Sandesh Kurale: Hitting on fallow farmland to winning national U-18 tennis

Updated on Apr 09, 2021 07:04 AM IST

Sandesh Kurale, 17, has proved an exception. He became the U-18 national champion at the weekend, winning the All India Tennis Association’s (AITA) junior championship in Indore by beating Pune’s Manas Dhamne 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (3) in the final.

Sandesh Kurale.(Special Arrangement)
Sandesh Kurale.(Special Arrangement)
ByRutvick Mehta

It’s no surprise every national junior male tennis champion in India from 2016 has come from a city. Tennis is considered an elite sport, requires access to courts in clubs or academies, structured training and deep financial resources to make it to a certain level even in the domestic circuit.

Sandesh Kurale, 17, has proved an exception. He became the U-18 national champion at the weekend, winning the All India Tennis Association’s (AITA) junior championship in Indore by beating Pune’s Manas Dhamne 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (3) in the final.

Kurale comes from Channekuppi village, in Gadhinglaj taluka of Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district. Far from having access to a court in a city club, Kurale’s early tennis lessons came largely on a makeshift court made by his father on their fallow farmland.

Like many village kids, especially in Maharashtra, athletics was Kurale’s first love. His first brush with tennis came when an eight-year-old Kurale visited Kolhapur city and watched children playing on a single court. Seeing his son’s interest in tennis, his father Dattatray put him under coach Uttam Farakte in Kolhapur, where the boy would go every weekend to train. “Tennis was more fun than running. Also, matches were longer and it was an individual game. I enjoyed it,” Kurale says of his initial attraction to the game.

Sandesh Kurale.(Special Arrangement)
Sandesh Kurale.(Special Arrangement)


Recognising that merely training at the weekend won’t be enough for Kurale to pursue the sport, Dattatray—a farmer who also runs a tea stall with his wife in Gadhinglaj—decided to use his farmland. He dug up a section and resurfaced it with loose red clay, converting it into a makeshift clay-court. It was smaller than a standard court (the International Tennis Federation-approved size for a singles court is around 23m from baseline to baseline and 8m between the sidelines). It was enough for Kurale to work on his serve, hit a few balls with his father’s help and do fitness drills on the days he was not training in Kolhapur.

Building the court from scratch, Dattatray recalled, took around five months and cost approximately R4 lakh—it included expenditure for procuring raw materials and equipment. He dipped into his savings while support also came from his close circle. “Pura khod ke banaya (I dug it up entirely and made),” Dattatray says. “I just wanted him to get the feel and continue with his practice and fitness even when he was home. Getting that much money was an issue, but I wanted to do it for my son.”

Kurale continued to train in his makeshift court and in Kolhapur for a few years until Arshad Desai (coach at Aurangabad’s Maharashtra tennis association (MSLTA) centre) and his brother Manal opened an academy in Kolhapur. Kurale shifted to the academy five years ago, travelling daily from Channekuppi to Kolhapur—about 75km—by bus.

“He stood out as a kid,” Arshad says. “He would never say no for anything; no matter what I asked him to do. He has a different level of dedication and commitment to hard work.”

The results steadily started to show. Competing from the age of 12, Kurale won a handful of school, inter-district and state competitions in his age groups. He also won AITA’s All India U-18 Ranking Championship Series in October 2019 besides finishing runner-up twice. A silver medal at the 2019 School Games Federation of India competition was added to his list of achievements; so was being selected for the Khelo India Youth Games. Before all these tournaments, Kurale would stay in Kolhapur to train, living in a house provided by the Desai brothers to help avoid his long daily commute.

With practise shifting to the academy full time, his makeshift court has seldom been used in the last few years. But hours put in on that dusty village court in his formative days helped lay a strong foundation for two areas of his game—serve and fitness.

“His serve has a strong base, which we worked on quite a lot,” Arshad says, pointing out that Kurale is already 6 feet. “He has also focused a lot on fitness; even without access to a gym he has a muscular body. In any case, most village boys have a naturally strong build, and this boy is also hard working. He never compromises with his diet.”

Limited tournaments

Kurale is the U-18 national champion, but languishes at No. 31 in the AITA rankings for the age-group. It’s mainly because Kurale doesn’t play as many events as most others in his age group due to financial constraints in arranging travel and accommodation for tournaments held across the country.

“For this nationals in Indore, we collected some money from a few tennis groups and businessmen in Kolhapur and gave him R15,000. It’s difficult for his father to manage alone. So, with the budget limitations, I told him, “We’ll play only the important tournaments; you shine there and that’s when opportunities will open up”,” Arshad says.

A Roger Federer fan, Kurale wants to turn pro by this year end.(Special Arrangement)
A Roger Federer fan, Kurale wants to turn pro by this year end.(Special Arrangement)


“We don’t have that much money to send him to all tournaments, but wherever he goes, he does well,” Dattatray says. “He has shown promise in his tennis career, but there is only so much I can do from my end.”

A Roger Federer fan, Kurale wants to turn pro by this year end. Shifting base to a bigger city like Pune or Mumbai for more exposure is not on his mind. Kolhapur is where he wishes to continue training for now. “I am happy that I won the national title, but this is just the first step. I want to turn pro as soon as possible and start playing ITF tournaments,” Kurale says.

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