Being a lower league sportsperson is not easy in India. Elite athletes have it tough too, but at least they have fame and lavish compensation. For those in the cattle class of sport, however, it is largely just toil. There is frequent travel to obscure or dangerous places. You stay in accommodation that cripples your self-esteem. There is little money. Worst of all, people don’t care. Former cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar once said it was the prospect of playing in empty stadiums, more than anything else, that made him opt for retirement over trying to return to the Indian team.
As an upcoming sportsman, you take this phase in your stride. It is, after all, a part of the process, like an internship. Also, such a struggle can have its moments—anecdotes to tell at gatherings later in your career. When you are 18, long train journeys for matches or stays in dingy hotels are adventures rather than body blows to the ego.
But what if you are a veteran and still grinding it out in the domestic or zonal circuit? Almost all your contemporaries have moved on to either bigger or different things. Why are you still there?
In the case of Rushmi Chakravarthi, a fixture on the Indian women’s tennis scene for nearly two decades now, it is because of an enduring love of the sport and astute realisation that if she maintained a certain level of performance, she could get a career-defining break. Rushmi is 34. She has won everything on offer at her level—six National titles (the latest one this year) and 11 singles and 34 doubles titles in ITF (International Tennis Federation) events. The time to become a Steffi Graf, even a Sania Mirza, is long past. She has a steady job as a deputy manager (administration) at Indian Oil. A few days ago, she opened a training academy. Everything suggested that she should quit.
But it is always better to listen not to the chatter outside but the voice within. “I didn’t have the resources to compete at a higher level, but something told me that that wasn’t a good enough reason to stop,” Rushmi says over the phone from Chennai. “I was fit enough, I was still beating many players in India, so I continued to play. I also love playing. So I would say to myself, ‘Let me play one more Nationals, one more ITF’, and so on...”
Around 9.30 pm a few days ago, Rushmi got a phone call that made it all worth the trouble. Anil Khanna, president of the All India Tennis Association (AITA), was on the other end, telling Rushmi that she would be playing in the London Olympics as Sania Mirza’s partner (since she is the second highest ranked Indian doubles player after Sania).
At the time of writing, Sania’s doubles ranking was 12, Rushmi’s 472. Not impressive, yes. There are others in India’s Olympic contingent who have a far greater chance of winning a medal. But this is not a story about rankings and chances as much as about the spirit of sport. The Olympic spot is a reward for the effort Rushmi has put in over the years and does even today—gruelling sequences of multiple 200m and 400m runs on the track at Chennai’s YMCA College of Physical Education, 500 crunches, trips to strife-torn places like Nigeria and Lebanon, just to play tournaments and earn a few ITF points. Over the past one year, she has had the prospect of Olympic participation at the back of her mind. She had played in the Commonwealth Games, but never the Olympics. Doubtless, it provided her fresh impetus to stay in the game. This February, she won both singles and doubles at the Nationals in Kolkata. She has also won two ITF doubles events this year. That a 34-year-old is still winning tournaments in India shows the standard of our tennis, but it also underlines Rushmi’s sustained commitment to her sport.
Former tennis player Sai Jayalakshmy, a known sportsperson who has competed with Rushmi for over two decades, says, “I always felt that if Sania got a wild card, Rushmi deserved to be her partner. It’s amazing that even after all these years, she has stayed motivated and is working just as hard.”
The motivation is all the more remarkable given that Rushmi has been playing at a level where there are few riches to be made. She says nearly all the $118,794 she has earned in prize money over her long career has been channelled back into her career—for want of a sponsor.
Asked about the challenges faced by journeywomen, Sai says, “You are all alone. If you are a WTA Tour player, you can afford to take people with you. Not at this level.” Rushmi agrees hers is a lonely pursuit. “It’s a struggle,” she admits. And yet, as she said earlier, she wanted to play “one more Nationals, one more ITF”. And now she is going for the grand ball itself. The bonus is that the matches will be held on the lawns of Wimbledon, setting foot on which is the ultimate dream of every tennis player.
“I’m thrilled, and my family even more,” Rushmi says. “I knew there was a chance, but it was still a surprise.” An economy of movement defines her tennis strokes, while an economy of words characterises her communication with the outside world. “She keeps to herself,” says Sai. “We’ve been to the same school, the same college, have played doubles together, we’ve shared rooms. And while we obviously get along, I can’t say we are close friends.”
Sai says she has rarely seen Rushmi flustered. “We were at a tournament once, I don’t quite remember where, but Rushmi and I were in one room and Rushmi’s dad in another. We had slept late and had to leave the hotel by 6.30 the next morning. A little later, Rushmi’s dad woke her up, saying it was 6.10. After they got ready, they realised it was only 2.30 am. The point is, during all this she did not make a sound, just quietly got ready in 20 minutes.”
Rushmi has never attained anything quite like the fame that Sania Mirza has. Which is why her Olympic break is fascinating. Everyone loves a story where someone makes it to the global arena after a long, largely anonymous struggle. It’s noteworthy that she made her career as a player based in India, defying the conventional wisdom that you had to go abroad to succeed in tennis. True, if she had the resources, and if she were as hot a prospect as Sania, she might have gone overseas. But since this was not the case, she chose the next best option instead of moping around. “It’s a bit of a misconception [that you have to be based overseas],” Rushmi says. “Even Sania was based in India [till she got married].”
Rushmi has followed the Olympics over the years. Asked about her abiding memories, she says, “The opening ceremonies. I always wondered how it’d be to be there.” She says she won’t be carrying any lucky charms in her kit bag. She’s not superstitious. There is only one ritual that she follows. “Every tournament, I decide on one song and listen to it before matches.” After much prodding, she reveals that during her last tournament, an ITF in Delhi, the song was On the Floor by Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull. For the Olympics, it could be something else. She hasn’t made that call yet.
When Rushmi and Sania played at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, they won a bronze medal. In London, they frankly don’t have a chance. Powerhouses like the Williams sisters of the United States lurk in the draw. “But you never know,” Rushmi says, “I also didn’t think I’d go to the Olympics.”