26/09/2016 3:18 PM IST | Updated 26/09/2016 6:12 PM IST

Meet Prathima Rao, A 33-Year-Old Single Mother Who Plays International Wheelchair Tennis

She was diagnosed with polio at three years of age.

Courtesy Prathima Rao
Prathima N. Rao started playing tennis in 2012.

Prathima Rao was 28 years old, and mother to a six-year-old child, when she was reeling from the aftermath of a divorce. The Mangalorean was no stranger to struggle--at age three she was diagnosed with polio, and the crippling infection permanently damaged her right leg, forcing her to walk with the help of a caliper for the rest of her life. Yet, the 2012 incident left her depressed, she told HuffPost India.

It was then, right after she had moved back with her parents in their Bengaluru house, that she started playing tennis. "I had never played before," she told HuffPost India. "But my shoulder strength was good, I discovered."

It is this extraordinary journey of her self-realisation and determination to excel, that brought her, four years later, on Sunday, to win both the singles and doubles medal in the state-level lawn tennis championship in Karnataka. The 33-year-old, however, is already focused on her next tournament--the Bangkok Cup and Malaysia Cup that will be held next month, where she will represent India.

Even though her love for tennis preceded her actual involvement--she had long enjoyed watching Leander Paes and Sania Mirza play, and identified them as her idols--she began with trying her hand in archery and even athletics training. However, she soon realised that it was tennis which was her true calling.

Rao started frequenting the stadium at the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association (KSLTA). She would use a wheelchair to play tennis, which adds a layer of toughness to the game. "We have to carry the racket with the wheelchair wheels," she said, "which means we have to rotate the wheels and move the racket in a fraction of a second."

Courtesy Prathima Rao

The 33-year-old international wheelchair tennis player has represented her state in the national games, and been India's representative in Malaysia and Bangkok. Her schedule is uncompromising--she plays for two hours every morning at 6am, before heading to her day job at the front office of a large company that manufactures electric wires and cables. "I have to work, otherwise we will struggle," she said. Tennis is her passion, but doesn't pay the bills.

She spends her weekend training at KSLTA with her coach Ramesh, who is the chief trainer there, and has been teaching Rao for free for the past year.

In 2013, she represented Karnataka in the National Paralympic Wheelchair Tennis Championship, where she made it till the semi-finals. Last year, she was a finalist in both the single and doubles tournaments in the National Wheelchair Championship of India.

The same year, she travelled to Thailand for the Bangkok Cup, where she won a consolation prize in the singles tournament, and reached the quarter finals in the doubles game. She also represented India in the Malaysia Cup last year, where she was a semi-finalist in the doubles tournament. "I could not compete properly because it was harder with the wheelchair I was using," she said.

So this year, before heading to both the international tournaments again, she began a crowd-funding campaign on Wishberry to buy a special wheelchair, which has more advanced and faster technology, improving its maneuverability. "I am inspired by your love for the game," commented one of the 37 donors who made it possible for her to buy the wheelchair.

Courtesy Prathima Rao
Prathima with her 10-year-old son, Prithvi.

While she credits her friends and family, who always show up for her games, for the motivation she needs for playing the game, she prizes her 10-year-old son Prithvi's support. "He told me he wants to see me in TV next year," she said, adding that it motivates her to try harder.

She holds the 182nd world rank in her category, she told HuffPost India, and her target is to compete in the Paralympics in 2020. "I need to play more international games so that I can be ranked in the top 100," she said.

"My goal is to play in the Wimbledon."

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