Wheelchair tennis ace Boniface Prabhu was recently presented the Swabhiman Award 2011 in the city. Mausumi Sucharita says he's a shining example of how one can overcome disabilities to excel.

Boniface Prabhu makes a graceful entry on his wheelchair with a warm smile to shake hands. Boniface Prabhu is one of the pioneers of wheelchair tennis in India and a guiding force for many wheelchair tennis players. He had recently come to Mangalore to receive the Swabhiman Award-2011 given by the Mangalore-based weekly Daijiworld, and was staying with a friend in Bendorewell.

Prabhu is ranked India's number one wheelchair tennis player, second in Asia and World number 24. He started his sports career as an athlete and has participated in shot-put, discuss, javelin, table tennis and badminton at national and international levels.

It was during one such event in UK that he was amazed to see the sports played by disabled people and facilities available there. After that he tried his hand at shooting for some time, but shooting being an expensive sports needed sponsorship, which he could not muster at that point of time. Finally he took up wheelchair tennis, the most popular wheelchair sports and his favourite too because of the independence it gives to the player.

Boniface thanks his friends and philanthropists who backed him financially in the early days of his career as finding a sponsor was the most difficult part of his journey. He says “There are many who start with a great zeal but quit midway because of lack of support. That way I was lucky to have some very good-hearted people who supported me during my rough days.”

He used to participate only in two-three tournaments before he started getting sponsorship whereas now he plays 10 to 14 tournaments every year. “Even able-bodied tennis players have a problem finding a sponsor; obviously people are skeptical when it comes to disabled people,” said Boniface.

He has not received any support from the government till date. A private apparel brand has been his sponsor for the last six years and another private firm is the associate sponsors for the last four years.

He was born as a normal child, but a wrong lumbar puncture in a clinic left him partially disabled at the age of four. But neither his parents nor his two brothers gave up on him. They raised him like any other normal child. He could not attend school meant for normal children, so he studied at home all through and appeared for SSLC examinations.

When he decided to take up tennis and met his coach for the first time in 1996, his coach was taken aback by his idea, but gradually they built camaraderie. “I love tennis because I get to travel a lot and meet new people.” He adores John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, David Hall, Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendular and APJ Abdul Kalam.

He had the opportunity to meet then President APJ Abdul Kalam who asked him about his future plans. Prabhu replied that he would like to play tennis on the moon. And that is exactly the kind of confidence this tennis player exudes — the unflinching determination and the “never say die” attitude are all part of his persona.

But unlike regular tennis players, the economics of wheelchair tennis are quite different.

The difference between money spent by a player on the entry fee and the award won is minuscule. He says: “We are working hard to make people aware of our cause. I don't believe in asking ‘Why me?' We don't need sympathy, our community needs more opportunity and empathy.”