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Tennis serves it up

Mallika Bajaj | Updated on December 18, 2020 Published on December 18, 2020

Ain’t no mountain high: Bopanna (in the photo) and others found their own little exercise ground — in some cases, a staircase in their apartments — and newer ways to train indoors   -  THE HINDU

How tennis champions came, saw and conquered the pandemic

* As in every sector, the sports industry, with a global value estimated at $756bn at the end of 2019, has been badly hit by Covid-19

* India’s tennis double specialist and Arjuna awardee Divij Sharan was on the first flight out as early as in August 2020 as soon as the revised provisional calendar of the ATP was announced

* “We’re so glad to have our employment at a time like this,” Rohan Bopanna says

***

Tennis champion Rohan Bopanna was at his coffee plantation in Coorg with his family, including wife Supriya and little daughter Tridha, for a three-day break when the government announced a lockdown in March. The 40-year-old Roland Garros Grand Slam winner saw it as a boon: For the first time he’d have time with his newborn and have his family all in one place after 25 years of a hectic tennis schedule.

Pandemic warrior: There is no better feeling than to be able to represent India again, Bopanna says   -  THE HINDU

 

Soon, though, Bopanna, also an Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award and Arjuna Award winner, began missing his game. “There is no better feeling than to be able to represent India again,” he says.

As in every sector, the sports industry, with a global value estimated at $756bn at the end of 2019, has been badly hit by Covid-19. Every part of the sporting value chain had been affected, from leagues, matches and championships to media and merchandise. What is worse is the plight of an athlete in a pandemic: No access to training grounds or gyms, nor any competitions to look forward to.

But there is good news, after all. Ask Indian athletes, who are best trained to find that light at the end of every tunnel. In the thick of these novel coronavirus days, when it seemed almost unlikely that a player would be able to fly from one country to another to compete, some pulled it off.

India’s tennis double specialist and Arjuna awardee Divij Sharan was back on the first flight out as early as in August 2020 as soon as the revised provisional calendar of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) was announced after the interruption of professional tennis for the first time in 21 years.

Flight mode: It was scary for Divij Sharan not knowing what to expect, with the worry that he was putting himself at risk of catching the virus   -  IMAGE COURTESY: DIVIJ SHARAN

 

Asked what encourages him to keep going, donning that uncomfortable mask and PPE to get on board those unending red-eye flights, he tells BLink: “It was scary, not knowing what to expect and always the worry that you are putting yourself at risk of catching the virus; but then there is that competitiveness, and enthusiasm to do what we love the most.”

Despite the uncertainties and inconveniences, he stresses that it is the game that drives players to get better and fitter every day. “We ought to keep reminding ourselves of how we know no better, keep fighting through all the pain and injuries, and the tough days at office. It’s what sets pros apart. The pandemic was no different.”

On an average, to sustain and better their rankings, a pro must be on the road, competing for about 30-35 weeks a year complying with the ATP calendar.

Bopanna was confident from the start that the ATP would take all required safety measures for the players on tour. Of course, there was anxiety, with 40 Covid-19 tests undergone in less than three months. “Organisers have kept us safe, they’re been thinking ahead of time and have been prepared for the worst, which allows us athletes to focus and do what we do best — playing tennis,” he says. “We’re so glad to have our employment at a time like this.” Bopanna’s first flight was from Bengaluru to New York for the Cincinnati Masters in August.

Arjun Kadhe, one of India’s brightest new singles additions to the squad, who claimed his second title in less than a month of being back on tour, says, “My family was not sure, but I wanted to do it so bad — I had been ready too long. To begin with, there was such little information about international immigrations and outbound flight during the pandemics; I was afraid of course, our numbers in India were growing exponentially and the border rules for each country were erratic.”

Battle ready: When Arjun Kadhe heard that he could play in Egypt, he opted to do so   -  IMAGE COURTESY: ARJUN KADHE

 

Additionally, he was aware that the tour had changed: “We only had those many countries we could pick from.” When he heard that he could opt to play in Egypt, he did so, even though the US$15,000-prize money would not cover his travel and other costs. “I got onto the first best option I found at hand. It was most certainly worth the risk — putting the flag up there, in a time like this, what else does an athlete representing his country dream for,” says Kadhe, who won the doubles there with his Ukrainian partner Vladyslav Manafov.

How did they train in the absence of support staff and facilities? Each one of them found their own little exercise ground — in some cases, a staircase in their apartments — and newer ways to train indoors, such as with the use of heavy rice sacks as weights.

“From training in Germany and being on top of my fitness goals for the year to finding myself in quarantine back home in Pune was quite a shock,” Kadhe reveals. “But then I invaded my kitchen, got those 10-kg rice bags out alongside filling up my suitcases as weights for squats, lunges.”

Fifteen times a day, he walked up eight floors and took the elevator down for endurance. “Fortunately for me, I had a medicine [exercise] ball; unfortunately for my family I used it on the walls — it was hilarious to see them praying I don’t break the walls of our home. All’s safe for now and while I managed to maintain my fitness, this may remain one of my most prized memories of the pandemic,” he says.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going, an old adage says. These tennis aces are testimony to that. Follow the safety and hygiene protocols, and play on is their mantra.

Sharan hopes that not only the slams, but also the Olympics in Tokyo will be back on track and soon all this will be behind them. “Wimbledon’s my favourite slam so I definitely missed playing it this year; also, praying that Tokyo happens next year, and we get enough time to prepare for it,” he says.

Mallika Bajaj is the founder director of Little Yellow Beetle, a digital media studio and is based in New Delhi

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Published on December 18, 2020
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