HER FACE tells a story of dejection and the fight to make ends meet. Sunitha Rao, all of 22, walks around with droopy shoulders and a forlorn expression.
The only time one would see her excited and happy is when she hits the ball with élan, clenching her fists in ecstasy. The moment the match is over, loneliness seems to set in.
On Tuesday, after a clinical 6-0, 6-2 win over Neha Uberoi in the first round of the ITF women's tennis tournament, Rao had no coach or family members to point out the errors or cheer her on.
If you ask the world No. 175 about her grim manner, she says: "I am sorry I am not my usual self today."
It has been a couple of weeks since the Bangalore Open, where Rao was upset with the All India Tennis Association (AITA) for choosing Isha Lakhani (world No. 353) and Shikha Uberoi (955) over her for the wildcards.
"I am living alone in the US," she had said. "I am living out of the prize money I earn. Tennis is my profession and I know how hard it is for me to sustain a livelihood. On top of it I am being denied a wildcard despite being the second highest ranked Indian woman after Sania Mirza."
Rao's situation is such that she cannot travel with her coach Bill Eastburn anymore. "I call him all the time," she says. "It is difficult to not to have him around. I can't afford him. It's a struggle to even pay my home bills."
On the one hand, one could sympathise with her for not getting the wildcard despite a creditable ranking. On the other, one can understand the AITA's prerogative for giving the other girls a chance.
Rao is firm she will keep fighting.
"I want to keep playing. My mother often tells me to start studying but I don't want to give up. If I will earn success the hard way, I am in for it."
AITA executive director of development, Ranbir Chauhan, says they are trying to help Rao.
"Sunitha is talented and we are trying to help her in every way possible," he said. "She is a medal prospect for the Commonwealth Games and we are approaching the government for help too."
For a 22-year-old player without the backing of a coach, a family and resources, life can be tough. But Rao is willing herself to find a way.