A top-ranked squash player, Rhea Bhandare knows what it takes to reach the top spot in the squash circuit and now she’s training a new generation of athletes to reach lofty heights.
The wonder years.
Always a sporty girl who played numerous sports at any given time, it was serendipity that Rhea Bhandare was pulled towards squash at a time when Satinder Pal Bajwa, world no 1 Jansher Khan’s Manager and Coach was conducting a training program for 20 children in India. “I was selected to be one of them and it was then that I started loving squash. But when I started training really hard, seven hours a day, I knew it took a lot more passion to play for a long time.” At the same time, while visiting her older brother at Yale University, Rhea discovered that the path that interested her the most was going abroad to study, playing for her college and eventually doing something else with her life. But before she went down that path, she set herself some goals—to be the best in squash. And she did achieve it, ranking No. 1 in India in the Junior category and No. 3 in the world when she won the Hong Kong Opens at 12. The next natural step was to select her college and ‘retire’ from the circuit. “I got a bit of flak from the squash fraternity, but they understood because I had made it clear to the fraternity in general from a very early age…”
The attraction of squash
“I was back in India, in the corporate world for about 10 years and enjoying playing squash regularly, recreationally of course. And then I started this fun initiative called the Midnight Madness. I’d get a group of squash enthusiasts from the other clubs to come and play on a Friday from 6-9 pm in the evening. We would have teams and play for fun and followed by drinks, food and fun awards and I really liked doing it. I did this for three years and then one day I thought that I should do this for a living since I love it so much and that’s when I started my first company 5Sports in 2017.” The aim with 5Sports was clear: To give people more access to sports, to get people to be healthy and fit and to produce champions. This translated into coaching camps and tournaments wherever there was a squash court. “I realized that squash is an untapped sport in India, there are a lot of people who are playing but they don’t know where to start or how to start,” she says citing the example of Bengaluru where there are 300-400 courts with new ones cropping up all the time as builders are including it in the new residential complexes and commercial spaces. The lack of awareness and guidance had people turn to YouTube to learn the sport before they called Rhea and asked her to come down to teach the residents the correct methodology.
Within the first year, it was clear that 5Sports was the dominator in an untapped market but when her business partner wanted to expand the scope of the business to include other sports, Rhea decided to step out of the partnership, instead choosing to launch her own company Sports XL in August 2019 that solely focused on squash. While the aim remains the same, Sports XL focuses on getting the best talent to come together to learn from the best players on a national and international level. “I want to focus on having the best academy, having the world’s best coaches, giving more people access to it and then build it from there.
Women in squash
Ask her to name women who are excelling in the sport and the reply comes promptly. “We do have quite a few girls who are now ranking like Dipika Pallikal Karthik…. Anahat Singh, a 11year old, who won the British Junior Open 2019 and I think she will be top 10 in the world if she continues.” But the need of the hour according to her is more media awareness about the sport, more investment from the government in terms of building more squash facilities that are available to everyone and more funds to send players to compete in international tournaments.
Rhea Bhandare reached the top spot on the squash junior circuits before stepping back from the sport. But the allure of the sport pulled her back but this time at the other end, training the champions of tomorrow.
She has been on the management team of Vinati Organics Limited since 2006 and balances the technical/manufacturing execution with her marketing abilities combined with new age aggression.