KATHMANDU, Feb 1: Skeptics said he had gone out of his mind when Hem Bahadur Lama decided to open a tennis academy in 1972. But the iron-willed man has proven his critics wrong by producing the best amateur tennis players of Nepal over the 40 years since.
Lama, now an octogenarian, played an important role in the development of Nepali tennis after returning here in 1965 from Myanmar, where he learnt his tennis skills. He was one of the pioneers who took the initiative to form the All Nepal Lawn Tennis Association (ANLTA) in 1968 with the intention of providing the masses an opportunity to learn this “aristocratic” game.
Lama recalls that there was only one tennis court at the time, at Bahadur Bhavan [now the Election Commission building], which was open to the public.
“People said I had gone out of my mind to invest my fortune in a game played only by aristocrats,” said Lama, who had to leave a well-paid bank job in Myanmar after running into severe hardships following the junta´s takeover there in 1962.
“But I was determined to teach tennis, which I have been doing till now,” he said.
“The path I have taken shows that one can make a living out of tennis. Even a ball boy can earn a decent salary these days.”
HEM LAMA (PHOTO: BIKASH KARKI)
But Lama´s involvement with tennis is more about passion for the game than making a quick buck.
“I could have lived like a Maharaja. I don´t need to teach tennis for a living. If I sell my land now, I will get around Rs 100 million. But there is nothing that I can take with me when I die. All I want is to leave behind a legacy,” he said.
When asked about the high cost of learning tennis, which is quite beyond the reach of common people, Lama says it is because of the need to maintain the court and pay the staff.
“Cost is not a hindrance for learning tennis. I even give scholarships to deserving students. I also teach free of cost those who can´t afford to pay,” he says.
Lama now spends his days mostly sitting on a bench at his tennis academy under a warm, winter sun. He instructs his students in a harsh commanding voice which he probably inherited from hardy ancestors who fought for the British Empire in Myanmar.
Instead of following in the footsteps of his grandfather Subedar Major Kul Bahadur Lama, who was awarded the Order of British India for his services in the First World War, and father Subedar Dil Bahadur Lama of the pioneer batch of engineers of the Burmese Military Police, Hem Lama, then a teenager, decided to pick up a racket and hone his tennis skills in Myanmar, where he grew up and lived until he was 36.
Lama, who was originally from Bhojpur, still maintains strict military-like discipline while teaching tennis to his pupils and his iron-fisted reign can be thanked for the success of his student Ramesh Karki, who has earned the highest international accolades for tennis.
“Maintaining discipline is a must,” says Lama.
Besides Karki, the only Nepali tennis player to qualify for the ITF Division 1, Lama´s other notable students are his sons Sujaya Lama and Raj Lama as well as Utsav Rijal, Preeti Rijal, Srija Karki and Bibhuti Baral.
All of them are now well-off and living in the United States all thanks of their tennis background.
Lama says that his students won scholarships in the United States for their tennis skills and his sons are now world-class coaches.
Fifty-nine-year-old Raj is the second Nepali to get an USPTR license and coached World No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska when she was a junior player in Germany, according to Hem Lama.
Lama´s youngest son Sujaya, 45, was the only Nepali to qualify for the Wimbledon juniors in 1986 but couldn´t play due to an infection during the games. He was ranked 67 in the ITF junior world rankings at the time - a feat no other Nepali has achieved so far.
Hem Lama recalls selling his land, on which he built Nepal´s first tennis academy, to fulfill Sujaya´s dream of becoming a tennis player.
“I took my youngest son around the world to participate in ITF tournaments. I took him to almost all the countries of South and South-East Asia after selling my HIT (Hem´s International Tennis) Centre, which had four clay courts,” he says.
“That´s how he got the world ranking of 67,” he adds.
Sujaya also became all-American tennis champion in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) games for three consecutive years, according to Lama.
Although his sons were quite good at tennis, Lama told them to get involved in coaching rather than turning professional because the career of a pro-tennis player was short.
“One has to sacrifice a lot to become a professional player and an injury can end a career. I also wanted my sons to be academically sound, so I told them to become coaches. You see, most of the professional players are poorly uneducated,” he said.
“The only difference between a professional player and a coach is that one plays to earn while the other teaches to earn.”
Lama says that it is due to lack of opportunities that talented players leave the country. But unlike others who see it as brain drain, he is happy at their success.
“Sujaya couldn´t have earned Rs 85,000 here but he earns $ 85,000 a year in the USA,” he says.
Lama later reopened his training centre under a new name - Hem´s Tennis Academy - at Baluwatar and has been giving tennis lessons there for the last 20 years.
Lama spends his spare time reading.
“I´m still learning,” says Lama, who has a good command over spoken English.
He says he was denied admission to an English school in Myanmar because of his color but that only added to his desire to learn English.
“I cried when I was discriminated against because of my color but I said I would one day teach English to Englishmen,” said Lama, who studied linguistics to a level equivalent to the master´s degree.
He has also written a book “Learn to Pronounce English Correctly” which is with the publishers, and a book on the chronology of Nepali tennis is also on the cards.
Hem Lama wrote the script for and directed the Nepali film Aadarsh Nari in which his son Vijay Lama made his debut.
One interesting fact about Lama is that all the members of his family were involved in sports. His wife also played tennis while his actor son plays it for recreation. His daughter Poonam Lama, 55, was the national table tennis champion for about 10 years in the 70s.
Lama was dragged into controversy in 2006 when he dropped a player selected for the ITF Division 2 U-14 Championship and took instead Ramesh Karki with him for the games. His decision, which later came under severe criticism, was vindicated when Karki won an individual bronze and a silver in the doubles to secure a place in the first division.
“Instead of thanking me, the sports officials said I should be hanged,” said Lama, who was president of ANLTA from 1990 to 1993.
“All I did and what I am doing is for the nation,” he said.
His achievements, that make him the best coach Nepal has ever had, can hardly be disputed.