It has barely been four months and the road ahead is uncertain, but the year 2021 has been among the most remarkable ones for India No 1 Ankita Raina’s tennis career.

The 28-year-old made her Grand Slam debut at the Australian Open, in doubles, won her first-ever WTA main draw match in singles and won then her first career WTA trophy, again in doubles. In April, she spearheaded India’s first-ever World Group Playoffs tie in the Billie Jean King Cup, having been instrumental in the landmark qualifying at the erstwhile Fed Cup in 2020.

The world No 176 lost both her singles matches against Latvia, to opponents ranked 47 and 52 in the world. But she also showed, on live television, the fight she puts in on the court. She took a set of 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and saved a match point and had set points against Anastasija Sevastova. The fact that almost everyone watching was disappointed with the result is proof of how far she has come.

Before the weekend, not many would have given first-timers India a fighting chance said captain Vishal Uppal. But to come within a few points of a famous win was all down to Raina’s relentlessness.

“I was devastated,” Raina told in the aftermath of the eventful weekend. “I know I was playing a good level and it was close, I had my chances. But it did hurt… such hard work and we didn’t get anything for it. It showed why the Latvian players are ranked where they are.

“Ostapenko raised her game and hit some good winners and angles in the last couple of games in the third set, after being up and down throughout the match. I could see that and I felt like I could have won both matches, I put myself in that position,” she added.

Raina, with a career-best ranking of world No 160, has been the top-ranked Indian women’s tennis singles player for a majority of the last six years but it has been a far from a smooth road. Some of the above-mentioned firsts have come much later in her career by most standards.

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As Ostapenko’s unkind comments about her level after the hard-fought first match may have shown, the Indian still has a chasm to cross but the former French Open champion’s disgruntlement also shone a light on the plucky character of Raina.

Playing her best tennis

When she insists that playing for India brings out the best in her, she’s not exaggerating. Three of her four top-100 wins have come in the Fed Cup, where she has also taken sets of players such as Wang Qiang and now Ostapenko. Perhaps it is the team atmosphere or the inputs from the team captain but Raina, just the second Indian woman to win an Asian Games medal in tennis, transforms into a different player when in India colours.

“Maybe the fact that I always wanted to play for India and to finally be able to live that dream… this was my eighth or ninth Fed Cup. Individually also you are playing for your country but this one week the team comes together, fighting and cheering, the camaraderie,” said Raina.

Raina added: “It’s good to have a coach and a captain, and Sania [Mirza] also there. She gives you an edge, she knows all the players and her inputs also help a lot. If she sees something in our games too, she tells us about it. We don’t get that throughout the year and it adds up to our learnings.”

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A lot of this confidence and coaching has rubbed off on her individual game and the results have been on a good upward graph. There has been no definite turning point or change that pinpoints to an upward graph, but the shutdown and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 played its part.

“I believe things happen at a specific time for a reason. Last year, I realised how much I loved the sport and I started feeling more passionate about it. When the circuit restarted, I was grateful for the opportunity to just compete. I didn’t know how long I had so I took part everywhere for three straight months. It took time to get into the match zone and I didn’t win a lot those three months, but I was getting to play. Finally in December, I won a doubles title in Dubai. In singles, I lost in the first round but I had a good match against Katerina Siniakova, who is a top 50 player,” she recounted.

Doubles question

The year 2020, despite its disruption, fetched her five ITF titles, three of them in doubles. The rise in doubles has been crucial subtext. Apart from doubles getting her a Grand Slam main draw berth, her first WTA Trophy and breakthrough in the Top 100, there is also the chance of partnering Sania Mirza at the Tokyo Olympics. The former world No 1 is expected to use her protected ranking to enter the Games and can choose a partner. Raina, who briefly trained with Mirza in Dubai before the Latvia trip, is the most likely choice.

But she insists that the doubles success incidental and not a conscious shift. She is focusing on both singles and doubles, as she always has.

“I have always played doubles in all tournaments and it has always helped me in my singles. I have won the doubles title at 60K and ITF but this came at a bigger level and got the spotlight. My singles and doubles ranking have always been similar, and I played Grand Slam qualifiers and WTA events in singles first, on my ranking,” the 28-year-old said.

The plans for the future in the current times remain uncertain, with no clarity on the next tournament or even a training base in India given the covid-19 situation. But the main goal is to build on the gains from the last few months. If her performance in Latvia is any indication, it’s all about the fight.