Asheesh, who at first glance would seem like any other less-fortunate 9-year-old boy from Karachi, is far from it. He is not just a breadwinner for his family by being a handy-man to the gardener at the Defence Authority (DA) Club, he is also a young tennis prodigy, who recently became the under-9 Sindh tennis champion.
Barely two weeks ago, Asheesh, along with being a handy-man, worked as a ball- boy, picking up tennis balls on the courts. Little did he know that all the time he spent on the court, intently watching the players plying their trade would help and inspire him to become a champion. According to the secretary of the Sindh Tennis Association (STA), Khalid Rehmani, who is also the organiser of the Maroof Trophy Tennis Championship where Asheesh won the title, the boy caught everyone’s eye. He ended up outplaying 20 other children who were professionally trained by coaches.
However, Rehmani believes that although Asheesh has the talent, the fact that he is a child-labourer does not work in his favour. He also said that having ball-boys is unethical on the club’s part since child-labour is illegal, and that the concept of ball-boys is becoming obsolete on the regular practice courts.
For Asheesh, tennis is not his passion but something he picked up while working at the DA Club to support his family and household his mother runs, while his father works as a housekeeper in Dubai. “I do not go to school because I have to come to work,” Asheesh told The Express Tribune. “Ma also works so I cannot stay home. I just like to play tennis in my spare time. I enjoy playing tennis but I like gardening more,” he explained.
Asheesh also faces a dilemma in choosing between earning an income and playing tennis. He has to support his family on a monthly wage of Rs3000 and playing tennis is something he cannot afford, despite the obvious talent and enthusiasm he possesses for the sport.
According to Rehmani, the best the STA can do for young people like him is to not charge an entry fee and provide racquets to encourage them. There have been many instances where ball-boys pull-off a huge upset by defeating professionally trained athletes, but none of them ever made a mark since their primary purpose is to earn a living and not pursue a career in sport.
One such example of a player pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat is Altaf Hussain, the former Pakistan number one and Davis Cup player in the early 1980s. Hussain also started off as a ball-boy because his father was a coach.
However, he made his mark on the sport due to sheer dedication.
“One has to choose, so I chose tennis,” Hussain, now in his sixties, added. “The competition was much tougher in my days. One of the main reasons why we do not see anyone emerging from the grass-roots level anymore is because these children have personal and family responsibilities that take up their time.”
The former tennis star claimed that “pursing a professional career requires sacrifice and dedication. Children like Asheesh will be swept away by the responsibilities as the breadwinner of the house. He will not get the time to hone his talent. My case on the other hand was not that severe.”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 27th, 2012.