Before playing in Fed Cup, Rutuja Bhosale played at an ITF event in Jodhpur. (Source: Twitter)
A tennis-playing youngster tries to convince her father to let her go for a training camp in Goa. The father disagrees and asks her to name Indian women players apart from Sania Mirza. “Ankita Raina, Prarthana Thombare, Rutuja Bhosale...” rattles the girl before her father stops her. He says, “You know these names because you play the sport. Ask others.” Rutuja Bhosale describes this scene from a 2019 Marathi film, 'Smile Please'.
She laughs over the phone, as she explains how surprised she was when she heard her own name make it to the final cut of the movie. “They probably just mentioned it because I'm Maharashtrian and this is a Marathi movie. That's probably the only reason because they made this movie last year, and I hadn't played a full season on tour,” she says.
Since returning to the tour in 2017 after a stint at college tennis in the United States, Bhosale has struggled with a shoulder injury. But in her latest sojourn, at the Group 1 Fed Cup tie in Dubai, Bhosale arguably justified those fleeting moments of fame. For the first time ever, the Indian women’s team qualified for the World Group Playoff stage of the competition, after finishing second behind China. And the 23-year-old, from Shrirampur in the Ahmednagar district, played a crucial role in that success. Ranked 438, Bhosale played the opening match for the Indians in each of the five ties in the six-team group and managed to pull off important wins in three of them – against Uzbekistan, South Korea, and Chinese Taipei.
“Vishal (Uppal) sir, the team’s captain told me that Ankita (Raina, India’s highest-ranked singles player, 163) had never entered a Fed Cup match with India in the lead,” she recalls. “If I got the win, then Ankita could play her singles freely because we knew our doubles team, which had Sania (Mirza), was strong.” Bhosale’s three wins kept the Indians on course for a top-two spot in the six-team group – which would secure them a spot in the playoffs. In the final tie against Indonesia, Bhosale lost in three sets, but Raina levelled the tie and then secured it with Mirza in the doubles, giving the team its biggest achievement so far. “It’s a great feeling, and the more you think about it, the better it gets,” says Fed Cup coach Ankita Bhambri. “We had come close in 2006, but we lost to Australia. This time, somehow, we knew this was our year. Even though we lost to China in the opener, we could feel the momentum building as the days went by. We knew this was possible.”
Off the court, the Indians worked towards it. Uppal, who was appointed as captain of the team last year, decided to give the players the freedom in handling their own pre-match rituals. “I told them to do whatever they wanted to be ready for the match. If they wanted to go for a hit at five in the morning or at 11, it will be done no matter what. All that I wanted was that they be ready for the match. No excuses,” he says.
“The girls know their own bodies, their diets, much better than anyone else. So I gave them the freedom to prepare in the way they wanted to. They all did their work responsibly. They were hungry for this and that’s what made a difference.”
Rutuja Bhosale won the 2019 Lagos Open women's doubles title partnering with Laura Pigossi. (Source: Twitter)
The win also comes at an interesting juncture in Indian women’s tennis, especially since it was accomplished by a younger group of players. For Bhosale though, who has been on the tennis circuit for a few years, this is a spark she hopes will reignite her career.
A shoulder problem – rotator tear – has hampered her growth. In December though, she made the decision to stay away from the sport and work on her fitness till the end of January. Her first event this year came last month at an ITF event in Jodhpur – where she reached the quarterfinals – before making the trip to Dubai for her first Fed Cup appearance since 2013. “The match sharpness wasn’t there at the start, but I could feel myself move much better. I felt more positive with my body, and that helped me push myself,” she says.
Those three crucial wins in the singles matches were instrumental in the team’s success. And though it gives Bhosale a shot in the arm, there’s an expectation that making the playoffs for the first time will have a strong effect on women’s tennis in the country. “Indian women’s tennis needed this. Hopefully, people will become more serious about the women’s game and there will be some motivation for the players,” Bhambri adds. That’s what Bhosale hopes for. She has basked in all that was achieved in the Middle East and looks to push her career in the right direction – up the rankings and away from the injury woes that have kept her down.
She laughs again when reminded about the movie, realising the layman’s limited understanding of women’s tennis in the country. But with this Fed Cup achievement, she hopes the country remembers her for the right reasons.