"Was shocked when an elderly person asked for my autograph," says budding tennis star Rushil Khosla
Former U-14 Asia No. 1 tennis sensation Rushil Khosla dreams of winning an Olympic medal like Leander Paes and changing the narrative of Indian tennis by excelling in singles.
A packed Deccan Gymkhana watched with earnest eyes as budding Indian tennis sensation Rushil Khosla along with partner, Ananth Mani Muni stirred up a ruckus on-court against the Kazakh pair of Max Batyutenko and Artur Khairutdinov in a 10-point match tiebreaker in the doubles summit clash in Pune. Young Rushil, all of 15, the butterflies fluttering wild in his stomach from playing in front of a charged-up audience stepped up his game and fired away - his mighty left hand swinging to produce luxurious forehands, his legs carrying him confidently forward to the net as he rushed to pick up the volleys - Rushil was in his zone, and this was his playground.
Soon the doubles title - the ITF J3, Pune was under his belt and the butterflies were just about beginning to rest that a middle-aged man came up to the youngster from Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh, and asked for a seemingly usual thing - an autograph, little knowing that it was the very first one asked of the teenager.
"I was a little shocked, like why is this Sir asking for my autograph? It felt good and it was very overwhelming for me to give an autograph to someone elderly…as it was my first one. It was such a nice moment," Khosla mentions, his eyes twinkling with excitement too.
Settling in for an exclusive chat with The Bridge from his Delhi home, Rushil can be easily confused as just another teenager until he talks about his dreams - name-dropping Olympics, the desire to top the ATP rankings one day - but at the bottom of it, the 15-year-old often interjects with his missing out on birthday parties and going to school regularly and not getting time to hang out enough with his friends.
But if all this seems most ordinary, what really is extraordinary is the fact that Rushil has been romping around with prowess in the Asian tennis circuit - he was the No. 1 in Asia when he was just 12 in the U-14 division. He held on to that position from April 2019 to March 2021 with quiet dominance, improving with focussed training with his coach, Aditya Sachdeva, day in and day out. Among other extraordinary things - Rushil is also the recipient of the Bal Shakti Purasakar award in 2020 where he was recognized by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and President of India, Ram Nath Kovind for his tennis talent.
Even if you can sense that this 15-year-old is a little big star in the making, there are absolutely no airs about it and he speaks passionately about the sport he loves so much. "From the beginning, I have been associated with sport - each and everything like cricket, football, squash, table tennis, lawn tennis," he mentions. But it was when he saw his sister, Jhanvi, also going to the academy and playing tennis that Rushil decided to take it up and when he was barely 7, the tennis racquet was embraced.
"My first memory of tennis would be when I competed in a district tournament at the age of 9 and I ended up winning it. I had just played tennis for a year then and to my surprise, I ended up winning a district-level tournament, that was very special," Rushil recollects this throwback tale from his mind.
From then till now Rushil has won more than 80 tournaments and just in 2021 itself, he shifted his focus to the ITF circuit and got his first singles crown at an ITF Grade IV event in Nairobi in early November 2021. With the year now coming to a close, Rushil can look back at the 11 titles he has bagged this year alone and spend his time resting and recovering before a jam-packed January schedule starts with tournaments in Chandigarh, Delhi and Kolkata.
A juggler of teenage dreams
There are only so many things that one can be okay missing out on in their teenage and young Rushil, confesses how difficult it can get sometimes when he can't be around for birthdays, meet-ups with friends but he remains steadfast as he mentions that he wants to see the tricolour flying high because of him at the Olympics and someday later, he'd surely want to sit on the perch position of the ATP rankings - a boy can dream but dreaming isn't only what Rushil does as he is doing just about everything to manifest them.
But doesn't it get difficult - tennis, studies, friends, social life, and multi-tasking through it all?
Rushil's eyes light up when asked about how his academic life where he has been acing it up with above-90 scores and as it comes to the multi-tasking department, Rushil is emerging to be quite the pro there. Aside from having an incredibly supportive school, Rushil mentions the reason behind these off-court academic triumphs, "I start studying usually a month or three weeks before the exams and I finish the course. I study while travelling - in flights, in cars, I take out my time…not every day though," he says.
Right now, Rushil, who can also strum the guitar well and loves music, has a far greater tussle to deal with - does he love Maths as he would earlier or is it Geography that is his favourite subject instead, given how Maths has grown congruently tougher now.
The one love there is no question about though is that for tennis and the all-court player, who likes to volley it up on clay courts and hard courts and holds the French Open and the Australian Open to be his favourites and would like to one-day beat tennis prodigies Jannik Sinner of Italy or Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz.
Fair enough, a lot of work remains to be done, Rushil, although a sincere lover of the occasional chocolate brownies from Theobroma is all up for it - putting in the hours training from 9 in the morning to the afternoon and then doing fitness sessions in the evening. In his mind, seeing India at the Olympics podium remains paramount and he expresses how by the 2028 Olympics, he'd like to be the one from India making waves out there and being on the podium.
Confusing to have an idol, I'd rather just be Rushil Khosla
For Rushil, the immediate future ahead beckons towards the Junior Grand Slam's for which he can now earn the qualifying draw by virtue of his ranking which is within the Top 250. With 2022 already knocking on the doors, Rushil would also like to break into the Top 100 or 80 by the end of it and hopes that more ITF tournaments take place in India.
"I played in Pune for 2 weeks - it was a Grade 3 and Grade 1 tournament. I would like more of these tournaments to come to India because it is very expensive to go and play tournaments in foreign," Rushil expressed, indicating how difficult it is to sustain tennis as a professional player simply on one's own.
Having grown up idolising 20-time Grand Slam champion and King of Clay Rafael Nadal - a fellow left-hander as well, Rushil also likes the feel of the clay and the hard courts. With his training mostly concentrated to Delhi and Chandigarh, where his coach Aditya Sachdeva grooms him to be not just Asia's finest but someday the world's best too, the coaching infrastructure has also seen a positive curve in that region, helping the likes of Rushil dream bigger.
Rushil, who much-like Nadal, is also incredibly superstitious and he will also arrange his bottles in a particular manner on-court or even to keep the winning streak going repeat a certain tee shirt that got lucky for him. But even though he remains a committed fan of the Big Three and considers the 2017 Australian Open clash between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to be his favourite, he no longer calls them his idol.
"Rafael Nadal was my first childhood idol. Then I shifted to Novak Djokovic and then Fernando Verdasco…and then I realized I don't really need an idol. It's confusing to have an idol - you can just have an idol to get inspiration from them..otherwise, not really," the teenager confessed.
But unlike Nadal or Djokovic who excels in the singles mainly, Rushil's tryst has seen him being hailed as a 'Doubles Specialist' despite his equal prowess as a singles player - which is no doubt a more demanding task. "Singles is difficult because throughout the match you have to rely on yourself, motivate yourself - you have to be physically up to the mark, mentally up to the mark, after that the technical and tactical perspective can be applied," Rushil elaborated, most eager to make it big in singles.
"I prefer playing singles but people call me a doubles specialist," Rushil, a little amused goes on to explain, "In Delhi and Pune I played in 3 tournaments and we won two, the other one we went till the semi-finals but since my partner was playing with an injury, we couldn't go ahead. During the second week, into the semis, I remember we defeated a Thai and Korean pair and after the match, everybody said - "Oh, Indian doubles player is very good," Rushil recalls with a chuckle.
The idea of India being excellent in doubles is obvious given how the country has produced the likes of Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna (who Rushil even had a fan moment hitting with once as well) - but Rushil has other plans and wants to change the narrative for Indian tennis by making it stand out in men's singles as well.
But changing the narrative will take time, effort, focus and dedication and Rushil is all up for the job - he wants to follow tradition with Paes who won India's lone Olympic medal in tennis with a bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games and was also the Number 1, albeit in doubles. Much like Paes, the 15-year-old speaks with ambition and conviction in his voice when he mentions about his desire for the same if not better honours - the clink-clank's of Olympic medals and the glory of winning Grand Slams and seeing Indian tennis revolutionarily transform - and young Rushil looks and is confident of being the helmsman for this gargantuan task.