Ankita Raina - Her best yet to come?

What is really good about Ankita Raina is that she has started believing in herself and her game. There is a certain consistency to her game that augurs well for her future.

Peaking late: Ankita Raina in action against Chieh-Yu Hsu of Chinese Taipei in the women’s singles match of the Asia-Oceania group Fed Cup at the DLTA Complex in New Delhi. At 25, Ankita is happy that she is playing really well.   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

A strong physical fitness, backed by a sound attitude is the key to progress. Ankita Raina gave a proof of this with a spell of bright tennis.

With a resolve to give off her best — strengthened by the indifferent attitude of Somdev Devvarman, who as the government observer did not deem it fit to keep her in the scheme of things for the Tokyo Olympics — the country’s No. 1 woman tennis player for the past five years is all geared up.

Ankita, 25, played superbly in the Fed Cup Asia-Oceania tournament in Delhi; she competed hard against former World No. 4 Samantha Stosur of Australia in Dubai, and as the icing on the cake, she won the $25,000 ITF women’s singles title in Gwalior.

If she felt like a princess, it was only natural, for Ankita was staying in the Taj Usha Kiran Palace, which is now a heritage hotel, in Gwalior. The quiet ambience of the nine-acre property, plus the aarti every evening at the small Ganesh temple there had helped Ankita stay calm and focussed. She won the title in Gwalior four years after her earlier singles triumph here.

It was a rare privilege to watch Ankita perform the thanksgiving pooja in the evening following her triumph. Everyone greeted her and wished her more success.

Years of hard work and success

Obviously, the success was the result of the work of many years. Ankita looks at her game and the pleasant scenario of her success with the maturity of one who has been travelling around the world in pursuit of excellence.

“Since the Fed Cup, I am happy with my game. I am getting the opportunities, and more importantly, I am grabbing them. Of course, improvement is always required. I am trying to improve every day, the small things,” Ankita opened up during a relaxed conversation.

Ankita has a good second serve that kicks up to a good height, quite consistently, and with some venom too. She is quick to credit her long-time coach Hemant Bendrey for all that she had been able to accomplish, technically and otherwise.

“Sir told me by the end of last year about the serve getting better. I hope to keep serving better,” Ankita said.

She is quite happy about her fitness. “There has been a lot of focus on fitness. I am working hard to get better. This will help me in matches at the higher level. Mobility helps you to be in position all the time and hit the ball better. Sir believes that I am definitely a top-100 player. I can take that. I have to keep improving my fitness to reach there,” Ankita said.

Showing promise: Karman Kaur Thandi and Ankita Raina (left) celebrate their victory over Chinese Taipei in the Asia-Oceania group Fed Cup. Ankita is all praise for Karman Kaur and says, “she should get into the top-100 for sure.”   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

 

According to Ankita, it may take two years, or even quicker for her to break into the top-100. For now, her focus is on the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. A medal here could boost her ranking, which is now No. 255 in the world.

“Ranking is a number. Yes, but you need it to play at the higher level. I want to play in the Grand Slams. For that the ranking has to be in the top-200, to make the qualifying draw,” Ankita said.

The level of competition has increased manifold in the last few years. That explains her struggle to get back to her best rank, or better it.

“I have been playing these players in the $60,000 events. Last week, it was like a WTA event. No. 80 was the top seed’’, she says.

With a frail build and not so impressive technique, Sania Mirza rocketed to No. 27 in the world in singles and No. 1 in doubles. So what is it that stops players like Ankita from reaching the top-100?

“Honestly, I don’t know how she became so good. I have only heard that she won the WTA in Hyderabad which took her to a different level. Of course, she has a great attitude and is always fearless on court. She takes the risks. That is one thing I have learnt from her,” said Ankita, who played the doubles in the Fed Cup with Sania Mirza.

Naturally, the competition has increased manifold.

“The cut off for the $25,000 event was 300. Even the No. 600 plays great tennis these days. In China, the non-ranked girls blast the hell out of the ball, like machines!”, she pointed out.

Sania Mirza belongs to a rare breed of Indian sportspersons. It will take longer for lesser mortals to accomplish what she has achieved in such quick time.

“We Indians tend to peak late — maybe 24 onwards. We have seen that with a lot of players. Yuki Bhambri, 25, is doing well now. The sport is growing and the age group is also increasing. I am 25. Maturity comes with age.

Maturity helps

“Maturity helps you grow quicker, but at times you can do all the right things and still good results may elude you. You need to be patient and persist with the good practices,” Ankita said.

“Everything has to come together at the right time — your game, maturity, physical strength, the right support... It is the same thing that I have been doing, and the same support that I have been getting. No change, or nothing new. It is not just about getting the funding, it is important to have the right kind of people around you who will take you forward,” Ankita said.

Playing the role of a mentor: Emily Webley-Smith of Great Britain has taken Ankita Raina under her wing. She also plays doubles with the Indian. “We have been great friends. She is very caring,” Ankita says of Emily.   -  A. M. Faruqui

  What is really good about Ankita is that she has started believing in herself and her game. “It is a matter of time. I have been trying to get strong, physically. I have been working on my tennis. I have a physio Rutuja Patange and trainer Gaurav Nijhon. They play a very important part in my game. I have also been consulting psychologist Debashree Marathe. I have worked with her since 2012-13.

“I had a tendency to think a lot. That used to be the case earlier. We tend to think about the points we played, and we tend to think that we had our chances but did not use them etc. It is important to stay in the present and play the point with purpose and intensity, keeping a clear mind without worrying about the results,” she said.

Ankita mobilised the best support for herself with a chance meeting with the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, in 2013. “We had no appointment. Mr. Sandeep Pradhan, now the Sports Secretary in the Union Sports Ministry, was very helpful in arranging the meeting with the Chief Minister. There were many waiting to meet the CM. I had met him with my father and coach. I was introduced as India No. 1 from Gujarat. I told him that I have been travelling all over the world and that I needed support. The ‘Shaktidoot Yojana’ was born then. So many athletes from different disciplines benefited from it. Gujarat has been very good in helping athletes,” she recalled.

“I play for 25 to 30 weeks in a year. I have been the No. 1 in the country for the last five years. I owe it to them,” Ankita added.

From getting her first sponsor, J.R. Vyas of Dishman Pharmaceuticals, for the under-14 Asian series tournaments in Jordan and Syria, Ankita has come some distance. “It was my first trip abroad. They were the first to respond when I sent my bio,” she reminisced.

Taking on the challenges

Her good performance took Ankita to the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) in 2014, which provides her job security and the strength to focus on her tennis.

With everything going in her favour, it is not a very big challenge for Ankita to bring out her best on a daily basis. “When you play in small places, you need to adjust to a lot of things. When you are playing outside, most things are against you. The idea is not to worry about things that are not in your control. Keep your calm and work on. It takes time to change. I was happy with the way I played the second round against Berfu Cengiz of Turkey (ITF women’s tennis tournament in Gwalior). The conditions were hard, but you have to handle everything and still bring out your best game,” she said.

"The quality of performance was good in the Fed Cup. Every year there is a different excitement. Representing your country in a team event is special. This time it was in India, and it could not have been better, with people cheering for you. It matters. It is needed. Thankfully, we did well."

 

Travelling alone is a big challenge. In fact, the former No. 1, Nirupama Sanjeev, is shocked that the plight of the No. 1 player has not changed over the years, from her time. “Yes, Nirupama offered to help me if I played tournaments in the US. I was planning to go there in January. I had training and Fed Cup. Thus, I had to change my schedule,” Ankita said.

Of course, the Fed Cup proved to be a memorable one for Ankita, who won all her singles matches against China, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan and Chinese Taipei. The way she beat the former World No. 27, Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan, stood out.

“The quality of performance was good in the Fed Cup. Every year there is a different excitement. Representing your country in a team event is special. This time it was in India, and it could not have been better, with people cheering for you. It matters. It is needed. Thankfully, we did well. I feel very proud playing the Fed Cup. Basically, I want the team to be in the World Group. It is possible, we will get there,” Ankita said with confidence.

It was in the Fed Cup in Thailand in 2016 that Ankita scored her first big win, against the No. 56-ranked Nao Hibino of Japan. “It was such a big win for me in 2016. I got my first victory against a top-100 player then. This time, it was an unbelievable experience for me. To play like that in India, in Delhi, felt great,” she said

Olympics is the target

Ankita did play with Sania Mirza then, but did not get a chance to play in the Rio Olympics. “It was disappointing not to play in the Olympics despite being the best in the country. But the doubles ranking clinched it for Prarthana Thombare. Olympics, I want to be there. When you desire something and work for it, you will get it. I will not, for even a single moment, lose sight of my target,” Ankita said.

“I did not think of going to the US for college tennis. I didn’t want to stay away from home. More than that, I wanted to compete."

 

Everything boils down to good guidance and preparation. “My pre-season training was good. I am confident with my fitness and game. If you have the confidence and belief, things will happen,” she stressed.

Ankita acknowledged that luck also plays a big part in one’s career. “You need the luck too. I am grateful to have all the support and to be able to play tournaments around the world the whole season. There are girls who play only with the prize money they earn,” she said.

Coach Hemant Bendrey is the one who helped build a team around Ankita to ensure she stays fit and plays well. “I am proud of my fitness. I should thank Hemant sir, with whom I have been working for the last 10 years. I have only been following what he has been telling me. It took some time, but I am getting there. It is difficult to go to a new coach and follow the same vision. It was my family that decided it was best for me to be coached by Hemant sir. I did not think of going to the US for college tennis. I didn’t want to stay away from home. More than that, I wanted to compete,” she said.

Promising Karman Kaur

Karman Kaur Thandi overtook Ankita briefly as No. 1. Ankita was all praise for the 19-year-old Delhi girl, who is supported by multiple Grand Slam champion Mahesh Bhupathi.

“Karman got here early. (She has) A very good serve and good strokes. More experience will help her mature as a player. She should get into the top-100 for sure,” said Ankita, who also appreciated the growth of the young Zeel Desai.

Emily Webley-Smith of Great Britain has been mentoring Ankita and playing doubles with her.

“We have been great friends. She is very caring,” Ankita said of Emily.

It is tough to travel the world alone. “Sometimes you need to travel alone. Sometimes you need some company. I am happy with people. I like watching movies. My reading is getting better than before. There is a lot of music, it goes on all day!”

Defeating Amandine Hesse of France — to whom she had lost in the quarterfinals of the $125,000 WTA event in Mumbai — in the final of the $25,000 tournament in Gwalior gave a lot of satisfaction for Ankita, who has won six singles and 12 doubles titles so far on the professional circuit.

Ankita is quite alert and sharp on her feet. The rhythm of her strokes or the sting in her serves don’t vary despite different situations in a match. There is a certain consistency to her game that augurs well for her future. And she has the mental maturity to help realise her dreams.