The Board syndrome regularly hits Indian tennis. Just when the players are on the cusp of mushrooming, the class X exam looms and parents herd their wards from the freedom of the playing field. Tennis administrator Rajan Kashyap had had enough of it as far back as 1991.
The other thing that bothered Kashyap was that the sport stayed confined to the urban-born while many with the basic physical aptitude continued to be ignored. “The plan was simple: cast the net wide and the catch is bound to be rich. Rural Punjab offered a reservoir of talent that was waiting to be tapped,” said Kashyap who began the rural tennis scheme at the Chandigarh Lawn Tennis Association 18 years ago. “We felt that these kids would make sport their priority above all else.”
The scheme's high point came with the fairytale rise of Sunil Kumar Sipaeya to the men’s national crown in 1999. He was all of 16 and had been plucked from the Rail Coach Factory in Kapurthala, where his father was a clerk, to the tennis courts by CLTA’s spotters in 1992. In 2000, he was chosen for the Indian team for the Davis Cup tie against Lebanon and stays the poster boy of the programme.
“CLTA has fundamentally altered my life. It’s true that I have been struggling around the 500-level in the world rankings for a long time but how many kids from a place like Kapurthala can boast that they are among the top-500 in the world?” Sipaeya told HT from the US where he is currently undergoing treatment for back pain. “People keep saying that more could have been done to support me but my point is that I have travelled the world and have a lifestyle my friends back home cannot even dream of. All this has come from tennis. The rural scheme gave all of us better avenues in life. That, I feel, has been its greatest success.”
While Sipaeya sparkled on court, the likes of Robin Kumar Dhingra, Birbal Wadhera and Chatwinder Singh have gone on to become tennis coaches and are earning amounts way beyond anything their parents managed from years of toil. The strength of the scheme has been to provide children from an poor background a shot at sporting glory while ensuring they get a decent education and good nutrition.
On the tennis front, success has been sporadic. After Sipaeya, the next reasonable player to emerge from the ranks is Vijayant Malik. One of the key factors has been CLTA’s inability to provide good coaching consistently. After the high of 1999 – when the body had as many as four national titles – the assembly line faltered.
CLTA concedes the fact that it still lacks finances to send its trainees for exposure. “Whatever we spend on these kids is from our own budget. We do not get help from any one. Many players also lack the patience and our biggest challenge has been to sustain interest of the coaches and the players,” Kashyap said.
Akhtar Ali who has been associated with this programme for long agrees that funding is a big issue. “After a certain level the player needs to be assigned a travelling coach and made to play higher-level tournaments. I think Sipaeya, Malik and many more could have been far better off had they been exposed early,” he said.
Even if it has not achieved the heights of producing top-notch players, CLTA does continue to occupy the high ground of altering lives for the better. “We might not have been able to achieve much because of lack of funds but still, I would say we are better off than what we would have been had it not been for this scheme,” said Dhingra, the another success of the scheme having won the Asian U-16 crown in 1994.