If we have the participation of at least one state association, we could have a Grand Slam participant within a decade from now” – Sunil Jain, IWTT Founder

Mr Sunil Jain is the Founder Trustee and Chairman of the Indian Wheelchair Tennis Tour (IWTT). Apart from Tennis, Mr Sunil is a practising Chartered Accountant and Founder of the leading NGO Astha (www.astha.in). 

Mr Sunil was in Mumbai as part of the IWTT’s Mumbai Open powered by L&T Technologies Services, during the first week of November. ITD member Tirtha connected with Mr. Sunil to talk about IWTT and his vision for Wheelchair Tennis.

Explain a bit about the inception of IWTT.

We are an organisation that empowers persons with disabilities and we observed that there are many organisations working on employment and education opportunities but there are not many projects that can enable people with disabilities to break the inhibition and bring the people with and without disabilities together without having the disability factor influence perception. When I was researching how to achieve this I came across the Paralympics movement and I was blown away by what I saw. While everywhere in the world the Paralympic movement was flourishing, the systems in India are still broken.

Why did you choose to start an organisation with respect to Wheelchair tennis?

There is something called classification in para sports. Classification determines which athlete’s functional classification. Classification is a scientific assessment to create a level playing field within a particular sport. For example in swimming we have 11 classifications. So I thought, given there are no systems in India for classification,  it was not possible to get into every sport. While researching Wheelchair tennis, I found out that my issue with classification has been taken care of to a large extent since in tennis there are only 2 classifications: Open and Quad.

Secondly, wheelchair tennis is administered by AITA. I thought AITA is a fairly professional organisation, at least we can strike a conversation on wheelchair tennis and when we started we’ll do a 360 degree approach. We’ll not only work at the grassroots but we’ll also develop a competitive platform. We’ll also work with the administration so that the systems are in place. The tournament that was held in December 2016 in Bangalore was the first ranked tournament in India.

Do you think we can see Indian players competing at Grand Slams soon?

We could. I think we have at least a decade’s work in the current space. If all the stakeholders come together and we have the complete and committed  engagement of at least one state association, within 3 years we will be able to put in a strong and sustainable ecosystem.

Are you optimistic about Wheelchair tennis in India? 

Yes and No. There are things I see which can be better because of which I get very frustrated, but when I see the persons with the disabilities, what moves me day after day is watching kids with disabilities playing tennis and that helps me keep aside the cynicism I face and motivates me to continue the work I do.

Can you tell us a bit about the financial help you are getting and the sponsorships

When we started the first tournament, me and one of my friends Priyanka Shylendra who is also one of the trustees and  the director of operations at IWTT pulled in a lot of corporate and built a proper team from the beginning. Now various companies have funded the tournaments including Cycle Agarbatti, Canara Bank, HDFC Bank etc. Though the biggest support we have had so far has been from L&T Technology services. Mumbai open is the 6th tournament they are supporting out of the 11 organised. There are many many individual donors who keep supporting to sustain the efforts.

Mr Sunil Jain at the IWTT Charminar Open in Hyderabad

Do you have any plans for junior Wheelchair tennis?

Currently there are 15 junior wheelchair tennis players practising in India. Tournament wise we can informally put it together. I have been requesting AITA to create a separate circuit for junior players in India. One of the answers I get is “Where are the players”. To that we reply we need players hence tournaments should be organised; open up the competition, plan and announce tournaments. Players will not come forward until tournaments are held frequently. When we requested AITA to send an entry for the World Team qualifier (which is the wheelchair equivalent of Davis cup), we got the same response – where are the players? I wonder how players will come until there is a competitive structure and opportunities are provided. A well thought out competition structure and a Long Term Development Plan with committed leadership is the need of the hour.

Nalani of Switzerland with the Indian Junior Wheelchair players

Do you have a message for Indian tennis players or fans? 

I do have a message for tennis professionals in India. We have had encouragement from Somdev Devvarmann, who is one of our advisors and other players like Saketh Myneni, Vishnu Vardhan, Rohan Bopanna, Sania Mirza and Ankita Raina but I wish even if one player in their own state represents wheelchair tennis or takes on at least one player, it will be a game changer. If they travel with our players, have talks with stakeholders and help us integrate the sport it will be great.

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