First They Will Laugh, Then They Will Copy: Don’t Give Up
I started playing Tennis at 37 years, at my club in Chennai. The three markers, who taught me in turns, were polite, but evidently not interested, assuming my own interest would be short-lived, as is often the case with women in India starting Tennis late. The other men awaited my retreat from one or other of the two courts, even as the marker upped his speed, so I would tire and leave soon. None of the men, except at times the veterans, volunteered to play with me preferring instead to wait. I felt like a child, running playfully on the court, before a big match is to commence. But I held for at least half an hour, playing four-five days a week, my intense school and college sports participation standing my stamina in good stead. However, it was my self-esteem that would not hold longer, and I soon left to join a professional Tennis academy, run by a national player and her coach husband, though continuing to swim at the club every other day.
At the academy, the coaches and markers were proficient; in professional training clubs they don’t treat women preferentially. The first half hour, was spent in compulsory rigorous enhancement, individually, of our legwork and strokes – forehand, backhand, volleys, serves, and all. The second half hour we played either singles or doubles under vigilance of the coach on the numerous courts. Being the only woman playing with a dozen or so men above 18 years, as the one or two women who appeared every other day would drop out after a week at most of the rigour; my prowess in the game improved substantially. On visits to my club now, I would at times display my improved Tennis skills to the three shocked markers, more in way of driving the point that they lacked ability as trainers. They kept asking me to return to playing with them, but I shortly moved to Calcutta.
I joined the veteran Tennis player Jaydeep Mukherjee’s academy in Calcutta within a week of my moving. There I engaged a senior personal trainer, under whose guidance every morning I improved my strokes diligently till I could drop dead and yet he pushed me more. The veterans watching from other courts shortly started applauding my perseverance and also by now my much improved strokes. I decided to take on a bigger challenge. So I went over to the Sports Federation of India (NIS). There at the office, I was categorically told I could enrol only if the coach approved, after meeting me. I marched to the Tennis courts, passing all the other varied sports courts- basketball, football, hockey and sprint tracks. The coach very luckily took me on, signed my application form, after quizzing me for about fifteen minutes. As I was to realise only much later, his sharp and abrupt questions, even as he looked me straight in the eye as I answered, were to gauge my intent.
The young mostly male players, the next morning when I reported sharp at 6 and had finished warm ups, were not interested in playing with me a woman and a novice at that in their view. The group trainings here happen in the evenings. A teenager was sharply instructed by the coach to play with me, even as he looked back dejectedly. The coach, from Delhi, a middle aged, very fit and agile man, with a moustache and a short crop of hair, spoke in a crisp and commanding voice as coaches do, in Hindi. After watching me and the boy playing for a while, he signalled the boy to move out, took his racquet and his position across me. At first he played very gently, and then gradually built momentum and the power of his strokes, gauging mine in turn, along with my agility and stamina. Only after I was bent over, red in the face and panting like it were my last breaths, pleading with my eyes for him to stop, did he let me off, grinning as coolly as if back from an evening stroll.
Anyways, I must surely have passed his test, for the next day on, the coach, put me on to playing with a young man of his choice daily followed by two teenaged boys. So I would play singles, to two boys as doubles partners. The first day, these boys who I learnt were in between classes 8-12, looked at me bored, but were compelled to bear me. The coach watched us from afar, instructing us time to time. It was as he had expected, they were agile and raving to go, but their strokes were not controlled and practised, nor did they have control of the court and the balls. The two would run around wildly on the court, even as I stepped around in anticipation of their moves and of the ball. I knew the court well through practise but more maturity. Any sport, I realised, especially Tennis, is brainwork much over and above legwork or handwork, and I had in time attuned to a mental agility. So it became routine for me to play singles with two teenaged boys every other day. The purpose, the coach told us all stiffly, was so they would improve their strokes, the control of the ball and court, while me my stamina and agility.
In a few weeks, everyone including the men and few girls started playing with me, and asked me where I had learnt Tennis and how long I had been playing. The coach would smile smugly, even as I looked back at him gratefully for his faith, since taking me on; the others were wannabe professional players with potential. I respected his ignoring the remarks they made of his intent, since he often played with me while not with most. He would make me shake hands with kids standing in queue after tournaments, give away prizes and make a speech. The first time he did that, I was reluctant and when he insisted it was to motivate the children, I did so with moist eyes. I felt like a hero.
“If didi (elder sister) can learn to play so well, even at such a late age for playing professionally, you all can be champions.” He would say loudly in Hindi. “You know what is most essential in being a champion, it is grit and commitment. I saw the drive, the intent in didi’s eyes the first day she came to enrol.”