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January 15, 2000

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The nowhere man

Rohit Brijnath

Nirupama Vaidyanathan, Indian tennis player, has a Australian Open pass and she is looking down at it. It has her photograph. It mentions her name. It says valid till 14th January, 2001.

Except the Australian Open starts on 15th January.

Nirupama Vaidyanathan is still looking at her pass, her voice is a trifle softer. To enter the main draw of any Grand Slam, 128 qualifiers are supposed to play-off, over, three rounds, for 16 reserved slots. Nirupama won her first round, beat the top seed in the qualies in the second round. Finally, she found herself one round away entering tennis' elite 128 women who contest for the title, one win away from being relevant as a tennis player, one win away from reinforcing the truth that all her 5 am mornings, sweaty shirts, early nights, aching legs have a reason.

Then she lost.

She is not allowed onto the grounds anymore. She does not exist, she is a nobody with a tennis racket, she is irrelevant. She says: "It's heartbreaking."

Sport always is.

Then it gets worse. She will be allowed onto the grounds on the 15th eventually, to see if a player breaks an ankle, falls ill, which might allow to creep into the main draw as a Lucky Loser. But she has to sit there, wait patiently for someone else's misfortune, at this bustling busy Open, where dreams are being made and unmade, but hers don't count.

Nirupama Vaidyanathan lives in a world you donít know about, but you should. She exists within the world of the qualifier. Darwin's phrase of the survival of the fittest has become a cliche. Not here it isn't.

The tennis world that you mostly see is of famous men and women, their suited agents, shiny limousines, blonde girlfriends in designer dress. It is a world of kids screeching for autographs, celebrity friends, and sponsors tripping over each other to embrace champions.

It is a world where men hitting running forehands at match-point, diving volleys at break point, and crowds erupt in unrestrained appreciation; it is a world where only the champion is seen as having the coolest courage, the most agile brain, the swiftest wings at his heels.

But the heart of tennis lies elsewhere. In the qualies. Here too there is courage, but you will never see it.

It is the world of hope and prayer, where has-beens play will-bes; it is one of sports toughest graduation schools.

The oddest of people come to the qualies. There are the young tyros just Goran Ivanisevicstarting out, Mr. No-Name with his precocious dreams; there are the journeymen, not quite good enough to make the main draw, but masters of the qualies, knowing what it takes to win there; there are the faders, once distinguished men, like Goran Ivanisevic, now trying to oxygenate a flagging career, desperate to prove that they have not been completely pick-pocketed of youth and talent; there are the comeback kids, the ones with dodgy knees, troublesome backs, weary shoulders, once fine players felled by injury, wincing as they attempt to check if they're delicate bodies are healed sufficiently to resume the rigours of modern tennis.

Few of them have coaches or trainers or agents or family or even friends to hold their hands, someone to look to when the sun's beating a tattoo on their necks and their opponents are playing like a would-be-Sampras; sometimes there only three people watching and a bored dog, and the three people keep moving and the dogís barking, and someone's having a conversation at a vulgar decibel level as they walk past the open court, and cellphones shriek in tandem, and they're 30.40, second serve with a double fault looming.

No one wants their autograph, to shake their hand, no one wants an interview, a sound byte, they are the lost, the lonely, the unknown of the tennis world. When I congratulated South African Marcus Ondruska after his courageous win against Leander Paes, he looked astonished for a moment, then his face shone as if he'd won next week's title.

There is too, as Leander Paes, who too lost in the final round of the qualies, his face a study in absolute depair, "a rawness, a hunger here which is unbelievable". If chasing is a Grand Slam title is a study in courage, chasing a mere spot in the main draw is a lesson in utter desperation. It is rewarding too: unworthy mostly of sponsors, even losing a first round match in the main draw is worth A$10,000 to these players.

But only 16 men get that far, 112 pack their bags, call home to announce their humiliation, sit alone with the four white walls of their hotel room as silent company, check their bank balances to see if they have the money to fly to another continent, another country, for another week of qualies. It is a bleak world of uncertainity, where failure courts them unrelentingly, but where hope is their only ally.

Not once, not twice, not thrice, but five times Niurpama Vaidyanathan has been to the final round of the qualies here; five times she's gone home defeated. "If you donít make it into the main draw," she says "you are nothing."

But she won't quit, she will keep coming to this hot Australian summer, ready to defy her painful history. "If I'd lost in the first round I might think, forget it, its not worth it. But I've been so close, so often, I believe my time will come."

Hope, remember. In 1977, a young man raced from though the Wimbledon qualies and didn't stop till he reached the semi-finals of the main draw. His name John McEnroe. In 2000, Vladmir Voltchkov repeated that feat. Between 1990-2000, on 20 occasions qualifers have gone on to win ATP tournaments!!!

All things are possible.

And so they go one, invisible, unknown, un-feted, searching for their chance. For some it may never come. It does not matter. For there is something uplifting in this struggle, a ceaseless courage, a heroism little known.

The world of the qualifier is the beating heart of tennis.

Rohit Brijnath

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