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Who is Prarthana Thombare? Uncovering an inspiring journey overshadowed by the Paes-Bopanna mess

Hailing from a small village named Barshi in Maharashtra, Prarthana traveled 70 km a day to play tennis in nearby Solapur.

Prarthana with Sania Mirza after winning the 2014 Asian Games bronze medal

Every four years, the Indian tennis fraternity gets divided over its nation’s Olympic representatives. The common link in the controversy always seems to be 18-time Grand Slam winner Leander Paes, and the recent Rio Olympic selection was no different. With both Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza refusing to partner the 42-year-old, the All India Tennis Association (AITA) had to step in to sort out matters.

However, among the controversies, a 21-year-old’s unlikely journey from a small town in Maharashtra to the sport’s grandest stage of them all, somehow snuck under the radar.

Prarthana Thombare’s name was considered the least important when the India Rio selection list was released on June 11. With most people either sighing in relief over Paes’ selection or criticising Bopanna’s decision, we failed to notice how the girl from Barshi in Solapur had successfully broken the sport’s ‘elitist’ stereotype in India.

From a small village named Barshi in Maharashtra to national champion

Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, Thombare expressed her delight from France, where she is preparing for an International Tennis Federation (ITF) tournament. She said, “When I first started playing tennis in Barshi, there was just one small court. It was set up long time back and it didn’t have proper facilities. But people used to play a lot, and we were exposed to the sport.

“We didn’t know what the proper rules were, we didn’t have TV so we used to play what was taught to us by our elders. Over time, I realised tennis was a very different sport than what I had learned.”

A quick glance at India’s Rio-bound tennis players list indicates ‘big city’ domination. Mirza from Hyderabad, Paes from Kolkata/Mumbai and Bopanna from Bengaluru comprise a group that is starkly representative of the urban upper middle class. That’s what makes Prarthana’s journey from a small village to the top of India’s tennis hierarchy even more significant.

Due to the lack of accessibilityis to tennis in India, fairytale stories such as this are a rarity among India’s top ranked professionals. It’s tough to find an MS Dhoni-like journey in tennis, but Prarthana is changing that scenario.

Won U-14 national title aged just 10

Having begun her amateur career at the young age of 10, Prarthana surprisingly won the U-14 nationals within a year of practice. She said, “When I was just 11 years old, my parents used to take to me to Solapur everyday, because that’s where my father worked. I used to spend my time playing tennis there, and I surprisingly defeated a lot of my seniors.

“That’s when my parents enrolled me into the nationals. I defeated all the girls competing there and my parents then decided that I should take up tennis. And over time, I also became more dedicated towards my goal.”

Prarthana with her father Gulabrao after winning the ITF Women’s Championship 

Coached by Sania Mirza’s father Imran Mirza, Prarthana has won 11 titles (singles and doubles) in the last year itself. Her father Gulabrao Thombare said, “She actually started because her grandfather used to play the sport in our village. He didn’t play properly, but since then Prarthana was in love.

“I quit my job when she shifted to Hyderabad to learn tennis under Mr. Mirza, because she was travelling to play matches abroad since she was just 14 years old. I needed to be with her because, she was just a kid,” he added.

Having represented India in the U-14, U-16, U-18 and U-21 categories, Prarthana’s rise to the top of the women’s game is a case of natural progression. In 2008, Prarthana reached the peak of her junior career by being selected as the top player in Asia. A masters event which pitted the best juniors against each other saw her lift the individual singles title, helping her reach continental stardom.

The Hyderabad shift: How Sania Mirza’s father rekindled Prarthana’s career

After shifting from her native village to Solapur, Prarthana’s form showed immediate improvement with more exposure to structured training methods. She said, “I used to travel 70 km every day to go and train and it was getting taxing on my body as I required adequate rest. Hence, my dad took the decision to move to Solapur. After national success, we decided to move to the next level. That’s when I started training at the Sania Mirza Training Academy (SMTA).”

Sania Mirza also partners Thombare in the Fed Cup

After being introduced to Coach Imran Mirza, Prarthana immediately started soaring high – winning an ITF tournament victory within a month. She would go on to partner Sania at the 2014 Asian Games held in Incheon, South Korea, eventually winning bronze.

The Hyderabad-based tennis player said, “As I said, in Solapur, I didn’t have a TV then. But we all knew about Sania Mirza, she was my idol and the reason why I took up tennis. Then I got to play with her at the Fed Cup for the first time and it was a dream come true. We have developed a good partnership, which worked at the Asian Games. I mean I don’t even need to go train abroad, when the world number 1 doubles player is from my own country. There is no better training than that.”

Her admission in SMTA saw the current world number 209 (doubles) change various aspects of her game. She added, “When I shifted to Hyderabad, I realised I was a very defensive player. Imran Sir taught me how to be more aggressive. Now the ITF circuit players I used to lose to are easy for me to defeat. Apart from that my entire fitness regime was changed, so that I could concentrate more on the strength aspect. I have improved vastly, and the results are there to see.”

The results are there to see indeed! In 2015 alone, Prarthana won 11 titles. Her meteoric rise culminated with her first WTA quarter-final finish last week in Croatia. Playing with local favourite Tina Lucas, she highlighted her transition to the doubles elite by entering the world ITF top 10 doubles rankings.

No one helps with funding, after a point you know you’re on your own: Prarthana’s father

Despite such success, finances have been hard to come by.

Prarthana’s father Gulabrao added, “I’ve been to every administrative authority involved, but there is no funding. Obviously, since we are from a small town, it’s difficult to get funding. Lakshya sports gives us Rs. 2 lakh every month, but (considering) the number of events she is playing it’s hardly anything. After a point you stop thinking about it so much. She uses a lot of her prize money to fund future tournaments. She has achieved her first goal and the next is to play a Grand Slam.”

Now practising for another ITF tournament in France, Prarthana is scheduled to meet Sania after Wimbeldon to chalk out an Olympic plan. She added, “My aim is to win a medal, and we will be planning according to that. I have a few more tournaments lined up after this for my Rio preparation. My target is a medal and definitely Sania’s is as well.”

Last week the entire nation was engulfed in a controversy which almost seemed like a repeat telecast of a TV soap opera. But while we were all busy focussing on petty politics, we failed to notice the unsung journey of Prarthana Thombare – a journey which could inspire a generation of Indian tennis players.

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