The journey of any athlete more often is about silencing the demons in the mind before everything else. The deluge of thoughts which addles oneself into self doubt is what needs to be conquered in time before time runs out. Ask India’s top-ranked tennis player Ankita Raina who just lifted her maiden Doubles WTA $125K title with Karman Thandi in Taipei and one will be convinced of the same.
“Yes, it is important to keep dreaming and more important to keep believing in yourself. I know at times this would sound like an overdose of optimism but I have experienced this in my life.There are going to be numerous ups and downs but if the passion is true, putting in all the efforts will certainly pay off some day,” said Ankita who has waded through numerous impediments in her career since turning pro.
“In times when things do not go your way, there is self doubt and that is when you have to silence the noise within by telling yourself that there are better things waiting ahead,” Ankita opens up to The Bridge as she reflects on a year full of positives.
The maiden WTA doubles title for both Karman Thandi and Ankita should be the first of the very many to come in the times ahead. Albeit, it was unfortunate that the title came when one of their opponents Natela Dzalamidze of Russia suffered a painful hamstring injury and had to retire. Nevertheless it was a close match and the Indian duo clinched the title coming together as a team for the first time on the circuit. Thandi, 20 who is five years younger to compatriot Raina made a winning combination with the Asian Games bronze medalist.
“It was indeed very good playing with Karman as a team. We were communicating throughout our matches and even when we were leading or down in the match, it did not matter if either of us committed an error. We would just tell each other it is fine and let us focus on the next point and think what we can do next.""I think that was important. Whenever we had good shots, good rallies, we would compliment each other. This way we tried to keep that energy. We both play an aggressive game. That was very helpful. Karman has a big serve, powerful strokes and hence we combined very well,” says Ankita.
What comes as a significant trait of Raina, is her perseverance. The gusto with which she enjoys the grind is what pays off. “To be honest, the winning moment is always a fleeting one, that, which lasts for seconds. What needs to be enjoyed is the journey that brings you to that moment.” says the Gujarati girl who adulates Spanish Great Rafael Nadal and says Roger Federer is God.
Having spent almost close to a decade on the professional circuit and amassing seven ITF singles and thirteen doubles titles in that duration, the Ahmedabad born Raina endured a long wait for her breakthrough on the WTA tour. The quarter-final finish at the Mumbai Open in November 2017 set the ball rolling for Raina after which there has been no looking back.
A very ecstatic Ankita says, "It was during the Mumbai Open last year that things changed for me. It is always great to have such events in our country. It gives all our girls a lot of exposure. Playing against top players certainly helps in a positive way in terms of experience and learning. I just hope they keep continuing these in the future too."
A breakthrough season replete with reaching significant milestones:
Putting behind the agony of not being able to qualify for the Taiwan Open in January, stumbling in the final round of qualifying, the World No 198 was determined to take the season head on.
With the Federation Cup in the month of February, Raina proved on court that she has the game to tackle some of the top ranked players on the tour. Remaining undefeated by winning all of her four singles ties, the Kashmiri girl garnered praises and accolades that went far in helping gain the much needed confidence.
Raina won the hearts of her fans with her fighting spirit as she trounced two higher ranked players like Lin Zhu of China and Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan. “The Fed Cup was really great as it helped me get a lot of experience with the matches that I played,” Raina said. Playing both singles and doubles was challenging with little time to recover. But Ankita managed it with finesse.
Ending a three year long singles title drought
In March, Raina went on to end her three year long drought of a singles title when she won the $25,000 ITF event in Gwalior. She beat second seed, Frenchwoman Amandine Hesse in straight sets. Ankita’s last singles title had come back in 2014 in Pune and a singles title this year again filled her with optimism.
Ankita also made it to the quarter finals in Luan and kept steadily scaling the rankings. The month of May saw Raina reach a career high ranking of 181 on the WTA. Rewarded for her consistent performances on the tour, Ankita got into the qualifying of the French Open. Even though she lost in the opening round of the qualifiers, she came out with a belief in herself as she stretched the World No 116 to a tiebreaker in the second set before the Russian brought her experience into play to close out the match.
The biggest milestone came in the month of June when Raina made it to the prestigious grass courts at Wimbledon. With a spark of enthusiasm, Raina recalls, “Indeed, Wimbledon is and has been one of the dreams. More than me it has been my mom’s dream that one day I would play at Wimbledon and someday in future win that Slam. Grass is my favourite surface so I was very excited.”
The soulful picture that Ankita had posted on social media with a caption saying "Look Maa I am here" was indeed such a heartwarming frame that moved fans who all showered her with good wishes.
“It was a very very emotional moment for me. I wanted my mother to travel with me to Wimbledon as well but she and my coach accompanied me to Roland Garros and it was not possible with the financial limitations to get her with me there,” Ankita said as sponsorship has often been the reason she spends most of the time without a travelling coach.
“When the initial cut-off list was out, I was not into the list. I was a few spots out in the alternates. But as we got closer to the dates, I did move in. So going into the tournament, I was a bit nervous as it was just two to three days before the qualifying started”, Raina recalls her journey into the All England Club.
“It is actually tough to put in words. The atmosphere was completely different. Wimbledon has been my favourite Slam. It was a very different experience as I won my first round there to get my first ever win at a Major stage. I also tasted a bit of that green grass as a mark of celebrations,” said Raina as she could not contain the joy that was clearly felt from her tone.
The season kept progressing as time gushed by. Riding that confidence, Raina went on to pick up a second title of the season at Nonthaburi in July. She defeated 2nd seed, Japan’s Risa Ozaki who has been a former top 100 player in straight sets to triumph at the $25K ITF event in Thailand.
Asian Games, Bronze, a feather in the cap
Feather in the cap was the Asian Games where Raina won the Bronze medal in singles becoming the second woman after Sania Mirza to win a medal in singles at the Games after Mirza’s silver in Doha in 2006 and a bronze in Guangzhou in 2010.
“The Asian Games is definitely special as it comes once in four years. It is a prestigious team event and very different experience altogether. Playing for the country is always special,” says Ankita as she takes us into her memories from Jakarta.Ankita Raina poses during the medal ceremony for the women's singles tennis event at the 2018 Asian Games
“The semi final match against Zhang Shuai was very close. It gave me a feel that I was playing some really good tennis and physically I was I was at my peak. It was unfortunate that I suddenly started feeling a bit ill but I was happy that I gave it my all. I gave real good fight against Zhang who is a top ranked player and has a lot more experience than me. But I was very close and the match could have gone either ways,” she adds.
Having played singles, doubles and also mixed doubles at the team games, it was commendable to see Raina keeping up the momentum. In the mixed doubles she paired with Indian ace, Rohan Bopanna and in the doubles with Prarthana Thombare.
The way Raina flawlessly deals with singles and doubles is always worth applauding. “I have always played singles and doubles both in every tournament that I played. So it is very normal for me. I focus on both. I work for both the games. Of course singles is a priority but I give my 100% to doubles as well. If you look at my titles as well, I do have quite a few in doubles too. Playing doubles definitely helps in terms of like if you are out in the singles event then you are still alive in the tournament. You have a feeling that you are still working and it keeps you in that match zone,” says Ankita who believes that playing doubles is always adding to your game and experience.
It was indeed justified with her WTA doubles title in Taipei two days back with Thandi. As the season is almost inching closer to the end, we wanted Raina to give us a peek into her off season plans. But the diligent Ankita has not even thought about it yet. “I still have three tournaments to go before I can enjoy my off season. I have tournaments in Pune, Solapur and mostly one in Dubai,” says Raina who will get back to focussing on her regime after she reaches home from Taipei.
We asked Raina about her team and if she would make any additions to it in the near future to help her go to the next step. “Right now I have a team of coaches, my trainer, physio, a mental trainer, nutritionist who help me, it will remain to see if need be when I will most certainly think about it.”
A fun rapid fire before we could close the conversation:
- Federer or Nadal?
3. Favourite dish (food)?
4. A dream mixed doubles partner you would love to pair?
“Any Indian partner for me”
5. Ice creams or chocolates?
6. Favourite festival you love revelling in?
“Holi and Diwali”
7. Tv serials or books?
8. If not a tennis player, what would you be?
“In the Armed forces serving my country”
Favourite Bollywood movie
“Chake De India and Namaste London”
The aura of Ankita and her voice filled this writer with optimism knowing tennis is in safe hands with her.