“She likes you,” Mirka Vavrinec told her boyfriend, tennis star Roger Federer, and captured the scene of affection unfolding before her on camera.
Three-year-old Abhinaya, a miracle survivor of the tsunami, was sitting beside the 25-year-old Federer at the Cuddalore Orphanage on Friday. Suddenly, won over by the tennis star’s charm, she had placed her head in his lap.
The world No 1 from Switzerland is on a visit to Cuddalore and other areas around Pondicherry this weekend as a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) goodwill ambassador. He spent the day visiting schools and shelters in Cuddalore for the families affected by the tsunami.
The killer waves that hit coastal towns in South Asia on December 26, 2004, took 617 lives in Cuddalore — Abhinaya’s parents among them. The girl herself was swept away, but somehow escaped death. Found in a bush four days later, she now lives with nearly 70 children in the orphanage. “Very cute,” Federer said when asked about the afternoon spent in the company of the children and teachers. “Kids are the key to the future and I am happy to see they are in good shape despite what happened two years ago.”
Earlier in the day, the district collector of Cuddalore briefed the winner of nine Grand Slam titles about the progress made by the region in bouncing back from the tsunami.
FedEx’s second stop was the rebuilt Thazhanguda village, where he visited the Panchayat Union Middle School and enjoyed a puppet show enacted by the students. He also popped into the classrooms.
“He wanted to know how quickly the children were learning; he wanted them to demonstrate their grasping power to him,” said Thara Begam, a Class I teacher. Begam said she did not know Federer by name but was aware that he was a tennis star.
In fact, that was the case with most. But they felt the impact of his pleasant manner — he ended every engagement with a bowed namaste — and aura.
Before the puppet show, Federer recalled the catastrophe that was the tsunami. “I was in Dubai when the tsunami struck,” he said. “I saw the footage on television and could not believe the devastation. That is why I came here. I wanted to see for myself what the situation was. Being a tennis player, I make way too much money. These are my prime years to help wherever I can.”