She is a bit taller than the net. The racquet dwarfs her small stature. But 11-year-old R Bhagyasri has big dreams which seem to give her wings as she chases down neon yellow tennis balls on a blood red clay court.
It's just been three months since she began figuring the basics of the sport at the academy set up by the Rafael Nadal Foundation in this mofussil town more famous for its peanut crop.
Before joining the facility propped up by the Rural Development Trust (RDT) in sync with the world number one's philanthropic effort, Bhagyasri had no clue about tennis. She had never seen anybody put racquet to ball, let alone frolic on a court herself. One day she wandered into the academy with a bunch of classmates and now she comes regularly, morning and evening.
For her parents R. Shivanna and Alvelamma, it means there will be one mouth less to feed at home. That in itself is more kindness than anyone else has shown them before.
Chinna Narsimhalu's father has been bed-ridden for the last one year and the family of five has to make do with whatever his mother earns as a farm labourer. P Hari Kumar and K Dilip's families too are happy their boys are getting three wholesome meals a day. That they have talent for a sport played by sahibs is largely an aside.
The sports academies at Anantapur, around 306 km from Hyderabad, have come as a Godsend for about 300 children who train to become professional athletes. The majority of the children come from poor families and conditions are so bad at home that RDT hockey coach Lakshmi Narayan is afraid to send them home even during the vacations. "They invariably lose 5-6 kg as they don't get enough to eat."
The academies, the local people hope, will grease the doors of fortune to swing open for them. They pray that these children would not have to cope with the harsh life that this arid rural hinterland of the nation's second-largest district imposes on the majority.
Anantapur is a prime example of the growing trend in Indian sport - small towns getting ready to steal the march on the metros, which have been the hub of sport till now. The children in these small centers have single-minded devotion to the task at hand. They don't crave for colas, air conditioning or chocolates. They, after all, have a better life to crave for.
Six academies, all set up by RDT, have sprouted in and around the town in the last few years. They include residential hockey academies for boys and girls, football academy with the help of FC Barcelona Foundation, academies for cricket and rural sports (kabaddi and kho kho) besides the tennis school. The hockey academy is run in collaboration with Sticks Amb Hockey (Spanish for Sticks for India) set up by players from Hockey Club Teressa in Barcelona. One of the world's greatest football clubs, Barcelona, has provided funds for the football academies at Bathalapalli, around 20 km out of Anantapur, and at Atmakur, around 40 km into the district.
Nadal donated Rs 35 lakh to set up the academy. He is offering more.
"Nadal has promised Rs 10 lakh every year and is also looking for coaches and former players to visit the academy as volunteers. He has promised to visit the academy once a year," said BF Xavier, director, sports, RDT. Xavier believes that these academies can grow into world-class facilities.
It may be minor, but it's a beginning. The RDT team of 16-year-olds finished runners-up in the C Division League of the Karnataka State Hockey Association at Bangalore. "The players played 10 matches on synthetic turf for the first time and got promoted to the B Division," says coach Narayan.
The people of this area, after all, are no longer content with just peanuts.