Amidst loud applause and fervorous greetings after landing in India, out came Prithvi Sekhar victorious after winning three medals in tennis at the 24th Deaflympics.
A hero’s welcome meant a lot for Prithvi, who played in the 2013 and 2017 editions but didn’t receive much response or recognition. The 2017 Indian contingent staged a six-hour protest outside the airport as no government representatives were present to receive them. India had returned with five medals — a gold, a silver and three bronze medals.
However, this year, India recorded its best Deaflympics performance with 16 medals in 11 disciplines including eight golds, one silver and seven bronze at the Festa da Uva Main Pavilion, Brazil.
Prithvi teamed up with Dhananjay Dubey in men’s doubles to secure a silver medal in this Deaflympics after losing 6(5)-7, 2-6 to Mikael Alix Laurent and Vincent Novelli of France. This was Prithvi’s second Deaflympic medal, following a mixed doubles bronze with Jafreen Shaik in 2017. He combined with Shaik to repeat the feat this year. He finished the Deaflympics with three medals, including a bronze in men’s singles.
The 28-year-old is pleased with his performance, but aspires to do even better.
“I was new to the deaf tennis environment in 2013 and finished fifth. In 2017, I improved significantly and won India a bronze medal in the Deaflympics. People started to recognise me after the 2017 medal, but there was still a lack of awareness of the tournament,” Prithvi says of his Deaflympics journey.
“I had to shrug off the feeling that I have something less and believe that I am no less. Today, I am proud that I could balance sports and studies and I am amongst the few in the country who is professionally qualified (B. Tech and MBA) and can compete in both special and normal categories of tennis. I feel I have come a long way,” he says.
While his Deaflympics journey began in 2013, he began playing tennis at the age of eight. “Since I enjoyed sports, my parents encouraged me to participate in order to boost my self-esteem and confidence. Cricket was my favourite sport, but I couldn’t play in a group game (because of impairment). As a result, I was introduced to tennis.”
He competes in the open category of AITA, ITF with a best ranking of 15 at the national level. Under the hearing-impaired category, he has a world ranking of four, three, and two in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles, respectively.
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Prithvi added another feather to his cap when he was part of the Indian Railways team that won gold at the 2019 World Railways Tennis Championships in Albena, Bulgaria. Later that year, in Turkey, he won gold in singles and bronze in doubles at the World Deaf Tennis Championships.
Basking in success: Prithvi Sekhar (second from left) with mixed doubles partner Jafreen Shaik, coach Dr. Stalin Nagarajan and men’s doubles partner Dhananjay Dubey at the Festa da Uva Main Pavilion, Brazil. – Special Arrangement
The lad from Chennai has three coaches to help him win these medals: Suresh Kumar, Balaji, and Dr Stalin Nagarajan. Two of whom he has known for the past 18 years (Suresh Kumar and Balaji). While Suresh and Balaji prepare him for AITA Open tours, Stalin coaches him during international Deaf Tennis competitions.
Throwing light on the reason behind his three coaches, he explains, “Suresh sir and Balaji sir instruct me concerning my tennis moves, how I can score points, how to rectify my errors and what shot should I learn which will be useful for future matches. On the other hand, Stalin sir assists me in correcting some of my shots, but more importantly, he helps me calm my mind when I get distracted.”
In 2018, he met Dr. Nagarajan, who was appointed chief selector for tennis from the National Sports Institute for the selection trials in Chennai, to help him believe in himself.
Dr. Nagarajan proudly tells Sportstar: “Before I coached Prithvi, he won just one bronze in 2017, he played a few tournaments after that and lost in the first rounds. In 2019, when I accompanied him for the World Deaf Championship, it made a big difference as I’m also a sports scientist and the only tennis sports scientist in the country.”
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With the help of sports science and psychology, Dr Nagarajan worked with Prithvi on and off the court to make him a mentally strong player. “Three years ago, he (Prithvi) was not recognised in the international arena, but after I coached and counselled him, he started to produce more results. He trusts me implicitly and never questions me. Prithvi, his parents and I worked together to make this happen.”
What fascinates Dr Nagarajan is Prithvi’s ability to adjust with his respective partners, understand their game and change his game accordingly. “Tennis is a mind game, and he is a mind player.”
Prithvi and Dubey were close to winning gold in men’s doubles at the 24th Deaflympics, but heavy rains and cold climate in Brazil played spoilsport. “The moment we landed there after about 30 hours of travelling, we found heavy rains and the temperature went down to almost 10 degrees Celsius. So, the matches were played indoor and outdoor, which caused disturbance as we were not used to the indoor facilities,” tells Dr. Nagarajan. He praised the players who were able to win medals despite the weather conditions.
Dr Nagarajan and Prithvi plan to train abroad in international academies to improve his chances of winning future medals. “The coaching facilities here are not on par with international tennis academies. In international academies, players from all over the world come to gain exposure during training. As a result, Prithvi will have the opportunity to play and train with them. This would help in improving his standard,” he concludes.