The Covid-19 pandemic hasn't just stopped sporting competition, it has brought the sporting economy to a shuddering halt. In India, the lockdown and its longer-term implications threaten the future of clubs, academies, leagues, support staff, all the people who help move the wheels of sport. In this series, ESPN will look across the sporting ecosystem, from the big clubs to the neighbourhood academies, to see how they've been affected.
Ankita Raina carries an ERT 300, an electronic device the size of a pager, to her tournaments around the world. The device, with an LCD display, is clipped across the three widest cross strings of a tennis racket to measure its string dynamic tension using electronic simulation of the ball impact; the exact readings are displayed on the LCD screen within eight seconds. String tension in rackets is a crucial element of the professional game: Too tight and balls could go flying, too loose and they could land short.
Ranked 163 in the world, Raina, 27, is India's highest ranked women's singles player; she's fussy about her racket strings, and makes only one exception to her checks: If her racket has been freshly strung by the Awaghades.
Dnyaneshwar Awaghade has been handling Raina's rackets whenever she's in Pune for the past 12 years. He works with his son Yuvraaj, 23, and three electronic stringing machines out of a room in Pune's Deccan Gymkhana club. They have, over the years, built their tiny business into a niche craft and have been the official racket stringers for ATP and WTA events in Pune for many years now. Their highlight is the Maharashtra Open in January, which usually boasts of a few top-20 players. During that 10-day period, they string between 500 and 600 rackets.
On an average, they string 10-12 rackets a day and during tournaments that daily count could touch 50. Around 80 per cent of the players bring their own strings and the Awaghades charge 100 INR as labour cost for stringing each racket. On a good day, in-tournament, their daily income could be Rs 5,000; on average, though, it's around Rs 1,000.
For the past two months, it has been zero. Zero rackets strung, zero income. It's their peak work season (January to May) but the pandemic has eaten into almost all of it this year. With competitions currently wiped out of the calendar, they are now wrung dry of work and daily earnings.
"It's a struggle for us right now," says Dnyaneshwar, 54. "This is our only source of daily income and now suddenly we have nothing anymore. Only when sport comes back to life can we have a livelihood again." His father and brother were both racket stringers, starting out work with a shoe-sewing hook. Dnyaneshwar bought his first electronic stringing machine in 2008, a second one in 2012 and added a third to his workspace two years ago. The INR 8,000 monthly loan repayment for the latter's INR 7 lakh cost is currently turning out to be a drain on his savings.
What has come as a relief to the Awaghades, though, is a rent waiver. Ordinarily they pay INR 7,000 as monthly rent for their work area to the Deccan Gymkhana club. "They've been kind enough not to charge us for these months that competitions are off," says Dnyaneshwar. "To be able to feed a six-member family and pay for the stringing machine loan is a burden right now. We don't know how many more months of no income we can bear."
Whether it's in Solapur (255km from Pune) or Kolhapur (230 km from Pune), whenever there's a tennis tournament, the Awaghades' services are legendary. "We've strung rackets for almost all top Indian players including Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna and even top foreign players like Marin Cilic and world No 6 Kevin Anderson, among others, at the Maharashtra Open," says Yuvraaj. "I hope I get to string [Roger] Federer's racket someday. That's my greatest dream."
In addition to tennis, the Awaghades also string badminton rackets and former Olympian Nikhil Kanetkar's academy in Balewadi, Pune numbers among their regular clientele. "Tennis, though, makes up the bulk of our daily work," says Yuvraaj. "Lots of young players like Arjun Kadhe and Rutuja Bhonsle come to us. Whenever Ankita is in town [she trains under Pune-based coach Hemant Bendrey] she gets her rackets strung by us every two days."
Ankita calls Dnyaneshwar among "the best stringers in the world" and says if she has enough funds she'd take him with her for the tournaments she travels to in the future. "With Dnyaneshwar uncle, I never need to check the string tension of my rackets. I know he'd do it just perfect. He also helps me in cutting the strings as I use different ones for the crosses and mains, and he has a sound practical knowledge of knots and what range of string tension would work in what kind of weather. I always seek him out for advice and if I tell him I need my racket strung and ready at 6am, he's never a minute late."
Even if the lockdown is lifted soon, Yuvraaj, who began stringing rackets as a teen, says it would be a while before their regular business resumes. "Apart from the Maharashtra Open, lots of summer camps take place in the city during the January to May window so it's the busiest time for us," he says. "Between June and September it's lean because of the monsoon and work only picks up in the last three months of the year. This year we don't know what it's going to look like and whether events will take place at all. On regular days our phones don't stop ringing but now we have no calls anymore."
The Awaghades are looking to ride the storm. There is no Plan B. "We were born into this profession," says Yuvraaj. "This is all we know. For us, it's either this job or nothing."