Jayant Mistry, who has mastered wheelchair tennis, uses his expertise to promote the sport among the physically challenged at the grassroots level

It takes tremendous will to see an opportunity in a wheelchair sport and commit oneself to it as a way of life. Jayant Mistry was born with Spina Bifida (split spine), but his love for sport was nurtured independent of the restrictions his condition imposed on him. What followed was a sporting career that began with wheelchair basketball at the age of 13, and thereafter, wheelchair tennis. His training in basketball enabled his relatively easier movement around the tennis court, but it took Mistry nearly eight years to master the logistical nuances of wheelchair tennis before he decided to turn professional at 27.

The Leicester-raised Mistry’s natural skills and sheer determination took him to as high as No.8 in the world, and earned him 68 professional titles — including Wimbledon and the Masters — in a two-decade wheelchair tennis career, which included his participation in the Paralympics for Britain.

Mistry currently uses his knowledge and experience to promote the sport as the International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) Player Ambassador for wheelchair tennis. He was in the city on a three-day visit with Stuart Wilkinson, Mistry’s coach of six years, who coaches Beijing Paralympics gold medallist Peter Norfolk and World No. 1 Shingo Kunieda, and the All India Tennis Association’s Nar Singh, to review the ITF-promoted Silver Fund Project that encourages the physically challenged at grassroots level to play the sport.

Fifteen players from Chennai, the highest number in India, are in the national circuit, with S. Balachander and D. Mariappan ranked in the ITF list. The Tamil Nadu Tennis Association provides courts free of cost for the players to practise on. “I am impressed with the skill-levels here, and I’m sure that if they continued working harder we’d see more tournament wins. The ITF is keen on promoting the sport here and is looking at providing players with more chairs, inexpensive ones (the customised ones used by professionals cost nearly Rs. 2 lakh) in the future,” said Mistry.

Besides coaching the players and working on their skills, and educating coaches, the three-day visit included spreading awareness in schools and colleges, and proposing the idea of integrating wheelchair tennis into the mainstream programme.

“A lot of help can be given to the players, but it’s important they realise that only they can help themselves. They have to be more independent, right from picking up their own balls, and have to make time for practice. Nothing substitutes practice. As players, we have to think about what we can do to make things better for ourselves,” said Mistry.

Importance of motivation

Wilkinson added that keeping the players enthusiastic was crucial towards producing better results and getting others into the sport. “Staying motivated is as important as the technical improvisations in the sport. I spoke to them about training to ensure better consistency, speed, power and control over faster shots, but this is important as well. There is a good system here, and Chennai could be in the top-30 in three to four years.”

Considerable progress has been made worldwide in promoting the sport and increasing awareness, but Mistry says social attitude will take longer to change. “People still watch us play and look surprised; like they cannot understand why we’re doing this. It has also been difficult for wheelchair tennis to be perceived as a professional sport, rather than a charity exhibition event. We’ll need more time to effect these changes, but it’s encouraging that more players are viewing the sport now as a professional career. The ITF sees wheelchair tennis as a priority now and offers substantial prize money. The US Open offers prize money of $100,000 for the wheelchair event, with the men’s singles winner getting $12,000 and the women’s singles winner, $7,000. Almost all the events have good prize money.

“The sport has given me so much and made me what I am. And as a fully qualified tennis coach and a motivational speaker (in schools and colleges), I am looking to make a difference wherever I can.”

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