MUMBAI: Even as the men’s and women’s tours are officially at a close, Indian tennis is once again seeking to answer the long-standing question: who after Sania Mirza? The 31-year-old has been the country’s sole flag-bearer in women’s tennis. But the WTA 125,000 event in Mumbai, starting on Monday, is hoping to give India’s second rung a push by increasing the intensity of competition.
The top-ranked Indian players Ankita Raina and Karman Kaur Thandi, along with upcoming talents Rutuja Bhosale and Zeel Desai have been handed wildcards. Still trying to make a mark on the pro-tour, most of them are playing ITF Futures through the year and the Mumbai tournament, which is the first level of WTA events, will introduce them to life on faster lane.
On Sunday afternoon, when they walked in for the official draw ceremony, they certainly looked the part. Rarely has Indian tennis made the visual impact that Bhosale and Desai, standing at 5’10, and the 6’0 Thandi did. Whether they measure up to the competition remains to be seen.
Of the four, only the 21-year-old Bhosale has some experience at this level. She had entered through a wildcard when the 125,000 event was held in Pune in 2012. Just 16 then, Bhosale was the only Indian to win a round.
“I just froze on the big stage,” remembers Bhosale, who rejoined the tour after spending four years on the US College circuit thereafter. “I was not used to so many people watching the match. As soon as they left, I started playing well. But going to the US has changed my outlook completely. I have become more independent and have started to work out things on the court better.”
The once-shy teenager is now an articulate, confident woman who never wavered from her ambition of becoming a professional tennis player. She graduated from Texas A&M this June and won the first tournament on her comeback: a ITF 15,000 Futures in Aurangabad. Having played only nine tournaments this year, the 21-year-old is ranked 604.
Meanwhile, it’s the 19-year-old Thandi whose progress is being meticulously tracked by Indian tennis. Mentored by Mahesh Bhupathi, Thandi supposedly has a big serve and forehand to rattle players. Even Mirza rates Thandi’s forehand highly. The Mumbai WTA is set to put her firmly in the spotlight.