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June 14, 2000

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One game he can't win

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Shanthi Shankarkumar

For a guy who has been playing racquetball for just two years, Sudhanshu (Sid) Harshavat has made quite an impact. More on than off court.

Though a late starter, his achievements show he's a natural. Off court, Harshavat is fighting a battle for recognition and funding from the Indian sports ministry. The authorities continue to be indifferent but Harshavat is plugging on, in the hope that one day the sports ministry will wake up and give him at least a pat on the back, if not padding for his wallet.

Racquetball is similar to squash but is relatively unknown in India. It is popular in North and South America, Canada, Europe and some countries of south Asia. In India, of course, the sport is as alien as cricket is to the average American.

But this spunky 23-year old has almost single-handedly put India on the racquetball map. He has won a host of tournaments big and small in the US. He recently represented India in the 33rd National Racquetball Championships held at Houston, Texas and finished eighth among 73 competitors from all over the globe.

This year's tournament was the biggest ever, with nearly 750 pro and amateur athletes representing 30 different countries. His strong finish enabled India to qualify for the very first time at the World International Racquetball Championships, to be held in Mexico city, Mexico in August.

Harshavat also qualified to represent India in the Asian games of 2002 to be held in Korea. At the US Open held earlier in December '99, Harshavat returned with gold and silver medals. The US Open is the most prestigious tournament for racquetball players, with 550 top professional and amateur racquetball players taking part.

Harshavat, who is from Delhi, came to this country in 1994 and graduated in computer science from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1998. He joined Motorola in 1998 and started playing racquetball the same year.

He became the first Indian to be selected for the National Elite Training camp, an annual camp offered by the United States Racquetball Association. The camp conducted at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs gives top racquetball players an opportunity to receive physical and psychological training from the best instructors in the country.

If you thought these accomplishments would make the Indian sports ministry burst with pride, you have another think coming. Harshavat known as "superman" for his on court speed and diving ability, is up against a wall of bureaucracy which refuses to recognize and reward talent. And the 23-year old systems engineer at Motorola, Chicago, is understandably bitter.

Last year, Harshavat went to Delhi to speak to sports ministry officials. He came back defeated but could still laugh at the absurd attitude of the bureaucracy.

"They said I should start playing kabaddi, since nobody knew of this sport in India. They also said to be formally recognized to represent India, there had to be a federation, which would take some years to form. So my sons and daughters will be able to play for India. I was like, 'Thanks a lot'," says Harshavat.

Racquetball is usually played indoors. Two players play each other in a court that is a little bigger than a squash court. The ball is twice as big as a squash ball and it bounces higher. A good shot can easily get the ball rolling at 180 mph. The rules are similar to that of squash. The only exception being that you can use the top wall and there is no minimum height above which one has to hit. The game is played as a best of 2 to 15 points and a tiebreak if needed goes to 11.

There are different categories in amateur racquetball, starting with Novice, D, C, B, and A, Open and then Pro.

Harshavat who is now No 1 in the world in his amateur Category C and D, started playing racquetball under the Chicago banner. When he was given the opportunity to represent India at the US Open, he was thrilled.

He was asked to bring an Indian flag with him and so approached the former Consul General at Chicago, J C Sharma, only to be stonewalled again.

"I showed him all the articles that had appeared in the American press about me and told him I needed an Indian flag and a tracksuit with India colors. He also suggested that I play kabbadi and said he could not give me a flag. I told him that I was ready to buy the flag but he still refused.

"I also asked him if he could get some Indian businessman to vouch for me so that at least my plane ticket to Memphis and accommodation would be covered. His reply was, 'the Indian community is very big. Why don't you find somebody to stay with,' " says Harshavat.

Disappointed but not down, Harshavat sent off a harshly-worded fax to the Indian embassy in Washington, stating that he was ready to make a formal complaint with the Indian ambassador. He got an immediate reply from Amar Sinha, the special counselor to the ambassador, New York, who promised to sort out matters.

Soon, the consulate at Chicago summoned him and gave him an Indian flag. He was asked to give in writing the reason for taking the flag and an assurance that it would be returned. He was also promised an Indian tracksuit, which was delivered two hours before his flight to Memphis.

"The Indian Embassy in Washington has been helpful. In the Indian embassy, Amar Sinha was the only ray of light. He wrote to the sports ministry asking them to help me, but they didn't heed his advice either," says Harshavat.

The Indian consulate-general's office in Chicago, meanwhile, insists it did its best to help Harshavat too. According to Dr Pankaj, consul (commerce and information)," Consul-General Surendra Kumar called the President of SBI in Sudhanshu's presence a couple of months ago and asked him to help him. It is up to him to follow it up."

Harshavat maintains he did not follow up the call because as early as in December 1999, the New York office of SBI had told him that the Bombay office handled advertising and that they could not do anything. He also approached Air-India and other Indian organizations in the US. But everywhere the response was discouraging.

However, Head, the Sports Company, has sponsored him, giving him equipment and sportswear at subsidized rates.

Meanwhile Harshavat is hoping for another meeting with Consul-General at Chicago Surendra Kumar.

"I faxed him the press release about my good showing at the Nationals, my selection for the Asiad and pre-Olympic trials and requested a meeting, but I haven't heard from him. Now that I've been selected for the Asiad, the Indian consulate-general at Chicago has to get more involved," says Harshavat.

He also continues to importune the sports ministry for some sponsorship.

"I told them, 'If you could just pay me a bare amount of money I can take some coaching needed at the higher levels'," says Harshavat. Two other Indian women and three men who have also qualified to represent India in racquetball at the Asiad.

"Before leaving for Houston, I called the sports ministry in Delhi and was put on hold for half-an-hour. Then some secretary came on line and said nobody has heard of racquetball and put the phone down.

Being an Indian citizen, I am entitled to some kind of financial help from the sports ministry," Harshavat says. And the laugh that followed was bitter.

He says he has spent $ 12-14,000 dollars so far from his own pocket for training, tickets, and other expenses. He has got a little bit of financial assistance from a couple of local sponsors but nothing big enough for him to stop worrying about the financial drain.

"I don't think of the money I have spent as being wasted," says Harshavat.

Meanwhile, Harshavat now has his eyes set on the World championships to be played at Mexico City, Mexico in August.

"Irrespective of whether I get help or not I am definitely going to Mexico City. My family is backing me and the people at Motorola are very supportive; they give me flexible work hours and allow me to take time off from my work. Since I am not an American citizen I cannot ask them for sponsorship. Besides, I would always like to play for India. At this point, my attitude is, if it happens, good; if it doesn't I'll continue trying and playing."

Next: Roti, kapda? Yes. Makaan? Hmm, let's see...

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