Tennis Dreams from the Roof of the World
In Phora Durbar (The American Club), Kathmandu, I step out on the clubhouse patio and extend my hand to the first person I meet, an athletic, 30ish looking woman of apparent Indian descent who introduces herself as Margie. I notice a brace on her arm. "Ouch. One handed backhand?" I speculate. "Oh, this is not tennis elbow. This is "elephant polo" elbow," Margie deadpans. Whoa, hold on Toto, we're not in Kansas any more.
My wife, Nancy, and I were in Nepal on a double mission. One was to meet our daughter, Katie, who has been volunteering at the Shechen Clinic in Bhouda, the Tibetan section of Kathmandu, for the last 5 months. The other is to investigate the country’s tennis scene.
Click photo: Flying over the top of the world in a small plane with Everest in the background.
Nepal, a kingdom sandwiched between India to the south and China to the north, has existed up to the present in somewhat of a cultural vacuum with relatively little colonial influence or western ideology. I am curious to see what tennis, a decidedly Western pastime, is like in this part of the world.
My first introduction to the tennis scene was provided by James Giambrone, an ex-stock broker from Southern California who has lived in Kathmandu for over 25 years. He has been fostering the education of a young Nepali boy who has emerged as the #1 player in the 14 and 16 year old divisions. We had been in steady contact over the last couple of months, discussing our respective children's welfare. "I don’t know what to do for Ramesh," lamented James. "Everyone tells me the best thing for Ramesh’s tennis is to leave Nepal but that is a big step.” I was at a loss for advice. I had no idea how good Ramesh was or what his prospects may be, not to mention what Ramesh wants for himself. This was the impetus I needed to make the trip to Nepal. Before long I had arranged tennis clinics at the American Club (where Ramesh, James, and Katie play) and at Satdobato, the All Nepal Tennis Association tennis center.
I have to admit, being searched by armed guards before entering the tennis club was just a bit unnerving but as part of the U.S. Embassy compound there were strict security measures. Inside I greeted Ramesh and was surprised by his size. He is shy and introverted like most 14 year olds and had "tikka", a vermillion patch of rice paste on his forehead, which is applied as a part of the Dashain holiday tradition. Dashain is Nepal 's most festive religious holiday (akin to Christmas).
Click photo: Working on the serve with some juniors at the National Tennis Center.
The club has four hard courts (badly in need of resurfacing) but the lawns surrounding the courts were neatly trimmed and the gardens quite lush. Definitely an oasis amid the harsh reality of life outside the gates.
Ramesh and I begin hitting and I was quite impressed. He moved beautifully and struck the ball with confidence, indistinguishable from any top flight junior on the Northern California circuit.
The next morning I met some other members of the American Club (almost all in Nepal for short term government service or as part of a non- government organization) as I presented a clinic. Aside from their unusual and related occupations (ranging from training British Ghurkas to conserving the Snow Leopards in Mustang), they are exactly like any other group of tennis players I have met in the States, mostly 3.0 to 3.5 ladies in need of social and physical exercise.
The next day I met with Sharad Lama, National Coordinator and Coach for the All Nepal Tennis Association (ANTA). Sharad was relaxed and gregarious. He explained how tennis in Nepal is almost entirely dependent upon the International Tennis Federation (I.T.F.), which, through its Development Program, promoted tennis through grass roots programs, coaching seminars, and facility grants to help establish tennis centers. In fact, an I.T.F. facility grant was critical in the building of the ANTA tennis center at Satdobato. I learned there are few tennis courts in Kathmandu aside from the hotels, the embassies, and Satdobato. There are no parks (as I know them) - temples and stupas, yes - but nowhere did I see a public tennis court or a playground of any type.
Sharad hinted how tennis in Nepal is undergoing some temporary setbacks. I inferred that the military and political instability within Nepal runs much deeper than the occasional highway checkpoint stop that I had encountered. We got things in order and Sharad and his motorbike were swallowed up by the thrashing current of traffic outside the hotel. I grabbed a taxi and headed to Phora Durbar for another hit with Ramesh.
Click photo: Archery in neighboring Bhutan is a popular sport with deep cultural roots, and enthusiastic cheerleaders! Things missing from Nepalese tennis.
The next morning we were running a little late. The taxi driver was unsure of where the tennis complex was but then we suddenly released into an open field. A goat roamed around in the tall grass in front of a faded, white washed building. James, my taxi partner, hesitated. "I wonder how that goat survived Dashain with its head intact."
I spotted four red clay courts busy with about 25 players warming up in small groups. There were no women among them. We gathered together and I discussed teaching styles and techniques before putting them through some exercises. Their range of skills and experience ran the gamut - as I would expect anywhere. After some demonstrations and drills, we talked about how to organize a lesson, a clinic, and a program to grow the game. When I asked about their programs, their organization, their goals, they were silent. We got back to the courts and the group came back to life. As I roamed the courts, the pros eagerly waited their turn and politely pulled me aside to assess their forehand grip or backhand slice.
I got a lift back to the hotel with Benode, a pro and father of two young boys from Pokhara, a lakeside trekking destination approximately seven hours north. He was quick to ask me about his two boys, who were showing a keen interest and some promise in the game. "I have been thinking of sending them to tennis school in India," he says and wants to know if I concurred. "Do you ever bring them to Kathmandu for tournaments?" I asked. "There haven't been any events in the area for awhile," he offers without explanation. Benode seems passionate and dedicated about tennis but he slips my questions like Muhammad Ali a left hook in his prime.
The next day I was scheduled to conduct a clinic at Satdobato for the junior players of the area. I was pleased to see an equal number of girls in the small group of about 14. We got on the courts without wasting time and got in about 90 minutes of practice before the clouds opened up. The children were attentive, respectful, and enthusiastic, a delight to work with and there were more than a few with real talent for the game.
Photo: James Giambrone
That's me in the back row (six from the right) with the Napali tennis pros and Ramesh (four from the left).
I met with James the following morning before leaving for the airport. He brought up the subject of Ramesh's future. After spending this time with James and Ramesh I felt I was not much closer to offering any constructive advice than I was before my visit. The tennis scene in Nepal seemed to be cloaked in a veil of secrecy. Nobody talked about the "situation" and I have a feeling it had to do with political and cultural issues I will never fully comprehend. As I see it, tennis in Nepal is paralleling the same crisis the country as a whole is experiencing. Tennis had been a privileged pastime of the royal family and court and it still exists for only the few. The country is in political and economic turmoil. There appears to be little direction and few resources. Life seems to be in something of a "holding pattern," a collective "holding of the breath" of the country, and nobody knows where the first move is coming from. Tennis seems to be teetering in the same balance.
Click photo: Each time Sania Mirza steps on the court she's fighting against a lot more than just her opponent.
For Ramesh to fully embrace his tennis could mean severing his roots. His immediate family is deeply imbedded in the social and religious customs of Nepal. His "Western" family is trying to offer choices and prepare him for the inevitable advent of globalization and, at the same time, honor and preserve the dignity of his cultural heritage. This is a heavy dilemma for a 14 year old to drag to the practice court. One needs only to look at the conflict surrounding Sania Mirza in India. Having effigies of yourself burned in your homeland can not be anyone's idea of a good day, and for what? Supporting safe sex? Wearing tennis clothes to play tennis in? Things we take for granted. And this in a modernized country with a relatively long history of tennis stemming from British occupation. Tennis viewed as a form of social colonization is a ponderous issue to contemplate.
Instead of providing answers, my trip to Nepal only provoked more questions. I look forward to my return, to experience the rich heritage, ancient arts and culture, magnificent, inspiring landscape; and most of all the wonderful people I met there. There are many mysteries yet to be unraveled.
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