The next iconic super woman we interviewed as part of our Super Women series is Arati Ponnappa Natekar – a former tennis ace and recipient of the Ekalavya Award for outstanding sportsperson of Karnataka in 1994-1995. Hailing from Karnataka and currently based in Pune, she has represented India in various international tennis tournaments and has been a member of the Fed Cup Women’s Team for over five years. She has won all the national Sub-Junior and Junior titles from the National Hard Court and Grass Court Ladies Tennis Champion in Singles and Doubles in 1996-1997 and is the winner of multiple National Ladies Doubles Titles. She has also served as the coach of Junior Federation Cup team and junior Wimbledon Indian Team in 2017. She is married to Gaurav Natekar, a seven times National Tennis Champion and recipient of the Arjuna Award, with two children. Our correspondent Odeal D’Souza speaks to Arati Ponnappa about her life, career and the challenges she had to deal with as a sports woman.
What inspired you to become the person you are today?
I was very fortunate to have grown up in a family that was progressive, believed in sports and encouraged women. They encouraged me and were always supportive of my decisions. Thankfully, I did not have to deal with traditional mindset of limiting the girl’s role only to studies and then to marriage. My parents were themselves athletes who represented India in international sporting events. Due to their encouragement, I could scale the heights in my sports career too. It has helped me mature into a strong, hardworking, disciplined and independent person in my personal and professional life as well. The credit entirely goes to my upbringing and to the pro-sports environment I was brought up in.
Have the times changed for women in the field of sports?
Well, honestly life for women in sports has progressively changed for the better. We see a lot of successful women in various sports these days who are brining laurels for our country. I would like to add that in the eighties and early nineties, the scenario for sports women in India was quite different. Not many federations and associations wanted to support women players financially. Also, there was no Internet or social media so the limelight was very little back then. It required immense strength and courage to pursue a career in sports especially for women. Gender bias and disparity existed then but however things are changing for the better today. As for me in my growing up years, the biggest motivation was that I was surrounded by athletes in my family. So that came as a great source of encouragement and when I started winning from a young age, the competitions and the medals became my inspiration and I continued.
What are the challenges you faced as a woman as you navigated your career path and also life as a whole?
Though at home I did not face any kind of challenges, yet I had to face a stereotypical conservative mindset from many people whom I encountered. People could not understand back then, how a woman can have sports as a career and being a sports player how she would continue after marriage or child birth. The ideal thing for women to do back then was to study well and then get married. I think many sports women of those times had to deal with such prying questions from society at large.
How associated are you with sports now?
I did a couple of coaching stints with the junior Indian teams for Wimbledon and a couple of other countries too.
Can you tell us something about Natekar Sports and Fitness and any other business ventures you have?
Our company Natekar Sports and Fitness is in the advisory and consulting space for sports. We work with multiple state governments and large organisations in the real estate and education sector at the grass roots and high performance planning, sports policies and investment in sports.
Are your children interested in sports?
My elder son Aaditya, 15 years old is aspiring to be a pro golfer and is on the national circuit. My second son Anshul, 13 years old loves to play football and also swim. He plays for his school football team, but does not want to make it a career.
What are the issues you want the government to look into concerning girls or women sports players?
I feel that all state governments should start looking at all the sports equally today because there is hardly a sport where a woman has not made a mark. Be it boxing, wrestling, athletics, tennis, badminton or archery. There should be more funds allocated by the governments so that the standards of sports training for women can be raised. Sports infrastructure for women is another area that has to be looked into. Many parents even today especially from the non-urban areas are not happy about sending their girl children for sports training. Hence the safety of women players in terms of their stay, travel and facilities in training centres should be given priority too. A career in sports will not be taken seriously unless sports is given an ‘industry status’ in India.
What is your message for women on Women’s Day?
For all the girls who want to pursue a career in sports, this is the best time to be a sports woman in India. Most of India’s medals over the past few years have been won by women. Due to more attention being given to women’s education, girl children and the importance to sports, I believe girls especially in the rural areas should be encouraged to pursue sports.