Where there is a wheel, there is a way. Mariappan Durai and Balachandar Subramanian, India's top two wheelchair tennis players would find this statement amusing because it aptly clarifies their passion for the game.
The sport was introduced in India in 1994 but promoted actively since 2005 by the All India Tennis Association (AITA) with the help of the International Tennis Federation.
"I took up the game on the advice of my doctor because I kept experiencing back pain," says Balachandar. Initially playing only on weekends at the SDAT Nungambakkam Stadium, he now trains five days a week.
Being affected by polio since childhood hasn't dampened their zeal. "It was difficult learning to maneuver the wheelchair and play tennis alongside. Once we got the hang of it after watching videos online, the main issue revolved around fitness," Balachandar, the world No. 298, said.
For a wheelchair-bound athlete, it's all about upper body strength. "Our lower body has no work," laughed Mariappan. After strengthening the biceps and triceps, comes endurance work in the gymnasium to have the stamina to be able to push a wheelchair on court. "It's very hard work," states the world No. 233. Harder work than what an able-bodied player puts in? "Tougher," said Balachandar, who trains four times a week.
Even if you have the skill, it all boils down to the question of money. "Sponsors ask what will be their gain. So, we can only go and ask for support once we can prove ourselves on the international front."
But then, is money not an issue? "Our wheelchairs are basic models for beginners. We haven't been able to afford a customized one yet because it costs over R2 lakhs. For each tournament we have to spend on travel and $300 as entry fees," they answer. They have been getting some help in recent times from AITA and Tamil Nadu State Association. AITA paid for them this week because they are representing India in the Asia zone World Team Cup qualifications at the RK Khanna Stadium. If they emerge winners in the round-robin format against Malaysia and Sri Lanka, they will qualify for the World Group 2 event in Korea in May.
"Indian players don't have much exposure," says head coach Nar Singh. "We hope this is a good beginning."
London Paralympics dreams are not a reality for this pair who became the first wheelchair tennis players to represent India in the 2010 Asian Para Games. Currently playing in the ITF Futures level, they must improve rankings to make the higher grades in the Wheelchair Tennis Tour. "One day surely," sighs Balachandar.