3 years

True Life

Sans Advantage

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How Abhishek Mukherjee, an international tennis umpire whose life was repeatedly set back by cancer, kept returning to the top of his game
Abhishek Mukherjee is an International White Badge Tennis Official who has presided over matches at the Beijing and London Olympics

Life seemed smooth until the summer of 1999, especially since that very year I had qualified as an International White Badge Tennis Official. That particular summer, though, my life took an abrupt U-turn. I was caught between a fever that was unwilling to subside and excruciating body pain which made death seem like a better alternative. After preliminary check-ups in Kolkata, I was sent to Mumbai, where our worst fears were confirmed. I was diagnosed with glandular cancer. We stayed there for 30 days, during which time I received my first two dosages of strong medication. We returned to Kolkata, where a visit to the city hospital every fortnight became the norm of my life over the next six months. 

The strong treatment weakened my body and made the consumption of any form of food or even liquid extremely painful. Finally, the hospital discharged me, saying I was out of danger. I felt my misery had eventually come to an end and resumed my job as an umpire. Simultaneously, I helped my brother out with his business in order to improve the financial condition of my family, weakened as it had been as a result of my treatment. I was ready to fight to have my life back.

Coming back to work was not easy. I had lost out on a lot. But who knew then that what had transpired was just the beginning of the setbacks I would face in my ambition to become a world-class tennis umpire? The pain resurfaced in 2001 on my return from one of my umpiring assignments. This time, my family and I did not waste any time and immediately travelled to Mumbai. The second round of treatment took another six months of my life. When the hospital discharged me, they assured us the same thing—that life would be back to normal.

However, I relapsed into the same unbearable condition for the third time. This time, my paternal uncle, Shankar Mukherjee, a doctor of great repute in the US, came down to Kolkata. He took all my reports and we headed to a hospital in Chennai. Here, in a final attempt to save me, the doctor who would be my saviour, Dr Ranjan Mahapatra, and his team advised me to undergo a bone marrow transplant as soon as possible.

After plenty of effort and support from my dear ones, my six-year ordeal eventually came to an end, and I got back on my feet in 2004. I was totally drained out. Physically, I seemed to have aged a lot faster; destiny had snatched away nearly a decade of my life. If nothing more, my peers definitely had an edge over me in terms of ‘experience’. But I have always believed that crying over spilt milk doesn’t help anyone. I stopped regretting the years that I had lost. I promised myself that I would work hard till I achieved success, especially so that I could justify my parents’ tribulations in keeping me alive. Soon, in 2005, I got the first big break in my career. I was selected for the queen of all grand slams, the Wimbledon. Since that day, I haven’t looked back.

I’ve always tried to compete with myself and remain honest towards my vocation. And I was lucky to be rewarded for my perseverance. I subsequently received a selection letter for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Australian Open and the US Open. I also got opportunities to work as an umpire in New Zealand, Sweden, China, Taiwan, Korea, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Singapore, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore and many other countries.

In 2010, at Wimbledon, I presided over the longest professional tennis match—the first-round match between Nicolas Mahut and John Isner on 22, 23 and 24 June. The match took 11 hours and five minutes of playing time, and had a total of 183 games. The fifth set alone went on for eight hours and 11 minutes, with 138 games. This match also carries a record of the most games played in a single day: 118, on 23 June. All these figures were staggering in terms of a single match. The level of concentration I needed for the duration of the match was very high. It was an epic battle of stamina and skill, and I am proud to have been part of it.

Grand slam assignments kept coming my way and my performance was highly appreciated. Till date, I have officiated in five grand slams finals. The year 2012 has been the most successful of my career so far. I was selected for three grand slams—the Australian Open, the Wimbledon and the US Open. But the most important was the London Olympics, my second consecutive Olympics, where I was chosen to umpire the final between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. This was my biggest assignment and the most important match of my officiating career. I was the only Indian to be selected, and it was a real honour to represent my country. I had goosebumps on my skin when I stepped on to Wimbledon’s Centre Court for the Olympics women’s singles final match.

Of course, at the Olympics, I again entered the record books for officiating at the longest professional tennis match in the best-of-three sets format. This took place on 3 August between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro during the semifinals on the men’s singles event. Federer eventually won 3–6, 7–6(7–5), 19–17 in 4 hours and 26 minutes.

The year 2012 continues, prestigious assignments are still coming my way. I just got selected for the 2013 Australian Open, which will be the 18th grand slam of my career. I know that life will not always be as happy.  God forbid, there might come a day when all these accolades will stop accumulating. But I sincerely hope to remain honest and dedicated towards my work.