In Mumbai's private clubs, some economically disadvantaged young men have improved their lives thanks to a sport usually reserved for the city's most affluent.

MUMBAI, INDIA — As the hot sun crisped the bright brown mud courts, Ramchandra Khadpe scurried around, picking up balls and tossing them to the tennis players on either side of the net. It was tiring work, but it paid a single rupee per day (roughly two cents in American dollars), and for eight-year-old Khadpe, even a fistful of those silver coins was well worth the effort.

This was 1980, and Khadpe had by that point been virtually abandoned by his parents. He had no place to call home. Meals were scrounged from food leftovers of other children. He had to drop out of school. Private sports clubs employed (and still employ) the services of young "ball pickers" to spare tennis playing club members the chore of retrieving their own tennis balls. For the middle-class members it was a convenience; for poor boys from struggling families, it was a source of income.

Aside from ball picking duties, Khadpe and his fellow ball pickers were tasked with maintaining the dung-laid courts of the Indian Gymkhana in central Mumbai, a posh, member's only country club. Twice a week trucks would roll up at the gymkhana with drums of fresh manure; this would then be mixed in with water before the heavy paste was laid out to fortify and even the courts. Each such session could last up to four hours.

A few months after he started working there, Khadpe was taken under the wing of a senior tennis coach at the gymkhana, who then offered him a place to stay and plenty of free meals. Khadpe gradually started to try his hand at the game. He slowly picked it up, spending hours on wall practice with a borrowed wooden racket. When members showed up alone and had no one to rally with, Khadpe would be pressed into action. As he sharpened his skills, he was promoted to the role of "marker" at the club; a title that carried with it a measure of responsibility. Later offered a salary increase from Rs 350 ($5.50) to Rs 900 ($14) per month, he moved to the Bandra Gymkhana in 1987, a club that would be his place of work for 29 years.

In India, markers are the custodians of the courts, self-taught tennis-playing men who maintain the courts, knock with members, and often offer coaching and tips on the side. There might be one or two markers overseeing the tennis courts of any given club (because marking is completely unorganized work, it is hard to estimate how many there are across the city and how many have transitioned from ball picking). Markers are often now referred to as assistant coaches, a distinction that confers a sense of authority, and some have tried to get basic coaching certification to improve their prospects.

Tennis is largely a sport for the affluent. There are few, if any, public courts in the country, equipment and uniforms are expensive, and private club membership is costly. And yet, closely bound up in this rich person's game are young men for whom tennis starts as a source of income and becomes a means of self-respect and dignity, a means to better circumstances. In an elite sport played by a relative minority, there exist unique pathways of social mobility for those who staff its foundations. And in a country where sports coaching has yet to become a steady profession, the informal entry into tennis has, for decades, provided young men, many of whom never completed their schooling, an unusual opportunity.

section-break

India is a deeply stratified society, where 29.5 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The average monthly per capita is Rs 7,769 per month (or $120). Rural Indians remain the worst off, and the caste system remains an oppressive reality for a large chunk of the population. While opportunities for social mobility are growing in an urbanizing country, education still offers the best shot at moving upward.

Markers, however, usually don't even finish twelfth grade. Yet tennis can significantly improve their life chances. There are private gymkhanas and clubs all over the city whose tennis courts require ball boys, maintenance, and guardianship, so work is fairly easy to find. Once they stick to the job and acquaint themselves with the game, the men often try their hand at coaching. Venkat Iyer, a former coach who runs an annual tournament for markers and ball boys, has seen and helped several. He estimates they would be earning at least $233 a month once they became markers or assistant coaches—about double the nation's average monthly income.

"Markers and ball boys are such an important part of the game. They are the backbone of the system," says Iyer, a wiry man of 75. "They have got better opportunities than their parents, and have been able to live quite well."

A report released last year by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics and the Global Education Monitoring Report found that 47 million Indian children drop out of school before tenth grade, the highest number globally. Often this is simply because the economic calculus dictates that finding work is a more pressing concern. "If I went to school, how would I fill my stomach?" Khadpe asks. "So I left."

He wasn't the only one. In 1975, a few years before Khadpe landed on the courts, Kishor Patel, then 13, faced a similar choice. The son of a domestic worker, Patel could either serve as a ball boy in a neighborhood tennis tournament or write his annual final exams. "If I didn't go, I would have lost my job," says Patel, now 53. The boys had also been promised T-shirts, shoes, and shorts if they worked during the final. It was tempting. "I thought this is better, what's the point of school?"

Like most everyone else, he picked up a racket from time to time, picking up the game in the process. "This is the story with 99 percent of the men who have become markers and assistant coaches," says Khadpe, who has watched dozens of ball boys grow up. "This is how everyone starts."

India is often identified as a cricket-mad nation, and the country's streets and neighborhoods thrum to the rhythm of bats striking red leather balls. Cricket is very much at the heart of national identity and with its low-cost requirements has long been embraced as a sport of the masses.

"I never thought anyone would marry me or that I could ever buy a house. Without tennis life would not have been good."

Gajju Mangela, for instance, first instinctively held a tennis racket as he would have a cricket bat. Mangela, a thin man with a goatee, demonstrates that initial, awkward stance: both hands clasp his Prince racket on the forehand side, his back bent and feet close together. He drives the imaginary ball low and forward, as one would with a bat on a cricket pitch. "I had never seen nor heard of tennis," he says. "I did not have a clue."

It was around 2000, when, at the age of 15 or 16 (he simply isn't sure of the dates) Mangela started off as a ball boy. At the end of his first month on the job he brought home Rs 350. "The first time I came home with my salary, my parents asked, 'What have you done to get this?'" Mangela recalls. He could only laugh at their questioning.

His parents, fisher folk, earned erratically, sometimes nothing, sometimes Rs 60 ($0.90) a day. That made Mangela's Rs 350 ($5.5) monthly salary with hourly overtime pay of Rs 10 ($0.16) suspicious, sure, but certainly a welcome supplement.

"Anyone can play," Khadpe says. "It is about getting the opportunity." Khadpe has himself ground out an existence he couldn't have envisaged. For some years in the '80s he slept on mattresses laid out at night on the club's gym floor because he didn't have a home to return to. Now he owns three. Air-conditioning and television—earlier luxuries—are now a part of life.

Pondering on his progress, Khadpe smiles and shakes his head. "I never thought anyone would marry me or that I could ever buy a house. Without tennis life would not have been good."

As sports coaching has gradually developed in India as a career option, some have taken additional qualifications and tried to further improve their prospects. Patel, for instance, earned a first-level coaching certification in 2005 from the International Tennis Federation. This confers an official credential to work at the club level, mostly with juniors and advanced beginners. Those who work with seasoned professional players have the top-level certification in the three-tier hierarchy. Most markers do not hold formal credentials, nor is this essential, but it certainly helps people like Patel as a value-add to their resume, even if not a direct pathway to a serious coaching career.

One afternoon Patel sits on the umpire's chair by the net, instructing children on the appropriate service action. They take turns to play, as he monitors affairs from the side. They call him "sir"; it feels good for Patel. "This work confers a certain pride," he says, slicking back his long, wet hair. "I feel that I have arrived."

Of course, not everyone who works as a ball boy perseveres; not everyone is as skilled in the game. Mangela himself dropped out for six months before coming back. Patel worked briefly at the laundry of a five-star hotel and at the airport before returning to the game. Khadpe taught his son how to play, and though the boy did for seven years, he eventually abandoned the game. Khadpe said others of his generation who'd started off as ball boys knew the benefits the sport could bring, so it was a natural choice for them to teach their children how to play. The children were spared the climb through the chain from the starting point of ball picking.

Despite his early apprehensions, Mangela already has plans for his three-year-old daughter, whom he hopes he can make a player. "I want to give her what I couldn't have in my childhood," he says. His small single room tenement with five members didn't even have lights a decade-and-a-half ago. Now they can watch television. Mangela earns Rs 15,000 rupees, ($233) a month. He is proud of himself. "And why not?" he asks. "I have worked hard, I have built a life. Tennis has given me this, and I will keep at it."

section-break

Last month, one Sunday evening, Khadpe, now 43, dashed forward to the net, lining up to shoot the ball right back to his opponent. The return died on his side. Khadpe sweated and swatted, but couldn't quite pull off a win against Akshay Pawar, the younger, more agile player in the first round match of the day-long tournament.

About 64 markers (and ball boys) had assembled that afternoon for a tournament organized just for these men from tennis clubs across the city. Most of them were in their 20s and 30s, men who had started playing tennis on an off chance when they enlisted in various clubs as ball boys, and had since moved through the hierarchy. On offer was prize money of Rs 3,000 ($46) for the winner and Rs 2,000 ($31) for the runner-up.

Khadpe wasn't just playing, he was also helping to organize the event. Affectionately called "Ramu sir" by the others, he is now seen as a venerated veteran on the circuit, and earns Rs 25,000 per month ($388) coaching children. He has just bought a new bike, his son has studied at an English-language school, and his daughter is just finishing her education.

"Life just took me along a certain way," Khadpe says. "I am lucky I became a tennis coach even though I never completed Grade 1."

Lead Photo: A man playing tennis. (Photo: Dan Gold/Unsplash)

Related