Bengaluru-based Prathima Rao is a wheelchair tennis player with a dream – she wants to win a medal for India in the 2020 Summer Paralympics. Paralysed from below the waist since she was three, Prathima has represented India in the Bangkok Open and the Malaysia Open last year. However, she came back disappointed because players from other countries had received much better training and had much better equipment.
“I felt dejected. They have much better wheelchairs and training. Some of them train for six hours a day. We couldn’t compete with that,” says Prathima, who was eliminated just before the semifinals in both games. But not one to give up, Prathima has now started a petition on Wishberry, a crowdfunding platform to raise Rs 3 lakh to get a better wheelchair.
Prathima currently uses a domestically manufactured wheelchair, provided to her by Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association (KSLTA). But she says it doesn’t provide the speed needed to compete internationally. “You have to use more force to push it faster. A better wheelchair would allow me to conserve strength and move much more quickly,” she explains.
Wheelchair tennis is played in synthetic courts and not clay or grass courts, where smooth movement becomes a necessity for players. Prathima has her eyes on a wheelchair aptly named ‘Match Point’, manufactured by a US-based brand, Quickie.
When Prathima, who comes from a middle-class family, became interested in sports in 2012, she tried her hand at shot-put and archery. But it was lawn tennis which appealed to her the most. However, when she began to look for training, she realized she could not afford the hefty membership fees in stadiums or the high training fees of coaches.
When she qualified for the Malaysia Open in 2015, the chief trainer at the KSLTA, Ramesh, offered to train her for free. “He told me that I could do really well if I had training. He is such a huge encouragement. On days when I get lethargic, he is the one who eggs me on,” she acknowledges.
Currently, she trains for two hours every weekday morning at the KSLTA. From there, she leaves directly to her job as a front office executive. On weekends, she trains from the morning to about 4pm or 5pm in the evening, with other players. “Saturdays and Sundays, I have breakfast, lunch, everything at the stadium,” she laughs.
Prithvi, her ten-year-old son, is a constant source of motivation, says Prathima. “He can do everything himself. In the mornings, he doesn’t ask me to get him ready for school. ‘Mumma, you go for your training, it’s time,’ he tells me,” informs a proud Prathima. He dreams of seeing his mother on television like the other athletes.
Prathima is determined to participate in as many world competitions as she can before the 2020 Paralympics to improve her ranking. Presently ranked at 182 in the singles ranking and 160 in doubles, Prathima needs to have a rank under 100 to qualify for the Paralympics.
If she is able to get the wheelchair, Prathima plans to make her training routine more rigorous by adding an extra hour in the evenings as well. The next competitions in her sights are the Bangkok Open and the Malaysia Open in October. “That is where we lost. I want to train with my new wheelchair and go back to see where I stand now,” she says.
The 32-year-old will be competing with players much younger than her, but is not worried by the prospect. “Tennis is a very technical game. We use our mind as much as we use movement. As long as I am fit and have good upper body strength, the age of the opponent will not matter,” she asserts.