of physical activity, the youngster stuck to it. “I love tennis. I also love badminton, but tennis is my favourite.”
So she did the logical thing – took up the sport. She’s currently training at the KSLTA – the Karnata State Lawn Tennis Association, with her coach, Ramesh, whilst maintaing There’s only one other para-tennis player there, a man, and the pair of them train with the coach. How does she manage training? “We train with the other players,” she says, “para, regular, jo bhi hai”.
“Sometimes coach plays us against each other, regular against para,” and we hit around.
She balances this with a full-time career, working as a front-office executive at a Bengaluru-based firm. Also a single mother of a ten-year-old, Rao credits him with helping
Obviously, this is not easy. “Sab kuch saath mein manage karna padta hai,” she says, you have to manage everything all together. Placing the ball, guiding it, all whilst guiding herself across the court. “It is not that different from regular tennis,” she says. “Bas unka bounce alag hai” – their rules for bouncing are different. “Regular tennis has one bounce, we have two. That’s it.”
She took to tennis in earnest following what she says are “personal problems.” 32-years-old, she brings up her ten-year-old son alone after a failed marriage left her depressed. "Tennis helped me a lot when I was dealing with personal problems. I didn’t want to live. But the sport helped me get out of that,” she says.
Disability has not hampered her love for the sport, and Rao plays internationally. Fresh off playing at the Malaysia Open, she is even quickly climbing the rankings. But they need to help her qualify. “I am 120th in the women’s rankings right now, and 100 and above means that I can play at Grand Slams,” she says.
To put that into perspective, India’s highest ranked singles ATP player, Saketh Myneni, is ranked 116th. Able-bodied players who are at his level of ranking and achievement receive sponsorships, have help with funding for tournaments, travel and equipment. A number of talented juniors players, although it is not easy, have been able to find sponsors and funding as well.
Rao, meanwhile, is still using an outdated wheelchair to move around on court. “It seriously constricts my movement,” she says. The wheelchair does not move freely on court, impairing how far she can reach and hit the ball.
"The wheelchair that international players use is faster,” she tells me. Rao suffers the plight of a regular tennis player, but with added difficulties. “I need to keep moving around to be able to do so.” But that wheelchair, used by international para-tennis players, is not accessible to her financially. The manufacturers who do make it manufacture it at a very high cost, and Rao, who is of middle-class means, cannot afford it.
Several players on the main circuit have spoken of sparse support from associations in their sport – and it is even tougher for para-athletes. “We do not get much help, what we do in para tennis here, what I am doing, is with the support of the KSLTA.”
In contrast, Great Britain’s Gordon Reid recently won the men’s singles wheelchair title at Wimbledon this year, the first time the tournament was reintroduced in a significant time period, and spoke of the support he has received from the Lawn Tennis Association, from fellow players and coaches.
Prathima is not only aiming for the opportunity to play in a Grand Slam, she is also looking to represent India at Tokyo 2020.
Rao's own favourite player? She smiles and without skipping a beat, says “Leander Paes mere favourite hain.”
A fan of the man with eighteen Grand Slam titles, Rao hopes to have the opportunity to win her own.
Join the campaign to help fund a new wheelchair for the talented tennis player here, on her Wishberry page.