Indian tennis celebrated an important milestone this month when the women’s team reached their first-ever Fed Cup playoffs after finishing second in the regional Asia/Oceania Group I qualifiers.
In the women’s equivalent of the Davis Cup, India reeled four consecutive wins against Uzbekistan, Chinese Taipei, South Korea and Indonesia to qualify. The combined team effort saw long-time training partners Ankita Raina and Rutuja Bhosale pull their weight in singles while veteran Sania Mirza teamed up with Raina to finish unbeaten across three crucial deciders.
“This was important for our sport. It was a very memorable week, it took me a while to digest that we made history,” India No 1 Raina told Scroll.in.
Bhosale says Raina didn’t actually believe they had done it and kept double-checking. “We ran down to them and Ankita was in shock for a few minutes, I had tears in my eyes, someone was smiling widely. It was great to see everyone’s reactions,” Bhosale recalled. “Winning was the only one thing on my mind, so that’s why there was no reaction. I was very calm and then I saw everyone came on court,” Raina defended her reaction with a laughed.
India’s best previous Fed Cup performance was a runner-up finish in Asia/Oceania Zone Group I back in 2006. But the change in format, which doubled the number of nations qualifying from the regional group I, gave India a chance to earn the promotion and the team didn’t falter.
Competition in Asia, even without China and Japan, is tough. “Asia is a very tough circuit to play. Uzbekistan has players in Top 50, the players from Indonesia and Chinese Taipei are very strong, these are girls playing about 30 tournaments a year so they are match sharp and no free points can be won,” Bhosale said.
Among Indians, world No 163 Raina is the only Indian in the top 300 of the WTA singles ranking and no one in the team other than Mirza has cracked the top 150. The other members of the team were Bhosale (438), Riya Bhatia (339) and Sowjanya Bavisetti (607).
India was further hit as Karman Kaur Thandi pulled out because of a fracture just days before and Raina was ill during the first tie against China, throwing up twice and needing medical attention. Mirza, the most experienced member of the squad was herself recovering from an injury after making a winning return to the tour in January. But postponement of the event, originally to be held in China, gave her a chance to recover.
In Dubai, the team put in a solid collective effort to bounce back after being blanked in the first tie bu Asian giants China. Bhosale, with three out of five wins, gave a good start and Raina, who played eight matches in five days, shone in both singles and doubles. Mirza showed her champion class as she sealed victories in the deciding doubles and even Bavisetti and Bhatia got a doubles win over Uzbekistan.
“The last two Fed Cups, we were close but you need one more person to win singles or doubles, the side has to be strong together,” Raina, who has previously beaten higher-ranked players such as Nao Hibino of Japan in 2016 and Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan in 2018 at Fed Cup, explained.
“The fact that Sania made her comeback and won her first tournament back was a big inspiration for everyone. Rutuja was very strong, she pulled out some good three-setters. My captain said to me ‘first time you’re going on court 1-0 up’ and it helped me play freely. Her ranking is lower because of injury but the experience is there,” she added.
Bhosale’s performance was a big positive for India as she was picked ahead of India No 2 Riya Bhatia, even though her ranking has fallen because of injuries. But her experience counted when it mattered and the 23-year-old won more singles matches than Raina, giving India a safety net in the doubles.
“Our doubles is very strong, having Sania makes the team so much stronger. If the first singles was lost, it just adds so much pressure on Ankita and the No 1 players of all teams are good. If Ankita lost, which she did a couple of times, the tie as finished. So even if Sania was there, it wouldn’t have mattered. Ankita and I stepped up and proved that there is a lot in singles as well,” Bhosale said.
The Fed Cup always brings out the best in Raina but the impressive part about this campaign was the 27-year-old’s physical fitness as she played back-to-back matches after almost having to quit against China. Even in the loss, there was a big positive as the Asian Games bronze medalllist took a set off world No 29 Wang Qiang, which was the only blip in China’s campaign.
“I have played two matches in a day in other tournaments as well but this time it was a different type of challenge because we were playing within half an hour. One day I was on court for six hours, playing back-to-back three setters. We finished very late and slept at almost 3 AM because recovery takes time and then had to play again the next day two more matches.
But I was happy I could recover, I have to thank my team. One of my personal physios [Rutuja Patange] was travelling with me because I knew I would need additional help and it was a good decision in the end,” Raina said.
Up next for India is the clash against Latvia, but Fed Cup Play-offs scheduled for April have now been postponed due to coronavirus. Whenever the next clash is held and irrespective of the result, it is sure to be a big confidence-booster for the team that is finally taking Indian women’s tennis to the next step.