At this time last year, Aashli Budhiraja ’18 feared she might be sidelined for the entirety of women’s tennis team’s 2015-16 campaign. This might come as a surprise to some Wesleyan tennis fans, certainly those who watched the Palo Alto recruit compile an impressive 9-5 dual match record as a first-year at the top end of the Cardinals’ lineup, and help Wesleyan secure a NESCAC tournament berth for the first time since 2008. But a near-catastrophic injury last summer placed Budhiraja’s immediate tennis career in serious jeopardy. While on vacation with her family, Budhiraja suffered a tear to the lens of her right eye that seriously impaired her vision and made hitting a tennis ball back and forth (much less playing the spin-heavy, aggressive brand of tennis she excelled at during her rookie season) virtually impossible.
Though she attended team practices during the fall semester sporting an eye-patch, Budhiraja was forced to watch from the sidelines as her teammates recorded strong performances both at the Lindsay Morehouse Invitational and the ITA (Intercollegiate Tennis Association) Regional Tournament later that month. Still, she refused to abandon the hope that she might compete alongside her teammates at the start of the spring season. Budhiraja worked tirelessly throughout the winter months to restore her game to its impressive former state, focusing on strength and conditioning drills to ensure that she would be physically fit come springtime.
“I think it was crucial for me to be patient with myself when I was getting back into tennis shape [over winter break], because it’s always frustrating to play after a long break,” she wrote in an email to The Argus.
March arrived, and with it the tennis team’s annual spring break trip to California, where the Cardinals would kick off their season by testing their mettle against some of the nation’s top teams. First up was a tough double-header against 19th ranked Case Western Reserve and 21st ranked University of Redlands. Budhiraja got her first taste of collegiate tennis action since the previous May playing in the top doubles slot alongside reigning NCAA singles champion Eudice Chong ’18, a partner destined to inspire confidence in anyone. The pair trounced a competitive Case Western team 8-2 and dispatched Redlands’ top doubles team shortly thereafter.
The following match against Washington University in St. Louis (then ranked among the nation’s top 10 teams) proved to be another significant test for the Cardinals and Budhiraja, who, aside from playing No. 1 doubles again with Chong, saw her first singles action since injuring her eye. Yet she need not have worried. Budhiraja cruised to a 6-1, 6-2 victory over her Wash U opponent, barely breaking a sweat.
Budhiraja maintains that the trip to the west coast was vital to restoring her confidence in addition to her game, and where there once existed doubts as to whether she would lace up for the Cards at all during the 2015-16 season, the sophomore now appeared poised for another strong spring campaign. Budhiraja exceeded expectations over the next several months. She and Chong did not lose a doubles match the rest of the regular season, downing the top teams from traditional tennis powerhouses Bowdoin and Amherst and even edging out Williams’ Juli Raventos and Linda Shin in early April.
Budhiraja also performed admirably in singles throughout the spring campaign, grinding out wins against Bowdoin and Tufts at the No. 4 singles spot to keep the Cardinals alive in both matches. This unprecedented excellence at the top of the doubles lineup (coupled with strong play from the rest of the team) allowed the women’s tennis team to jump nearly ten places in the national rankings and lock up a NESCAC tournament berth for the second consecutive season.
The first match of the tournament against Bowdoin proved not only to be one of the most lauded in the history of the program, but also the biggest of Budhiraja’s short career as a Cardinal. The Cards, who were ousted from the tournament in excruciating fashion (5-4) by the Polar Bears the previous season, came out with guns blazing, sweeping doubles without dropping more than five games on any court. Playing in the No. 2 doubles slot alongside first-year standout Victoria Yu ’19 for just the second time all season, Budhiraja rose to the occasion and trounced her opponents 8-3 to give the Cardinals their first victory of the day.
Yet Budhiraja’s biggest moment of the day was still to come. Entering singles with a decisive 3-0 lead, the Cardinals needed victories on just two of six singles courts to seal the match and to secure a trip the NESCAC Tournament semi-finals. The first of these wins came courtesy of Chong, who dispatched her Bowdoin adversary with ease 6-2, 6-1. All eyes then turned to court 4, where against all odds, Budhiraja was on the brink of defeating the Polar Bears’ Tess Trinka and cementing her legacy as a member of Wesleyan’s most successful women’s tennis team to date.
A crosscourt forehand by Trinka thudded into the net to tumultuous screams from the Cardinal faithful. Game, set, match, Budhiraja. Pandemonium broke loose as Budhiraja’s teammates flooded onto the court and embraced her, forming a jubilant cluster of red and black. For the first time in program history, the Cardinals had survived a first-round match of the NESCAC tournament, and now had a tournament title in their immediate sights. Additionally, the win all but guaranteed the Cardinals a slot in the Women’s NCAA DIII team finals in late May.
Though the Cardinals failed to vanquish a potent Williams team in the NESCAC tournament semi-finals and fell to the Lord Jeffs following a strong run in the NCAA team tournament, Budhiraja and Chong’s brilliant doubles play throughout the season earned the duo a trip to the NCAA individual finals in Kalamazoo, Mich. There, Budhiraja and Chong picked up where they left off during the regular season, tearing through the tournament bracket and picking up wins against teams from the University of Chicago and Sewanee University before eventually falling to Kathleen Kuosman and Caroline Ward of Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in the tournament semi-finals.
Despite her substantial individual success both in singles and doubles over the course of the season, Budhiraja’s favorite moment of the 2015-16 campaign remains defeating Bowdoin in what will undoubtedly be remembered as the program’s greatest victory to date.
“It was easily our biggest win in team history,” she wrote. “They were a team we knew we could beat, and one we’d been targeting all season. We were all stoked.”
Triumphing in the face of adversity has become a tired trope in the world of sports. But Budhiraja’s sensational season in the wake of disaster reminds us that setbacks like a torn eye lens are often the spark we need to propel us to greatness.