The last time India hosted a Women’s Tennis Association tournament, the Royal Indian Open in Pune back in 2012, Rutuja Bhosale was the only Indian to make it past the first round. Only 16 years at the time, she upset Korea’s So-Ra Lee and met the eventual champion Elina Svitolina in the next round. Despite the 6-3, 6-0 loss to the current World No 6, Bhosale had announced her arrival early.
For the fans who were eager to proclaim the next Sania Mirza, the answer was here. But the teen needed much more than wildcards and a big game to forge the path ahead, she needed better training facilities. And hence she had to take a call to move away from the pro circuit and hone her skills in American college tennis. It was a gamble to play only amateur and sacrifice four years worth ranking points, but it was one she took up as a challenge.
Cue to 2017, the now 21-year-old is, in a way, reintroducing herself to Indian tennis. After getting her business studies degree and training at the A&M Texas University, Bhosale is back at the Indian WTA event where it all began for her.
Less than a year since her return, she is already climbing up the ranks. She has won her first two $15K titles this year on the International Tennis Federation circuit, at Aurangabad and Hua Hin in June and September and has six ITF doubles titles to her name. And now she is all set for her first-round match at the L&T Mumbai Open on Tuesday, where the former Asian junior champion has earned a wildcard. She will take on world No 274 from Israel Deniz Khazaniuk, who came through the qualifying rounds.
In Bhosale’s own words, it is overwhelming to come back to the tournament where she tastes her first major success. “For me, playing $15k and $25K and then suddenly being in a $125K tournament, it’s overwhelming. But it’s a good thing, I get to see where I need to be and how to work towards it,” Bhosale told The Field.
But while she has the experience of playing at the level, she wants to start with a fresh slate.
“I feel that the experience should help me a lot. But there has been a four-year gap as I haven’t competed professionally. I have to go out there and give my 100% on the day,” she said.
“I have seen her play a couple of times, she has done well in the last few tournaments she has played and has qualified, so she has couple of matches under her belt. It’s going to be a good match, she hits the ball hard, I hit the ball hard so I don’t have to worry about having to push the ball, I am excited to get back,” she added.
College tennis benefits
Even though away from the pro circuit, playing college tennis has been an important learning curve for the 21-year-old. She believes that she is much more groomed and independent player now, as is evident from her performance on the ITF circuit.
“I am much more confident on and off the court now. Playing college tennis has changed a lot of aspects of my game. Mentally as well, I have become steadier and I can push myself even if I am a set down, I don’t think I’ll give up now, I will fight till the last point,” she said.
The US stint has also given her game a sharper edge, making it more powerful, according to her coach, Hemant Bendre from the PYC Gymkhana in Pune. “Her game has become more physical and faster. Women’s tennis has shifted from more tactic to more power and the speed of exchange and rallies is faster so you have to hit harder and then absorb that speed,” Bendre told The Field.
From what one saw at the doubles first-round match where Bhosale and Ankita Raina lost to Victoria Rodriguez (Mexico) and Bibiane Schoofs (Netherlands), the 21-year-old’s serve has become more versatile as she was kicking the ball to get more angles in the re-laid courts at the Cricket Club of India.
Going beyond her goal
Bhosale is currently ranked 577 and has a career high ranking of 527 which she achieved back in 2012. To get back in the game and achieve this ranking after an extended period away is a much harder task and she is happy to have gone beyond her initial target.
“This year I just wanted to get my ranking. I did not expect to [climb up the rankings so soon], my parents didn’t put any pressure on me. They said even if you take six months to get your ranking it’s fine. I knew I won’t take that long but my goal was to get closer to 500 which I already am and I still have a lot of tournaments lined up. So I have increased my goal a little bit,” she said.
With the Mumbai Open planned at the end of the season, any points the local wildcards get will give them a better footing going into the next season and that is something Bhosale in banking on as well. Having packed the rest of the year with more local $15K tournaments, she hopes to accumulate the points and get her ranking even higher and closer to that of the Indian No 1 and 2 – Ankita Raina and Karman Kau Thandi who are both in the top-300.
But ask her about the much-talked about gap in Indian tennis, and she tells you that it it not a gap as much, but rather a lack of guidance to take the next step.
“I don’t think there is a gap but I think that a certain level you feel like you’re stuck somewhere and you need push or guidance so you know where you need to improve. Ankita is doing well, Karman is doing well, they are top 300, but at that level you need to know what it takes to push higher . Its not like we are lacking, it’s that the small push,” she explained.
While her stint in US may have been a difficult decision, it looks like it has helped her get the push she speaks of. The next few months will be crucial for the Maharashtra girl, but with her upward trajectory, it’s hard not to peg her as the one to watch out for, once again, as Indian tennis fans did back in 2012.