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August 25 2019
Ankita Raina is marching to her own beat
16 February 2019

Ankita Raina has walked a lonely road — she hasn’t always been able to afford a coach or a hitting partner on tour — but India’s top-ranked woman says it has made her the player she is

For most promising tennis players in the millennial age group in India, the inevitable measuring stick is Sania Mirza. It is an incredibly tough standard to be judged against, for Sania reached a career-high singles ranking of 27 — no other Indian woman has even breached the top 100 — and later went on to become the world’s best doubles player, winning six Majors.

The latest to be put through this severest of examinations is Ankita Raina, the 26-year-old who is the country’s best singles player. Ankita reached a career-high ranking of 164 on Monday on the back of her triumph in the $25,000 Singapore event, where she beat three players in the top 150 back-to-back without the loss of a single set. Last April, she broke into the top 200, only the fifth Indian woman to do so. She also bagged the bronze at the Asian Games, another feat which clubbed her with Sania as India’s only two women’s singles medallists.

To be sure, their career trajectories bear little resemblance but for a small period in 2009-10 when Ankita, aged just 16, won the ADIDAS Nationals and the National grass-court championship and earned a call-up to the Indian Fed Cup squad. Ankita broke into the top 300 back in 2013, but it has taken her six long years to be where she is now. Sania’s ascent from 300 to the top 50 took less than 12 months.

 

Two-time Grand Slam winner Sania Mirza sharing a lighter moment with Ankita Raina during the Fed Cup camp at Sania Mirza Tennis Academy in Hyderabad in 2013.

Two-time Grand Slam winner Sania Mirza sharing a lighter moment with Ankita Raina during the Fed Cup camp at Sania Mirza Tennis Academy in Hyderabad in 2013.   | Photo Credit: V.V. Subrahmanyam

Yet, there is no denying Ankita’s talent, however long-drawn her development may have been. In fact, it can even be argued that it is in tune with the times. Back in January 2017, data analyst Jeff Sackman pointed out in The Economist that in 1990 the average age of the women ranked in the top 100 was 22.8. The equivalent age nearly three decades later was 25.9.

“Sports careers never go in a straight line,” Ankita says. “It has taken years and years of hard work, from not just me but my whole team. Tennis is a sport where you need to be patient with results. If you stick to something and keep at it, things will eventually happen.”

The trigger, Ankita feels, was the WTA Mumbai Open 2017 ($125k), where she reached the quarterfinals. In March 2018, she won the $25,000 tournament in Gwalior, her first singles success in four years, and added another four months later.

In between, in the Fed Cup in Delhi, she beat the then World No. 81 Yulia Putintseva (now No. 43) and World No. 120 Lin Zhu. At the Dubai Premier, she ran the 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, whom she dubbed ‘lady Nadal’, close. The first-ever opportunity to play in the qualifying rounds of the French Open and Wimbledon was her reward.

Turning point

“You need that one match, one tournament which changes things for you,” Ankita explains. “I remember just before Mumbai I wasn’t feeling very good mentally. You are doing the things, but it is not always that you get results. At times I didn’t believe in myself. But my family and coach believed in me.”

“A couple of years back, when I would play a higher-ranked player, the mindset would have been different. But after Mumbai, I was relaxed. I had had a good block [3 to 4 weeks] of training. I came up with good performances against top-100 and top-50 players. It built up my confidence. I had never seen a woman play with so much top-spin and give [the ball] so much air like Stosur. Putintseva plays a similar style. But the kind of depth I hit with troubled them.”

It is this approach which perhaps separates her from other Indians. When young, she wasn’t interested in playing percentage tennis. Even at the highest level, where it is easy to slip into safety-first mode when faced with quicker, craftier players, Ankita’s methods are unwavering.

“It’s her footwork,” says Hemant Bendrey, Ankita’s coach for more than a decade. “And when she gets into position, she has to be aggressive and shouldn’t worry about mistakes. You have to tell the player that you are allowed to miss. The problem is we tell our players to seek consistency. Then you will never be aggressive. I have always told her, ‘You will miss but you will have to attack if you are to last at the world level’. She is doing that and is focused on the top 100.”

 

Ankita Raina with her Asian Games medal

Ankita Raina with her Asian Games medal   | Photo Credit: Kamesh Srinivasan

Ankita Bhambri, who has watched her from equally close quarters by virtue of being the Fed Cup coach, feels it is her relentless drive to excel which stands out. “Every time I see her during an important event there are certain positive changes in her game,” Bhambri says. “She takes ideas and inputs you give her seriously. This time in the Fed Cup [2019], she lost against a Putintseva who was in the top-50, better prepared and someone who came up with the better point when it was needed… at deuce, break-point, etc. But I expect Ankita to learn because her attitude and determination are such.”

In a sense, Ankita’s career is a lesson in the ideal of maximising opportunities. After all, she plays doubles — as successfully as singles — for the extra match-time to work on her game. The paucity of funds has meant that she cannot always afford a coach or a hitting partner on the road.

“When you lose early in singles but you are alive in doubles, you still feel a part of the tournament,” she says. “You can always work on the little things while playing doubles. I played with Rushmi Chakravarthi very early [in my career] and won a couple of tournaments. Sharing the same court with a senior player helped and she gave me a lot of tips. Only after that did I win my first singles title.”

The TOPS situation

The grant from the Sports Authority of Gujarat is just about enough to cover her travel expenses for 25 to 30 weeks in a year. It is ironic that the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), of which she was a part until the Asian Games, doesn’t seem to have her on its radar, especially at a time when she is doing better than ever before. Ankita, though, isn’t perturbed.

“The biggest challenge in all these years has been to be on my own. I have done that since 14. I feel after some stage it has even helped me be a different player to fight alone, all by myself. Many times when I used to play against players with a travelling coach, I could see how the coaching and moral support helped them. I overcame that as well. Now with or without TOPS, I know I have to go much higher and I will achieve my dream.”

 

 

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