Six months ago, Ankita Raina lost her spot as India’s top-ranked women’s singles player after almost three years. The same week, as world No 293, she played in the 125K WTA Mumbai Open, a tournament she says was the turning point for her.
Since her quarter-final finish in Mumbai – the only Indian to advance beyond the first round – her career has been on an upward trajectory. In the last six months, she has not only broken into the top 200, she is set to finally fulfil an almost life-long dream – playing at a Grand Slam.
By virtue of her steadily improving ranking – she is at a career-best 187 now – Raina has made it to the qualifiers of the French Open and is headed to Roland Garros – something she repeats to herself daily like a talisman.
“Grand Slams were one of the toughest times for me,” she said. When I saw the players I have played with competing there, I used to feel a little upset and think, ‘Man, I have played this girl and we had such a close match.’”
She added, “I felt like not watching the matches, but then at the same time, I felt like when I get a chance to play there, I will know what to do. It gave me the motivation and the burning desire, I was always thinking about when I would be there and how long before I can reach the stage.”
And now that she is finally there, she feels confident. As she should, given her career graph this year.
In singles, she won the women’s singles title in Gwalior and followed it with a semi-final in Kofu, Japan. In doubles, she won a title in Luan, China, just last week. But the standout performance was the Fed Cup, where she was the only Indian to stay unbeaten with gritty wins over top 100 players like Lin Zhu of China and Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan
“The performance I got in Fed Cup was one of the best performances of my life,” she said. “The kind of tennis I played I surprised myself with it. How many people get a chance to represent their country? Very few people are as lucky and you need to play with pride.”
And playing for India clearly got the best out of her, with a little help from Bollywood. “It is a different atmosphere as well. It makes a big difference for me and it was in India and there was support. In the changeover, they were playing Chak De! India songs and I thought what more can I ask for? I get goosebumps every time I hear that song or watch that movie,” she said with a laugh.
So what changed in Raina’s game since the WTA event in Mumbai at the end of November? According to her coach Hemant Bendre, nothing. The shift was mental, the key was self-belief.
“I don’t think there is any change in her game,” he said. “We have been working on her speed and strength anyway. I have always believed that she can play top-100 level tennis and it’s not difficult because of the speed at which she plays. I think she realised in Mumbai that she can play at that level and that this change is mental, which is the biggest step.”
He added, “At the Fed Cup also she played really well against the top-100 players and that gave her the confidence that, ‘Yes, I belong here’.” Coach Bendre has been the driving force behind her, and had told The Field back in November itself that Raina is on course to play in the top tier soon.
A Grand Slam qualifier will be a whole different ball game, especially on the challenging clay of Roland Garros. However, the 25-year-old is sure she can adapt quickly and ensured that she played the WTA 125K event in Anning, China, which is similar to the French Open clay.
“I have played a couple of tournaments in Europe, not a lot, but I enjoy playing on European clay.
“It’s all about adapting, we do this every week. Even playing on the same surface every week, the balls are different, the court speed is different, the wind and altitude keep changing. So it is something I am used to,” she asserted.
Bendre is also confident of his ward’s ability to adapt. “Paris will be slower and the ball will bounce higher. But now she has learnt adaptation, so she can do it,” he said.
Another factor that will prove to be crucial in France will be her improved fitness, thanks to a more streamlined regimen.
“Previously on tour she used to get tired, but now we have decided that tired or not, we have to do certain things. Even if she has played in three sets, she has to do what she would have do if she had played two,” Bendre said.
“She was losing too much time playing in the tournaments for training. If you are playing 30 weeks, then you get only 22 weeks to train. From that you take out exams and stuff, and in 18 weeks you can’t train for 52 weeks. So it was better than she gets gym and everything on the tour itself.”
Raina, on her part, tries to maintain both her fitness level and work on right recovery, eating and hydration.
And the results are showing. “This time she is back after seven weeks,” Bendre said. “She had never played so long before. I normally allow only four, but the last tournament is the one she had done well in last year, so that we couldn’t cancel. We had decided that if she felt weak, we would call her back, but even now she is fresh so that shows that her body is taking it well.”
Things are all coming together for India’s top-ranked women’s singles player. Recently, she has been included in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme as well, after being controversially left out earlier. The added financial help also means she can have Bendre and her mother with her in Paris and that she can focus on her tennis alone and not the logistics of travel.
Days before her dream finally becomes a reality, Raina is more determined than nervous, because she says she is used to swimming in the deep end. “You get independent when you are in situations where you have to think for yourself. Even if it goes wrong, you learn from it, when you don’t have any option, you find a way.”
Six months after a conversation with her about the limbo women’s tennis in India is stuck in and her desire to break through, she did just that. Not only is she now close to the top-150, but she also found a way to reach her dream. Now for the dreams, and her stage, to become bigger.