Updated: February 1, 2015 11:21:28 am
The dull, painful death of hope had started at five that evening in Chennai. The ball failed to limp over the net and N Vijay Sundar Prashanth, with a two-day stubble and a eight-year-old dream, winced as he walked up slowly for the customary handshake. Just a few feet away, an old man in dhoti unbent his creaking knees and stood up. Prashanth walked over to put a hand over his grandfather’s shoulder, muttered something into his ear, accepted his friends’ “hard luck machi” and walked out of the Chennai Open earlier last month. He had qualified for the main draw for the first time in eight years, and it had ended abruptly. It was all heartbreakingly sad.
Only it wasn’t. A few months ago, Prashanth was swinging his racquet in a small Austrian town with the gorgeous Alps in the foreground. When he had got down from the train at Bludenz, a town close to the Swiss border, it hit him — the delicious smell of chocolate that was everywhere.“I thought my friend was exaggerating when he’d told me. It was … I don’t know how to explain it,” his voice drips with awe. Turns out that the Milka chocolate brand has a factory in the town. “I am pretty lucky to live the life I am leading, playing tennis.”
The heartbeat of tennis is in the tour, away from the razzmatazz of the Grand Slams. In the anonymity of the qualifiers, in the club games in small unknown towns around the world, in the eyes of professionals transported into an alien world, in cold rooms in Europe, in a small restaurant in a motel in nowhere. It is in a petrol pump somewhere, filling up the gas in a rental car en route to play a game, where tea and cold snacks await them in a little clubhouse filled with chatter and laughter, on a couch in an Airbnb room far, far away from home.
Prashanth is one such player, one of the thousands who live on the periphery of the glamorous tennis world, travelling alone for six to seven months in a year. It’s a life he loves. A loss is washed down by a microwaved sambhar and chana masala in a small town in Germany where only 30,000 people live, a win by a heated pre-packaged meal after the club players have left for their homes. Where you walk into an empty room and cannot understand the language filtering out of the television.
It’s the first week of 2015. Prashanth is 28, and has just had the best week of his tennis career in the prelims of the Chennai Open. That first-round loss in the outer-courts, a two-minute walk from the dazzle of the centre-court, a two-minute walk into anonymity, had come on the back of an impressive qualifier where he had beaten Yuki Bhambri and had pushed his ATP ranking to an all-time personal high of 499. Out of all those 10,000-odd people slugging it out in courts across the world, Prashanth is within the top 500. “499,” he re-iterates. As it turns out, three weeks later, he has slipped to 500. Every point, every rank matters in this individual sport.
Prashanth is a middle-class boy who shouldn’t be living this life. It isn’t an inexpensive sport but he has his genes from a father who has put himself out there, trying his best to put together a decent living for the family. His father now sells bubble-top mineral water. He had once tried selling dishwashers, had sold tickets of three airlines, all defunct now. He has done this and that. It was his maternal grandfather Shankara Subramaniam who wanted Prashanth to become a tennis player. That hunched man in dhoti, who hobbled off quietly that Chennai evening, was the man who has dragged him to tennis courts through his childhood.
His travelling life began five years ago. A friend suggested a small club in Philippsberg, a town in Germany, historically a disputed property between Germany and France, with a population of just over 10,000, and where anti-nuclear protests were held in 2011. It’s here that his “first journey to the West” started. At this club that plays in fifth-division, its local players go to colleges or work and no one speaks fluent English. Prashanth is expected to turn out for the seven matches for his club — he gets €700 per game. Apart from that, he was on his own. He would stir out of his bed at 8 am, and after a quick breakfast of cereals, head out for a training session if any player was available. Then back to his room for the afternoon, to a meal of canned food. More practice in the evening. Day after day. That year, he didn’t go anywhere. Slowly, as he grew more comfortable with his team-mates — winning all his seven matches helped — and started understanding their broken English, he started to plan the next year better.
To sustain himself at this level, and to have enough money for the travel it involves, Prashanth learnt that he had to participate, and win, the prize-money tournaments that take place across Europe. If you don’t win, you don’t win anything. So the investment, and choice of tournaments, had to be done judiciously. He writes to the organisers for free accommodation. An email saying that he is a professional player from India usually does the trick. “Out there, it’s not like India. They look at professional players as …,” he struggles and settles for “exotic”. Would “respect” fit better? He smiles shyly. “I didn’t want to say that, but yes, there is definitely a lot more respect. When I tell someone that I am a professional player, they respect it. Here…” There is no need for him to say anything. His relatives have asked him many times why he is playing a sport and when will he get serious about a career.
Life began to look up in 2011, the year of his travels. He is in Germany, he is in Austria, he is in London. Usually staying at a room in a member’s house. “Warm and friendly people”, who respect him for what he does. In London, he learns that there is a prize-money tournament in Birmingham. He checks the Airbnb site, which is now one of the most frequented sites on his laptop. Everything is costly, at least £60 for a night. He can’t afford it — what if he doesn’t win? On a back page on the site, he finds a listing for £10. “It said a couch turned into a mattress in the living room and it said students.” So he goes to find a houseparty raging in the room. “It was great fun. The owner says throw the bag into my room and join the party.” Every night, after a game, Prashanth comes home to cook Indian food for himself and for the roomies. “I had great fun that week. They took me around the city, introduced me to their friends.”
Next, he is in China. He is no longer a vegetarian because eating meat makes it a lot easier to live on the circuit. It was helpful for his fitness too. But Prashanth has his culinary limits. Like snakes and scorpions. “People were lapping them up. I didn’t try them out though,” he says.
Meanwhile, back in Germany, they had privatised the bus service. It was the third year of his touring life and his base was now the “bigger” city of Pforzhein with its 1,20,000 inhabitants. He no longer needed to take more expensive trains to travel out of Pforzhein. “Now for just €8, I could travel 600 to 800 km on the bus.” When the tournaments ended early — they are usually played from Friday to Sunday, two games a day — or he didn’t win, he would return to his base, to his club and his room. “That was the best thing. I could come back to my room and play those seven club games for €700 each and not go anywhere if the finances dried up.”
Luckily, Prashanth’s interests allow him to enjoy this life. “If I am bored, I travel to a museum, or visit a winery. I go to memorials, or just take the trams around the city. I go to a friend’s house. I don’t like pubs much. I do drink but just during odd outings with team-mates,” he says. Over the years, he has cultivated a taste for beer — “German beer is so much better than the stuff we get back home” — and has also developed a taste for wine. But it’s all those charming little towns, situated nowhere, tiny dots on the maps, that have wooed him. “Some are so pretty. Their population might be around 30,000. Some don’t even have railway stations; I would get down at a railway station at a nearby city and take the bus or call the organiser to come and pick me up in his car,” he says. It is here that he is always noticed. “In a good way. They learn I have come all the way from India to play tennis, and I get publicity. My photo appears in the local paper because it’s a small town and I am a foreigner,” he says.
It’s a hard-earned life. Eight years ago, his tennis life was going nowhere and his parents were wary about the future. He sat down and told himself that if he had to continue playing tennis — the only thing he wanted to do — he had to find a way to get better. He trained hard, worked on his fitness and started playing around India. Often, he has started his travels with Rs 5,000 for a three-week tour that would involve transport, stay and food. “If I win a tournament, I could get Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000. I told myself if I can win seven-eight such tournaments, I can invest the money back into my game. Luckily, I did. And here I am.”
It’s still not enough to pay for a coach, because foreign coaches are expensive. “$1,000 per week, apart from flight charges and accommodation,” he says. So it’s all self-coaching or at times, his friends — former players who are now coaches — who help him.
It is a solitary life and he doesn’t want to think about the day when it will all end. “Until my body holds, I will play, for this is what I love,” he says. Next time you see him somewhere, go and say “good luck machi”. He’s out there, on his own, alone but not lonely. In a dream.
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