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Waterford - Nisha Rajamohan was holding her second annual tennis fundraiser for Shriners Hospitals for Children on Saturday.
Rajamohan, born without a portion of her right arm, has been a patient at Shriners since she was six months old, receiving a series of prosthetic arms that have allowed her, among other things, a successful tennis career. Rajamohan, as a junior at Waterford High School last year, was the Eastern Connecticut Conference tennis tournament singles runner-up.
On Saturday, her eyes lit up, talking about the two pairs of autographed tennis shoes that were donated by Nike for her to raffle off at the fundraiser. One was signed by Serena Williams. One was signed by Rajamohan's favorite player, Rafael Nadal. Rajamohan and Lauren Rahr, her best friend and tournament co-chair, contemplated putting the shoes on and walking around the house in them Friday, but decided against it.
Only Rajamohan, instead of being a Waterford High senior-to-be, was acting Saturday as a senior-to-be at the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Rajamohan, 16, who has been to camp at the academy in the past, found out she was accepted at the end of the school year and leaves next Friday to be a part of the renowned Nick Bollettieri Tennis Program.
"She's going to inspire a lot of kids," said Rajamohan's mom, Shanthi, of her daughter's enrollment at IMG and her quest to earn a Division I scholarship despite her handicap. "I keep telling her. She says she's not good enough to (be inspiring). I think she is. She has a good attitude. I cannot be more proud."
Rajamohan credits her parents, Shanthi and Francis, both of Indian decent, for involving her in a lineup of activities early on.
She participated in gymnastics, ice skating, basketball, swimming, played the violin in the school orchestra and from the time she was 4 years old learned to play the piano one-handed.
"From the time she was born, I thought, 'She's going to be the same girl, like anyone else,'" Shanthi Rajamohan said. "She shouldn't feel that at any time, 'I didn't get to do this.' ... She's a good sport. She takes things very easy. But I also see the love of sport from her."
Rajamohan, who plays left-handed, served as Waterford's No. 1 singles player in the spring - Rahr was No. 2 - when the Lancers completed an unbeaten regular season at 15-0, including topping perennial champ Stonington for the ECC Medium Division title.
Rajamohan compensates uniquely. She tosses the ball for her serve with her prosthetic arm. During her stints at the Bolletieri tennis camp, she also worked on her backhand, so that opponents trying to take advantage of it are caught off guard when her backhand motion is often stronger than her forehand.
Rajamohan said her coach Mike Carducci of Rocky Hill is a perfect match for her, finding him about a year ago. Carducci didn't question Rajamohan's disability at all.
"All the other coaches would say, 'I can help you with high school, but I don't know about colleges,'" Rajamohan said. "Mike was like, 'Let's go.' I went from 300-something to 66th in New England. All that's to Mike."
At IMG, Rajamohan will train for several hours in the morning and attend class in the afternoon. Some famous alumni/trainees of the Bollettieri Tennis Program are pros Maria Sharapova, Serena and Venus Williams, Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and Boris Becker. Approximately 60 percent of the students who attend private school at IMG go on to Division I scholarships, with another 38 percent playing at Division II, III, NJCAA or NAIA programs.
Carducci said the main things Rajamohan needs to work on are mental toughness and her physical strength.
"She needs to be a little meaner. She's definitely a little too nice," Carducci said. "She's still learning. It's going to be more than she's ever had to do, playing three, four, five hours a day. But New England kids don't ever get that opportunity. That is pretty amazing."
Rajamohan and Rahr, with help from their parents the first year, raised $6,066 last year for Shriners Hospitals for Children, a network of 22 non-profit hospitals across North America which provide care for children with orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft lip and palate regardless of the patient's ability to pay.
On Saturday, the duo of friends had another full bracket of singles and doubles players to benefit the charity.
"I would always get excited when I was going there because I was getting a new arm," Rajamohan said of her relationship with the Springfield, Mass., branch of Shriners, which has always asked what they could do differently to make the prosthetics better for tennis. "Still when I go there I see kids with prosthetic legs walking around the halls. It's amazing.
"... I can prove Shriner's really helps."