To the average tennis watcher, deaf tennis is not visually distinct different “regular” tennis. For those on the court, however, those familiar calls of “Out!” “Let for service” and more are all signalled through sign language and hand movements designed specifically for the purpose.
One might not think sound is essential to a sport where watching the ball is key, but the best in the business have said - on repeated occasion - just how crucial it is. Just ask a woman who has won over 50 Grand Slam titles across disciplines over the years. Martina Navratilova has been outspoken about the unfairness of grunting in tennis, saying it disguises the sound of the ball. Former No. 1s - and Andys, Murray and Roddick, too, have had their problems with not being able to hear the ball, which is perhaps the best indicator of how flat a ball has been hit, or how much spin is on it, and helps particularly when a player is at the net.
For Chennai-based Prithvi Sekhar, playing at Deaf tennis tournaments since 2011, he relies on sight and instinct. 26-year-old Sekhar was born with profound hearing loss, which is defined as the inability to hear any sound below 90 decibels. To put that in perspective, the sound an industrial vacuum cleaner makes is approximately 75 decibels. According to most international health boards, any sound above 85 decibels is considered harmful to the human ear. But without his hearing device, these are sounds Sekhar cannot hear.
Unseeded at the 2019 World Deaf Tennis Championships, Sekhar on Monday won not just one medal but two, a gold in the men’s singles and bronze in the men’s doubles, with his partner, Prashanth Dasharath Harsambhavi. Sekhar has had quite the decorated history in his six years representing India; he first played for the country in 2013, as part of India’s delegation to the Deaf Olympics in Sofia, Bulgaria. Then only 17 and relatively inexperienced in terms of that form of the game, Sekhar says his teammates and family were an integral part of keeping him encouraged, and he finished fifth in the doubles that year.
At the inaugural World Deaf Tennis Championships of 2015, Sekhar repeated that result, finishing fifth in the singles overall. “The scoring is the same,” he says, “the game, all of it, is the same. I just cannot hear the ball, the line judges sign, calls for serve are signed.” But detailed academic studies have shown that humans have quicker reactions to auditory stimuli than they do to visual cues, and in a sport such as tennis where judging the ball milliseconds before it reaches you is key, that stimulus is crucial.
But for Sekhar, who has been playing the game since he was eight years old, it is something that has become part of his game. Neither family nor peers ever made him feel he was “different” in any way, and barring the use of a hearing aid sine his childhood, Sekhar himself has not considered himself in any way different.
Indeed, the 26-year-old has been active on the ITF circuit, playing ‘regular’ tennis with his hearing device in. And there is no question of Sekhar’s busy calendar; in the past two months, Sekhar has played three tournaments on the ITF circuit in addition to the World Deaf Championships in Antalya, which concluded last week - and began less than a month after his last tournament.
And until 2011, Sekhar was not aware of the existence of a separate deaf Tennis circuit, when his mother, ever supportive of his sporting career, found that out. Having contacted Tamil Nadu’s Sports Council for the Deaf, he began playing tournaments in 2012, and that year participated in the National Games for the Deaf.
While strong finishes have helped Sekhar buoy himself, medal finishes have certainly helped in terms of encouragement. At the 2017 Deaf Olympics in Samsun, Turkey, Sekhar, with his partner Jafreen Sheikh, won one of India’s five medals at the event; the pair took bronze in the mixed doubles.
Ask Sekhar if he has any “special strategy”, and he says he has none. “I just go into every match focused on my opponent, focused on wanting to win the match. If I kept focusing on racking up medals, I wouldn’t do as well. There’s so much pressure you tend to put on yourself if a medal is all you think of. There is already enough pressure - so I try not to put too much of it on myself.”
That is not to say, he clarifies, that extensive match prep is not crucial. “You need to prepare a good strategy,” he says. “”Go into any and every match, no matter who your opponent is, with a positive mentality and play to win your match. The results will come.”
From playing in the 2012 National Games for the deaf to winning singles gold only last week, Prithvi Sekhar has come a long way. And interestingly, those results for him have been off the court as well. Academically inclined, the computer science graduate also studied German, and balanced his BTech degree with playing on two active tennis circuits, all without a single arrear on his examinations.
Having finished his MBA at Tamil Nadu’s SRM University on a full scholarship, with 100% of his education paid for, Sekhar has been able to balance academics with a well-traveled, growing sporting career. Currently employed with the Indian Coach Factory, the Chennai native also participated in the World Railway Tennis Championships this year, and was part of India’s winning delegation for the 2019 edition, with the country winning all three of its singles rubbers.
But while he has found support from the Sports Authority of India at international events, Sekhar says funding and sponsors have been hard to come by as he pursues his separate singles career - and that balancing them has not been easy work.
In many respects, not the very least academically, Prithvi Sekhar’s trajectory has been very typically Indian - following up a BTech degree with an MBA - as it has been for a tennis player; Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are his all-time favourites - as they are for so many watching, and playing the sport. Eighteen years on from when he first began playing the sport - insisting on keeping to tennis, rather than moving to cricket as many suggested to him, Sekhar believes that his stubbornness - and the support he has had from his family and coach - have been crucial to his success.
Although his academic path may sound rather traditional, Prithvi Sekhar’s career has been anything but.
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Updated Date: Oct 22, 2019 15:34:43 IST