Mohammad Irfan arrived at the National Coaching Centre one and a half years ago looking for some action. Born with a disability, he had never let it come in the way of his love for sports. “I had been dabbling in sports all my life, playing wheelchair cricket with a bit of basketball, volleyball and table tennis, and I was at the Coaching Centre that day to take part in athletics — well, a wheelchair race actually,” says the international all-rounder and left-arm fast bowler.
“That’s where I first heard about wheelchair tennis. It’s big internationally, with inclusion in all the Grand Slams but was previously unheard of in Pakistan,” he says. “I have always known that if you set your mind to it you can almost do or achieve anything. So, there I was signing up,” he smiles.
Several camps and lots of practice sessions later, Irfan is considered one of the best players of the game in Pakistan, to be groomed further as the country looks to make its presence felt on the international map.
Wheelchair tennis, which has recently been introduced in the country by the Pakistan Tennis Federation, has managed to unearth some exciting talent that is all set to make its presence felt on the international scene
“I’m used to playing sports in a wheelchair but wheelchair tennis was something completely different to what I was used to,” says Irfan. “Moving on the court using one arm for maneuvering your wheelchair and the other to hold the racket and keeping an eye on the ball is not so simple. It requires a lot of training.”
Left in a wheelchair because of polio, Mohammad Ayub Khan says he had always enjoyed watching tennis on TV and had been playing on his own for years. “I grew up watching Germany’s Boris Becker play,” he says.
Ayub is also a wheelchair cricketer. “I would often bring my tennis racket to the Rashid Latif Academy in Korangi and, after cricket, I would quietly head to this porch there to play some tennis against the wall. But it wasn’t easy. My wheelchair, which was designed to move on grass for cricket, would often tilt on the hard ground during tennis,” he says.
“When I heard of wheelchair tennis starting here, I decided to appear for camp to try my luck too,” he says. “That’s where I realised that the game requires not just any sports wheelchair but a very different and special one. To give you extra balance it has a basic frame with two small wheels at the front and one at the back, along with the regular two big wheels on the sides.”
Pakistan is currently grooming five young men in wheelchair tennis. Their coach Aqeel Shabbir says that training them required that he too know how to play the game in a wheelchair.
“I used to arrive at the Union Club here a couple of hours ahead of the players, to practice in a wheelchair as the club guards watched me and wondered what I was up to. I would tell them it was all part of my work as a coach,” he says.
“I have previously also worked with two young tennis players, Ahsan and Arif, of the Special Olympics team, who bagged three gold medals and one bronze medal in Los Angeles in 2017. But they were special, they didn’t play wheelchair tennis. To teach wheelchair tennis I first had to know what it required and the challenges faced by the players in wheelchairs on the court,” he says.
“I studied the game as well as practised court running in a wheelchair along with the other drills. The players needed to understand that being normal physically, if I could play in a wheelchair, they could do it better than me, as obviously they had more practice,” the coach says.
He also explains that the game is just like any other normal tennis game being played on a normal size court too. The only difference in wheelchair tennis is that the ball is allowed to bounce twice and the second bounce can also occur outside the court. And of course that it is played in a wheelchair.
“Still, not everyone can do it,” he says. “The first camp we held saw some 20 players, including girls, showing up. But we are left with only a few now after extended camps and continuous practice and short listing, which got us from 20 to 10 and then eight and five now.”
“Irfan is playing some very good tennis. Ayub is also good, but he is overweight which requires more effort from him in the wheelchair. Then there is Yasir, a Pakhtun boy, with lots of determination and some great handwork. But he needed help in the maneuvering of the wheelchair.
“I am a normal tennis coach but I give extra time to my wheelchair players as they need more practice and can also do with individual attention and encouragement. Rehmani Sahab of the Pakistan Tennis Federation [PTF] is also there to help them in whatever way that he can. He got them wheelchairs and he finds them sponsors too,” he says.
PTF’s Special Vice President (Wheelchair Tennis) Khalid Rehmani, says that he had been following wheelchair cricket here for a while and wanted to develop wheelchair tennis too when he was working as the secretary general of the federation, from 2014 to 2018. “I knew we could do it. All we needed was talent and proper equipment,” he says, adding that, since the racket used in the game is the same used in any tennis, the equipment he was talking about was really the wheelchairs.
“PTF was able to get four tennis wheelchairs from China. Then, after lining up a few sponsorships from the corporate sector and the Sindh Sports Board, we started our talent hunt from Karachi,” he says.
“Wheelchair tennis is also a part of the Paralympics but Pakistan had never taken part in it. So, when the International Tennis Federation suggested we start a wheelchair tennis wing, I thought of first seeing if we can even unearth any talent here by holding our first proper camp in January 2018. Starting from there we have come to five worthy players and I am now thinking of trying them out in an international competition, for which I am looking at suitable events in neighbouring countries to at least put Pakistan on the international map. It will be a real boost [for the sport] as more kids here will hear of it and want to join us,” he says.
“I am also trying to manufacture good wheelchairs for the game, because we only have four proper chairs at the moment and need many more,” he adds.
Nothing beats good old Pakistani ingenuity.
“One chair from China cost us about Rs80,000,” explains Rehmani. “But I have recently found an engineer here who is working on replicating them. One chair is almost ready and it only cost us Rs17,000 to make. Perhaps not as perfect and fast as the ones from China, but we can still use the locally-made ones for rallies and ground strokes which can be done while not moving around too much on the court.
“A wheelchair tennis player gets used to his or her own chair. After getting set in it, if you give them another chair, it just won’t be the same thing for them. So we definitely need more international-standard wheelchairs if we want to groom more talent. And for that we also need more sponsors,” he concludes.
The writer is a member of staff
She tweets @HasanShazia
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 16th, 2019