A game that has been constantly growing in India, especially in states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan and
Madhya Pradesh, is Pickleball. The sport originated in the USA and travelled to India in 2006 through the hands of Sunil Valavalkar, an ardent Tennis player who found fascination and fun in Pickleball. He introduced the sport in India by setting up All India Pickleball Association (AIPA) through which the game is being promoted and spread in the corners of the country.
Since the inception of AIPA, a lot of players have been attracted towards Pickleball. Courts are introduced, training camps are organized and most importantly state-level and national championships are structured. Even, AIPA has taken initiative to introduce Indian players to international tournaments so that there could be an encouraging development of the game.
Recently, an Indian contingent of 22 players represented the country in the second edition of Bangkok Open- Pickleball. The tournament that was held in the first week of April, 2018 at Santisuk English School in Bangkapi, turned to be a highly successful campaign for the Indian players. The group finished with two medals- gold and bronze in Mixed Doubles- won by Atul Edward/Krishna Mantri and Neil Thakur/Amar Soniminde respectively.
A diehard sport enthusiast, Atul Edward has been one of the most successful players in the Indian Pickleball community. Having represented India in a number of occasions, Atul first saw Pickleball while on a visit in the USA and got a chance to play the game. He was a competitive Badminton player but for some unknown reasons was not enjoying Badminton then. Instead, he was in search for some alternate sport that would provide more fun. Once he played Pickeball, it struck a chord with him and Atul found what he was searching for.
“So after a gap of about 20 years after leaving badminton I started playing Pickleball. My competitive nature and the fact that I took to the sport like fish to water is what attracted me; other than the fact that it’s a super fun sport to play.”
Though he found a game in Pickleball, Atul Edward was sure of the hitches he would face in pursuing the sport in his homeland. In India, people are used to certain struggles and following an unknown sport needs huge determination. And Atul faced all that with grit and resolve.
“I found Sunil Valavalkar’s number and called. But I was told to call after a few months as there was no Pickleball happening then. I did just that- called him after some months and to my surprise found some positive things happening. He informed me about a small group of boys playing at a sports complex. I contacted them and got started. The rest as they say is history.”
Having always won a gold in national events and almost half a dozen international medals, Atul Edward finds each of his victory to be special. He remembers the final of Indian Open 2017 where he partnered with Elaine Shallcross, a 63 year old Pickleball enthusiast.
“Elaine is a dear friend of mine. I was bowled over by her enthusiasm for the game and thus, kept her request to be her partner in the tournament. We played brilliantly and won the final. It was obvious that I had to do the maximum running across the court but Elaine managed to complement by her return and serve excellently throughout our win.”
But if Atul had to choose that one occasion that is really memorable, then it would definitely be the Singles victory in the final of a domestic tournament against a 20-year old young player.
“Being a 45+ year old playing against a 20-year old was extremely challenging for me. It was a point to prove myself about my fitness, sustainability and commitment.”
This sheer love for the game has made Atul Edward one of the most decorated Pickleball players in this country. He definitely wants a robust Pickleball programme here but that needs Indian youth to come forward and embrace the game. To give a boost, Atul himself partners with young players like Krishna Mantri with whom he won the Doubles event at Bangkok Open 2018 or Sakshi Baviskar- his 16-year old Mixed Doubles partner at the 7th State Championships at Nanded.
“I think the best way forward is to introduce Pickleball in schools. But the hurdle is that the schools and other educational institutes adopt those sports which are part of our established sports associations. Since Pickleball is a relatively new sport that barrier needs to be surmounted.”
Thus, the way ahead for Pickleball in India is long and tiresome. And on this road, contributions of people like Atul Edward- who is ready to give time and patience to this sport- will definitely be counted. Taking time off from his own business of clothing brand, Atul plays the game twice or thrice a week. When a competition approaches he puts extra sessions every week. Representing India at the highest level has always given him a sense of pride. But while competing in the international events he found a clear contrast between India and other Pickleball-playing nations in terms of the growth of the game.
“As far as talent, we certainly can hold our own. But as a nation, we are obsessed with one and one sport only and all else seems inconsequential. Things are changing but it’s rather slow. Whereas, the growth internationally seems to be more organic and structured. The infrastructure is also far superior. They have easier access to venues, equipment etc. Moreover, there is an elaborate sport culture, sportsmen are given their due and most importantly people’s understanding of the blood, sweat and tears it takes to become a competitive sportsman.”
But these ‘shortages’, ‘lacks’, ‘absences’ are replaced by joy and pleasure whenever he holds aloft the tricolour on international podium.
“Well it’s a feeling like none other….being able to compete at the highest level and win for your country is something different. When you hold aloft the Indian flag after a victory……. it’s surreal!!!”
May this surrealism continue; not only for Atul but for the growth of this game. The magic woven in Pickleball shall definitely mesmerize people across cities, towns and states. Its just the beginning of a change and certainly a hopeful future awaits.
Notable Domestic Wins:
Gold in Mixed Doubles at Maharashtra State Championships in 2017, Nanded
Gold in Mixed Doubles at Federation Cup Pickleball Championships in 2017, Dehradun
Gold in Mixed Doubles at Maharshtra State Championships in 2016, Aurangabad
Gold in Mixed Doubles at Senior Nationals, Jaipur
Gold in Men’s Doubles at Sporting Lions Outdoor Championships 2016
Notable International Wins:
Gold in men’s Doubles at Bangkok Open Pickleball 2018
Gold in Mixed Doubles at Indian Open Pickleball Championships 2017
Bronze in Men’s Doubles at Amsterdam International Pickleball Tournament 2016
Bronze in Men’s Doubles at Madrid Open Pickleball Tournament 2015
Gold in Men’s Doubles at Amsterdam International Pickleball Tournament 2014