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A Former Ball Boy Wants To Turn His Daughter Into The Next Serena Williams

The duo are taking on India’s tennis elite.

Kishore Salvi and his daughter, Kartiki, in Mumbai. Photo by Bhavya Dore.

It's past 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, and a housing complex in central Mumbai resonates with the dull thud of tennis balls on the hard, blue court. Kartiki Salvi, who at 5 feet 2 inches, has yet to reach her full height, unleashes quick forehands from side to side, making her older opponent run. She swings powerfully with her second-hand Babolat racket, and the ball rips through the cool night air.

Her scuffed red sports bag, another hand-me-down, sits to the side. Her father, a round-faced man, arms folded across his chest, watches through the green wire meshing that separates us from the court. "Her forehand is strong, and her serve is good," he says, his head bobbing as he follows the ball. "But she needs to be quicker."

Kishore Salvi would know. He spends more than six hours a day on the court himself: playing, working, and coaching. But today he is here, in his off hours, simply to watch and not to discharge his duties as a marker.

In India's tennis ecosystem, markers are the men who once prepared the mud courts, rolling them with dung and then marking the lines with chalk. The surface has since been replaced by deco-turf, and the duties of the marker have likewise transformed, but the title remains.

Kishore, 45, works at a private club in South Mumbai, where he plays up to several hours a day with members, oversees the courts, and offers coaching tips. It is usually his routine that after a three-hour tennis session at work, he shows up at 8 p.m. to coach his daughter. They play past 10 p.m.

Like most in the trade, he started off as a ball boy in 1989 as a teenager. He moved to the city from a village in Konkan district, south of Mumbai, and Kishore was paid Rs 450 (roughly $7) a month for picking up balls for the club’s wealthy tennis-playing members.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The others might have better equipment and expensive coaches, but having the game is the main point.[/quote]

Like other ball boys, on lean work days, he taught himself to play using a borrowed wooden-framed racket while playing barefoot on the mud. “It was strange at first,” he says, smiling. “My natural racket grip was to hold it as I would use a sickle when working in our farm.”

Kishore went to night school for three years while keeping up his day job but, pressed by economic necessity, dropped out to work full time. By 1993, he'd been promoted from ball boy to full-time marker; by 1997, synthetic surfaces had replaced mud, and racket heads had evolved.

The following year, Kishore got married, his first daughter was born in 2000 and Kartiki in 2002. He had always hoped to share the sport with his daughters. So when she turned 10, Kishore began teaching Kartiki how to grip a racket, how to stroke a ball, sometimes bringing her to the courts at his workplace.

At first, Kartiki found the game awkward and tedious. But in the past year, she has thrown herself into it with relish, dropping seven kilos by watching her diet and practicing daily at the courts where her uncle Subhash — also a former ball boy — now teaches.

"Once you start getting better, you become more interested,” she says, after joining us courtside. “I can really feel the difference in my game. I understand why my father has been pushing me.”

Kartiki’s start-wide rank in the under-16 age group is 67 (of 145 ranked players). Nationally, she is at 419 (of 945 ranked players), a giant leap from 828 last June. But she has no full-time qualified coach, and second-hand items comprise most of her kit.

"The others might have better equipment and expensive coaches, but having the game is the main point," she says. She sees the other players with big cars and high-end equipment, but it doesn’t bother her.

Kartiki Salvi at practice in Mumbai.

Tennis is normally seen as a sport for the rich; the paraphernalia is expensive, and private club membership could run into thousands of rupees a year. Public courts are a rarity, and at the higher end, new rackets might cost Rs 7,000 (about $109) or more.

For the Salvis, monthly expenditure on balls alone comes to about Rs 3,000 ($47), and the family easily spends Rs 60,000 (about $934) on Kartiki’s tennis requirements. That means about a quarter of Kishore’s earnings are funneled in to this, with the family avoiding other luxuries to make the cash go the distance.

The game might be custom-built for the elite, but Kishore and his daughter are out to prove that it can belong to anyone. "My brother said it's a rich person’s game," he says. "But if you work hard and play your heart out, then anyone can succeed."

They sound like characters from the 2016 Bollywood smash hit “Dangal,” where under the stern eye of their father, two young girls in a North Indian village morph from reluctant grapplers to world champions in wrestling, the father’s own thwarted ambitions setting their careers in motion.

Two days after she first saw the film in January, Kartiki won a citywide interschool tournament. She has since then seen it a few more times. The comparison writes itself.

Still, she is yet to win a tournament recognized by the All India Tennis Association, though she has twice reached the semis. Since she only plays in Mumbai or nearby, it takes longer to accrue points to improve her ranking. For the first time this year, she may travel to play in Chennai, for which her family is trying to arrange funds.

A club member at Kishore’s workplace helps out with rackets, another with the travelling costs, someone else with the kit. The club itself sells used balls at a discounted rate so Kishore can use them in tennis drills.

The coaching for Kartiki though, is free, and while Kishore hasn't been certified with a coaching qualification because the rules require one to have finished high school, he knows plenty. “I hope to train her and take her as far as she can go,” he says. “It’s about doing your best.”

Even within Kishore’s own circle, there was initial hesitation about a girl picking up the game, but Kishore scoffs at the displeasure of relatives or neighbors. "Girls can do just as well," he says, "They should be able to do as they please."

Recently, Kartiki played a tournament at the CCI Club in South Mumbai, the place where Kishore started out as a ball boy at 14. It was the first time he returned since he worked there, this time in his new role as a tennis dad.

Kartiki got knocked out in the second round, however, and Kishore rued it was because she began experimenting with her single-handed backhand instead of sticking to the tried-and-tested double-hander. She was determined, though, to switch to the silkier though less-powerful shot, in the fashion of the single-hander's most famous patron, Roger Federer. He's a favorite. So is Serena Williams. "What a great body, what strength," says Kartiki, rapt, "and what a serve."

Now Kartiki is in grade 10 at a private school. She isn’t sure how far she’ll get with tennis, but the goal is to keep going. Eventually she thinks, she might become a coach or open her own academy. “One day,” she says. “I hope to be able to help people who are talented, but don't have the money.”

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