Ankita spells hope

Ankita Raina... improving her ranking by 68 places.-K. RAMESH BABU

For Indian women’s tennis it has meant a lot that Ankita was able to go all the way to the final in a $25,000 ITF women’s tournament in Karshi, Uzbekistan, from the qualifying event. Kamesh Srinivasan puts things in perspective.

Ankita Raina, the 20-year-old girl from Ahmedabad, has improved her ranking by 68 places to reach a career-best 362.

For the tennis fans of the country who were shaking their heads in disappointment that Sania Mirza could not go beyond No. 27 in singles ranking, it may not mean much. Aspirations and expectations are always a lot higher than what reality can fetch.

However, for Indian women’s tennis it meant a lot that Ankita was able to go all the way to the final in a $25,000 ITF women’s tournament in Karshi, Uzbekistan, from the qualifying event.

To put that effort in perspective, it may be noted that Sania won only two $25,000 ITF women’s tournaments in her career. Of course, she won the higher events also, including the WTA Tour event at home in Hyderabad. Nirupama Sanjeev nee Vaidyanathan, the pioneer in taking Indian women’s tennis to a higher plane, won only one such event at the $25,000 level. Sunitha Rao and Shikha Uberoi, who had reached up to 144 and 122 respectively in singles ranking, never won one at that level.

Manisha Malhotra, who won the mixed doubles silver with Mahesh Bhupathi at the Busan Asian Games in 2002, did not cross the semifinals of a $25,000 tournament. But, the tournament she played at Felixstove in July 2001 provides a stunning set of facts. Manisha beat Marion Bartoli, who went on to reach the Wimbledon final in 2007 and a career-best rank of No. 7 last year, in a thriller 6-7(5), 7-6(4), 7-6(4). She also beat Elena Baltacha of Britain 6-3, 7-5, and the latter went on to reach a career-best rank of 49.

Manisha was stopped by Roberta Vinci of Italy, who reached a career-best rank of 11 in singles and 1 in doubles.

This was just one tournament, and Manisha used to travel from the US, to Europe, to Australia in playing tournaments non-stop, week after week, thanks to the support of her doting parents. What stopped her from getting better than just about 300 in the ranking, when players beaten by her went on to bigger things in the tennis world?

Manisha Malhotra with Mahesh Bhupathi after winning the mixed doubles silver medal in the Busan Asian Games in 2002. Manisha has some interesting things to say about Indian women's tennis.-V. SUDERSHAN

“I had to spend four to five months on the road, going from tournament to tournament because I couldn’t afford to come home and train. So, that really hampered improvement. Also, after College (in the US), I couldn’t really afford a coach which I think really hurt in the long run. Today the kids have the money to go and play where they like and make points. I didn’t have that flexibility,” reasoned Manisha, who has been the administrator of the Mittal Champions Trust for the last few years.

In this context, to reach the final of a tournament — for someone like Ankita, who had only won two titles at the $10,000 level apart from national titles on grass — was indeed a big confidence-booster.

“I am happy about making the first $25K final, as a qualifier. It proves that I have the potential. It has motivated me to work harder. In the final, I was perhaps impatient and my opponent played good,” recalled Ankita, who had lost to Sabina Sharipova of Uzbekistan in the final in Karshi.

“This has given me the vision to dream bigger,” said Ankita, as she recalled the experience on returning home. The 35 WTA points had helped her climb from 430 to 362.

Having coached a couple of players on the women’s circuit, including Anastasia Rodionova, who won the Commonwealth Games gold for Australia, Manisha said that the game had changed a lot over time.

“You can only make it if you are aggressive and have one weapon. It can be anything, even your agility. But, you need to have one outstanding feature in your repertoire,” Manisha stressed.

Ankita was also pretty clear about the need to improve to sustain her hopes of more good results on the circuit.

“My confidence from the beginning of this year has helped me to be in the finals of tournaments and win a few of them. My improved forehand has helped me in the crucial moments. My hard work is paying off,” said Ankita.

From being a precocious talent who was whipping every ball with disdain, Ankita has matured into a good player thanks to the coaching of Hemant Bendre in Pune.

“He is my mentor, a friend, and he is like my father. He has not only taught me to play good tennis but has also helped me to be a better person in life. He has always been there in good and bad times. He has taught me to go the hard way and be a strong person on and off the court,” gushed Ankita, as she heartily praised Bendre for playing a significant role in shaping her career.

Even though the rest of the Indian women tennis players are ranked further down — Rishika Sunkara (531), Prerna Bhambri (541) etc. — Ankita was categorical that everyone was trying her best to improve within the constraints.

“For players like me who have to travel alone it is good when friends are around and playing the same tournaments. We are there for each other during the matches and practice. It is good when we train together as we push each other in practice sessions. Also, when one player gets results the others get motivated and want to achieve similar success,” said Ankita as she viewed the healthy competition with pride.

“I don’t think anything is stopping us from moving into the top 300. All of us are working hard and trying to get there. But, I personally feel that players and parents need to change their attitude, if they want to achieve something better. Parents should stop interfering if they don’t have the knowledge. If you have a coach, then you should trust him and let him do his job and take the decisions,” argued Ankita.

It may be impossible for the Indian women to emulate Sania Mirza in the near future. But they all can benefit from her excellent approach in shaping a strong career. First they need to plan their tournaments better and mix good quality tournaments with ones that would help gain some points to boost ranking and confidence.

More importantly, rather than trying to base themselves in Europe or slog like hell in training at home, the Indian women tennis players should invest on quality training for a week or two every six months at a world-class coaching centre with a world-class coach. Of course, they need to be sharp to grasp the lessons and put them into practice diligently.

If anything, Ankita’s fine run, when she beat four players ranked better than her, has given a fresh lease of hope for Indian women’s tennis to take more purposeful strides.