Bengaluru, December 12: Shekar Veeraswamy and Prathima Rao, two of India's leading wheelchair tennis players, limped up to the dais of the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association's press conference room. The message from them was clear - "Don't sympathise with us, give us an opportunity instead."
The next five days at the KSLTA courts will anyway be only about them when the Indian Wheelchair Tennis Tour (IWTT) conducts its third All India Tennis Association (AITA) ranking tournament for men and women.
But they hope it doesn't stop there.
"As a country, we are not wheelchair friendly," Arjuna awardee athlete Reeth Abraham, a guest at the event, said. "So it's heart-warming for me to see this opportunity given for these special people."
The event, conducted by NGO Astha, will feature 42 participants (six women and 36 men) from all over the country compete in the men's singles, men's doubles, women's singles and women's doubles title. After the Marina Open in Chennai in August, this is the second wheelchair tennis event of the year in the country. Veeraswamy, 29, is the defending champion, but he faces stiff competition from Balachander, the winner at Marina Open. Rao, 34, is the women's top seed at this tournament, named Tabebuia Open Championship Trophy of the Indian Wheelchair Tennis Tour.
"I hope to do well here," Veeraswamy, who became disabled after a road accident in 2008, said. "I will give my best with what I have. To do really well, I will need a better wheelchair to play tennis on. The one I have costs Rs 25,000, while a good one, which will help in easier mobility, costs around Rs 3 lakh. If I get a better wheelchair, I will definitely be able to break into the top-10 in the world."
The Round of 32 matches kick off Thursday onwards (December 14). The qualifiers for the men's singles main draw will be held on Wednesday (December 13). The matches will be held from 9.30 am to 4 pm.
Only general class wheelchair tennis will be played as there are no quad players in India. The only change in rules from regular tennis is that the receiver can return the ball on the second bounce during a serve. This second bounce can be even outside the court.
"The biggest challenge is awareness," said Sunil Jain, founder trustee of Astha, the NGO that supports wheelchair tennis. "Paralympic sports are still considered charity events by many. But it's a human development model, which will help the participant come out more confident and self-reliant. We're trying to change that perception by conducting these events. But we still have a long way to go. There are not many coaches who can train wheelchair tennis players. Moreover, courts, racquets and sports wheelchairs are not made available for them."
Davis Cupper Prahlad Srinath, another guest of honour, said he was ready to let the wheelchair tennis players train at his academy. "Playing sports lets you handle difficulties, failures and prepares you for life. We're open to helping these stars out by offering them my academy's tennis courts to train whenever they want," Srinath, who is a Mysuru native, said.
Former Indian cricket captain Rahul Dravid, who supports the cause, said in a release: "To watch the passion with which differently-abled sportspersons play is really inspiring. We need to do all we can to help them in their sporting journeys as I believe it will lead to a much stronger community."
French Open mixed doubles winner Rohan Bopanna, who was present at the KSLTA on Tuesday, said: "The commitment of the team at IWTT is commendable. To develop the sport at the grassroot level, it is very important that there are regular competitions like these. These competitions will motivate more people to take up this sport. I hope IWTT gets support from everyone and Indian Wheelchair Tennis gets onto the world map soon."