Tennis, the game of kings arrived in Nepal with unrivaled pomp. During the early 1900s tennis in Nepal was confined within the walls of Rana palaces where it remained a source of entertainment and social outlet for the privileged. It was a game the Rana generals not only played, but also umpired.
Soon, as Nepal opened its doors to the outside world, diplomats and donors arrived to join a small community of players. Nepal's tennis pioneer, Hem Lama, returned to Nepal in 1965 from Burma and began teaching tennis in his free time, charging Rs 15 rupees an hour, the cost of a can of Slazenger balls. His talents were much sought after. "They said my footwork around the court was like a dancer's and the American women liked my legs," Hem recalls.
At the time there were only a few "commoners" in the game. Amar Dil Lama, better known as A D Lama, three-time Burma champion had bagged a couple of men's singles titles and was twelve years older than Hem. His contemporaries were Singha Bahadur Basnyat and Shail Kumar. With his precision ground strokes, Basnyat dominated tennis, representing Nepal internationally in Singapore, Iran, and Thailand.
Today, anyone looking for a good tennis lesson will undoubtedly be directed to Sharad Lama, Subha Ratna Shahi or Krishna Ghale. Their's is a generation with humble beginnings. "I started as a ball boy and I am not ashamed of it," says Ghale. Encouraging each other along the way, they represented Nepal internationally in the Asian Games, South Asian Games, and throughout the SAARC nations. Sharad Lama became the first Nepali player certified as a US Professional Tennis Registry professional.
The trio dominated men's tennis in the 80s and 90s. Subha Ratna continues to secure one of the top four position at the age of 43 and Krishna, 41, admits, "I am still playing. I should have retired but there are not enough young players coming up." You can find Sharad, Subha and Krishna, all coaches certified by the Professional Tennis Registry, through the All Nepal Lawn Tennis Association Tennis Complex.
Sharad Lama, undoubtedly one of Nepal's most enthusiastic proponents of what he calls "grassroots level tennis" assures all players will be accommodated. To increase youth participation in the sport, juniors are encouraged to join as members or for lessons.
Over at Hem Lama's Academy you will find some of Nepal's rising stars. Hem's objective is to produce champions but the motivation, he insists, must come from the kids. And 14-year-old Utsav Rizal, with five years of tennis under his belt, is on his way. In his age bracket he holds an International Tennis Federation (ITF) ranking of 15 for South and Central Asia. Utsav aims to play college tennis in America or England, and says: "I have learned discipline, improved my tennis and I still have a lot to learn from the academy."
On the ancestral lands of Juddha Samshere Rana in Jawalakhel, Madhukar Rana has established the Shaligram Tennis Academy. An informal non-registered training program especially to encourage junior players, the academy awards certificates of proficiency to beginners after completing 90 to 120 hours of lessons. However, Madhukar insists: "Players must demonstrate the ability to play singles and doubles to qualify for the certificate." Rana is also working to establish inter-club competition, particularly in the veteran women's category.
Sri Ram Magar, winner of the men's singles draw at the third annual Hyatt Winter Tennis tournament last weekend, moved to Pokhara three years ago. There, in the foothills, he runs Parsyang Tennis Club. With help from his sponsors, Sri Ram hopes to expand the facility into a club where he will bring up a new generation of players from the lake town. Kumar Adhikari, a 17-year-old resident of Pokhara trains with Sri Ram. He won the under-18 at Jaykar Tournament this year and has been selected to go to India in January to play the Indian circuit.
Kamal Bhandari came to Kathmandu from his village school, and when he picked up the racquet he put down the books. Now at 24, he makes a living as a marker at Phora Durbar and gives private lessons on his days off. It is the only way he can afford to play. Bhandari feels he has not fulfilled his potential in tennis.
Girls and women's tennis is seriously lagging in Nepal. Eleven-year old Priti Rizal finds tennis very exciting and wants to turn professional, but there are not enough girls to train with and compete against. Rizal won the under-12 at Hyatt. Clinching the under-18 and women's doubles partnered by her mother at the winter tournament, Vindiya Dayananda is the leading lady player in Nepal. Vindiya is Sri Lanka's number two lady player and number one junior and has an ITF ranking in the top 500 for under-18s.
With no dearth of talent or facilities what's the hitch? The call is unanimous: the infrastructure for tennis in Nepal remains weak. Until ANLTA lays foundations for youth programs, regular coaches workshops, and organises enough tournaments annually, the players can do little more. "As coaches we are here and we have always told the association we will be happy to work with them, but we cannot always work for free or on a salary that cannot support the game," says Krishna Ghale.
For most of us not in the competitive mode, it is still love at first strike. Says Sharad Lama, "Tennis is a game you never master completely. It is on a life scale. The best person wins for the day, not for yesterday, nor for tomorrow, and then you go on. There are so many elements involved yet it is a game that is tolerant and forgiving...that is the magic of tennis."