Chennai Open: India’s No.1 singles player Ankita Raina eyes glory at home after COVID-19 recovery

Ankita Raina – who spends most of her time travelling to different countries to play tournaments of this level – welcomed the move to finally have a WTA 250 event at home.

India’s Ankita Raina, practising ahead of the WTA Chennai Open, at Nungambakkam SDAT Stadium, in Chennai on Sunday.

India’s Ankita Raina, practising ahead of the WTA Chennai Open, at Nungambakkam SDAT Stadium, in Chennai on Sunday. | Photo Credit: Ravindran R

Ankita Raina – who spends most of her time travelling to different countries to play tournaments of this level – welcomed the move to finally have a WTA 250 event at home.

As Ankita Raina – India's number 1 singles player – gears up for the biggest tournament on home soil, she will look for redemption after having a quiet season.

The player from Gujarat had to battle COVID-19 twice this year, with the symptoms being much stronger the second time around.

“You have a cold and fever that's fine, but with COVID you never know what changes it brings in your body, and the weakness stays for a really long time and that's the difficult part to adjust to. It took really long to regain my strength and endurance,” she says.

However, Raina refuses to fuss over the details, saying that the disease can’t be an excuse since everyone was going through it.

Raina is set to face Tatjana Maria – the fourth seed and a 2022 Wimbledon semifinalist – in her first round at the WTA Chennai Open.

“I am excited to play her because she is more experienced than me, usually I get to play players who aren't as experienced as me and we have a lot of players coming up from Europe and America who are just 17-19,” says Raina.

While Maria is coming to India on the back of a great season, Chennai’s weather will pose a challenge, not just for the German, but for every player from outside the country.

“If I stayed on the court any longer, I would start cramping, the heat is killing me here, I can't feel my legs anymore,” were the words of Croatia's Jana Fett, who played a two-and half-hour qualifying match on Saturday.

“I am that one who has already played here before,” adds Raina, “When you face such players, especially in the first round, that's the best draw because they are trying to settle in and over here.”

While Raina will be the Indian to watch out for in Chennai, it was her former doubles partner at the Tokyo Olympics - Sania Mirza – who had enjoyed the spotlight in Indian tennis for over a decade.

Ankita Raina of India and Sania Mirza at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Ankita Raina of India and Sania Mirza at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Mirza – the most decorated women’s tennis player in the country with six major titles – announced in January this year that 2022 will be the last season for the 35-year-old.

“It was one of those things, where you really don't want to believe the news, but somewhere deep down you know every sportsperson's journey has to come to an end,” says Raina.

The 29-year-old is India’s top player at an age where most professionals at least start hinting at retirement. Her first opponent here – Maria – is 35 years old.

“From Serena (Williams) to even Rohan (Bopanna), everyone is playing for a long time and even performing,” says Raina, underlining that the age threshold in tennis is higher compared to other sports.

“It depends from person to person how healthy you are. Especially with a woman's body, there are so many changes. Thankfully, I've been able to keep fit apart from COVID, but yes of course there's a difference in how things are now, as compared to five years back.”

The trip to Chennai is a nostalgic one for Raina.

“I have some great memories of Chennai because I have won the junior nationals in Chennai, as well as one of my initial ITF 10k tournaments.”

Raina – who spends most of her time travelling to different countries to play tournaments of this level – welcomed the move to finally have a WTA 250 event at home.

“We’ve been wanting tournaments of this level in India for a long time now… but I am so glad that it's here now because it really helps.”

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