In eight weeks, Pranjala Yadlapalli has shifted into her third Airbnb rental. The current one is located in Brighton, a coastal suburb 11 kilometers south-east of Melbourne’s central business district. The 21-year-old Indian tennis player who reached Australia on February 13 for lower-back injury rehab sessions now finds herself stranded in a paradise dotted with sandy beaches, brightly coloured bathing boxes and bike paths running along the foreshore lined with palm trees and open lawns. She has a visa that expires in a month, savings strained, and hopes of a return home spiraling out of control.
“My visa runs out in May and I’m not sure what the travel scenario will be like then,” Pranjala tells ESPN. “I’m planning to apply online and probably extend my visa by three more months. I’m not sure if they’re accepting applications or how long it could take.”
The Australian government’s latest directive, though, asking those in the country on a visit visa for three months or less to ‘return home as quickly as possible’ doesn’t make things any easier, particularly with the lockdown continuing in India and air traffic still closed.
GoSports foundation, the non-profit that supports Pranjala and funds her training expenses, says they might seek the sports ministry’s assistance and intervention if the situation worsens.
“As of now things look okay where she is so she thinks it might be best to extend her stay,” GoSports CEO Deepthi Bopaiah says. “But if the region is put under a complete lockdown like it’s back here, then both Pranjala and her parents might change their minds.”
Ranked 664 in the WTA singles rankings, Pranjala reckons she’d hold out a few more months on savings, beyond which she could find herself running aground. Last year she won $3655 through prize money earnings at ITF events but with the tour at a halt, it is lower rung players like her, typically living off winnings, who’re the hardest hit.
The situation worldwide was dire enough for Georgian player Sofia Shapatava, ranked 371, to set up a petition on change.org last month calling for financial aid for struggling players.
“The prize money we earn is our primary source of livelihood,” Pranjala says. “Without that, maybe we can survive three or six months at the most using up all that we have. Australia, particularly is a very expensive country. It might get tough to manage for long.”
Pranjala traveled to Melbourne two months ago on the advice of her Thailand-based coach Stephen Koon, for rehab sessions with ATP tour physio Paul Ness. She stayed in an Airbnb for the first month in the suburb of Mentone, a five-minute walk from Ness’ home.
“Around four weeks ago, schools, gyms, tennis courts, everything was shut. I was hitting against the wall and there are huge grounds here so I was doing a lot of running outdoors. There’s a beach close by so we do workouts there too,” says Pranjala, a former Asian junior champion, who touched a career-high singles ranking of 265 in May 2019. “Luckily, last week we found a private court where I can pay and play.”
The charges per hour are 40 AUD and she’s already trained twice last week for two-hour sessions each and plans to stick to a similar schedule in the weeks ahead. Paul’s wife Stacey, a myotherapist who runs a clinic at home, also has a tiny gym with sparse equipment attached to the facility.
“It’s where I do my workouts,” says Pranjala. “I think being here has helped me train, get my rehab done and work on getting stronger physically. Had I been in India around this time I would have probably been just sitting around at home with little to do.”
These weeks away from home have also been a learning for the young player from Hyderabad. Apart from training sessions, her daily schedule also involves a trek to the local supermarket, cooking and washing up. She’s taught herself to bake healthy sweet potato, pumpkin brownies and cookies with almond flour. With restaurants shut, Paul and Stacey hosted her for dinner at home on her birthday last month.
“Stacey baked the most amazing chocolate cake I’ve ever had,” says Pranjala. “She also made buckwheat flour rotis and butter chicken. It felt like home.”
Pranjala isn’t certain how long she has to stay back or how soon things could unravel. She has moved from hitting a wall to finding a court. For now, that’s the kind of win she’d be glad to take.