As soon as she clinched the match point on Thursday, Ankita Raina fist-pumped the air and then touched the court in the traditional gesture of taking blessing.
She acknowledged the crowd, a larger one than her first-round match, and then covered her face for a few moments. The sentiment was apparent – after all the 24-year-old had reached the quarter-finals of a WTA Tour event for the first time after beating Thailand’s Peangtarn Plipuech 6-2, 6-2 in the second round of the L&T Mumbai Open.
“I really wanted to win this one, I knew it was a good draw for WTA and I wanted to move forward in the tournament. When I won the last point, I had all these mixed feelings, I didn’t know if I was going to cry or what. It took a while for it to sink in, even after I walked out of the court, that ‘yes I did it’,” a delighted Raina said after the match.
This win also means that Raina will reclaim her position as the top-ranked women’s singles player in the country, one she has held for about three years and relinquished just this week to Karman Kaur Thandi. She has hovered around the 250-300 mark in the WTA rankings for long enough but has not quite made the push in the WTA arena.
But as the 24-year-old beat two opponents with two very different styles in a span of two days, her experience on the toiling tennis circuit showed. Travelling on her own for almost 10 years, she put all her versatility into action against the tricky Thai player.
If in the first round against world No 233 Veronika Kudermetova, Raina responded to power with power, she played a more patient game in the second round, going for precision and angles over big-hitting, without letting her intensity drop.
If her swift winners were the highlight of the first match, her smart variations were the talking point of the second. From full-blooded winners to down-the-line crackers and a few crafty drops, Raina looked to play every shot on its merit, no matter where it was placed.
“Since I played her I knew she is a smart player who has a lot of variations. She runs down a lot of balls so I had to play smart and do some variations of my own, because she can run side-to-side and just get the balls back. The balls here get heavier and slower, so it’s difficult to just hit and finish the game,” Raina said analysing the game.
“She then suddenly changed her game and tried to put the balls higher so I couldn’t attack. Since I was playing aggressive, I tried to attack but then I realised that those were not the right shots,” she added.
The conscious gameplan to adjust her naturally aggressive game to counter Plipuech is indicative of Raina’s match sense. Unlike the first round, she didn’t need to call her coach on court, didn’t get bogged down by pressure or let her opponent get a toe hold in the match.
“I think I played a smarter game today than how I usually play, I am glad that I can adjust the game when needed,” she said.
Raina’s strategy was also aided by the fact that her coach Hemant Bendre was there the last time the two played a three-setter in Hong Kong that the Indian lost. Keeping in mind Plipuech’s style from that game, the duo worked on specifics before the match.
“My coach has seen her, he was there the last time I played her. Then I had won a set, but she started going behind the baseline and I played aggressive so that’s why played different. With her it didn’t make sense to keep hitting the ball, I would have wasted my energy instead,” Raina elaborated.
Bendre concurred that idea was to play around with placement. “Today was more about not going full speed, there was no point risking shots. If you miss, you are going to hurt your chances so it was better to play at her speed and when you get the opportunity, attack,” he told The Field.
Another impressive facet of Raina’s game was her agility and speed with which she ran down her opponent. While it was much shorter than the first – 67 minutes as opposed to Wednesday’s 96 minutes long match that saw a first set tie-breaker despite leading 5-1 – it was a lot quicker. Raina kept pace with her quick-footed opponent and didn’t let her dictate terms. She reached the ball early and tried to pick her angles, which gave her the edge.
“She is naturally a very endurance-based athlete, she has good stamina. In training she has hit so many balls and does a lot of endurance work which reflected in her game today,’ her trainer Gaurav Nijhon explained.
On her part, Raina said she felt perfectly fine physically, despite playing two straight days.
In the quarterfinal against France’s Amandine Hesse, Raina’s ability to shift her game will be tested again. The two haven’t met before, but from how the French girl has performed in Mumbai, she also seems to have an attacking game and the ability to sustain pressure and fight back.
In the first round she knocked out fourth seed Arina Rodionova of Australia winning 7-6(2), 6-3 victory after being 2-5 down in the first set and in the second she overcame Israeli qualifier Denis Khazaniuk 6-3, 4-6, 6-1.
With a WTA semi-final spot at stake, it’ll be interesting to see how Raina absorbs the pressure and counters Hesse. Friday will be a tougher test for the 24-year-old. But if Thursday was any indication, Raina certainly has the wherewithal to go a step further.