Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tips and pats on the back

Days after his mixed doubles triumph at the Australian Open, Mahesh Bhupathi landed up at the Regional Sports Centre and interacted with young players and parents

Photo: The author with Mahesh Bhupathi at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

“You go first,” said Nivedita Marya John, 15.

“No, you go,” said Nikita Rose John, 14, pushing her friend.

A few ‘you go firsts’ later they rushed to stand on either side of 11-time Grand Slam tennis champion Mahesh Bhupathi, so that a photograph is taken.

Later Nivedita said, “Oh yes, we were very nervous and excited. But he is a very friendly person.”

Bhupathi was in town last week to spend time with kids who are training at the Mahesh Bhupathi Team Tennis Academy at the Regional Sports Centre. Over 100 boys and girls of varying ages were trading shots with each other under the supervision of head coach Man Singh Thapa and director Shankar Krishnaswamy.

Bhupathi walked around, carefully watching the youngsters and identifying the errors in technique. “When he saw that all my shots were going into the net he told me my swing was too short,” said Nivedita. “He said I needed to have a longer stroke.”

Shankar said that Bhupathi noticed several minor flaws, like improper footwork, the wrong positioning of the elbows and the lack of balance when playing a shot. “But he felt the players were hitting the ball well and that was a good sign,” he said.

An hour later it was time for autographs and all sort of things were proffered to Bhupathi to sign: a tennis ball, books, pieces of paper and a racket cover. He also autographed different parts of the racket: the shaft, hand-grip, butt cap and the beam.

But even this veteran of thousands of autographs was taken aback when a boy proffered a white paper. Bhupathi held it to the sunlight and says, “A Reliance Fresh bill.” He broke into a broad smile, flipped it over and signed with a flourish.

Later, a meeting was organised with the parents and the star to clear any doubts. Parent Dr. Sasikala Venugopal said: “We are very proud of your achievements. We are proud to have you in Kochi. We know our children are in the best hands.”

Bhupathi smiled and remained silent. When another parent says that tennis is a costly game, he said, “I know, I have been playing the game for 30 years.”

Bhupathi talked about the concept of mini tennis. “This is an idea that has been around in Europe and America for the past 15 years,” he said. “The balls are softer, as compared to regular ones, so that it does not bounce very high. As a result, the children can play longer rallies, and the risk of injuries is less.”

Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Andy Roddick played mini tennis before graduating to the junior circuit.

A parent asked whether a ball-feeding machine can be set up. Bhupathi said, “We have ball-feeding people and they are better because they can spot out errors of technique.”

When another parent asked about the right diet, Bhupathi exclaimed, “When I came into the hall I saw vadas on the table. The emphasis should be on fruits and vegetables. There is too much of white rice in the diet. You have to cut down on sweets, aerated drinks and have fried food only once a month.”

When the hall let out a collective groan, Bhupathi smiled and said, “Just remember, if you eat two samosas more than your opponent he will win. It is as simple as that.”

Trophies were distributed by Bhupathi for outstanding achievements in the past one year and the one who received the loudest applause was Rynold Timothy, who is ranked No. 1 in the state.

Following the conclusion of the meeting Bhupathi went straight to the airport, to take a flight to Chennai. Thereafter, he was going to Bangalore and Delhi for business meetings, before he headed to the United Arab Emirates for the Dubai Open.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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