Ankita Raina

Ankita Raina is bringing Indian women's tennis into the limelight

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Ankita Raina has enjoyed her journey to No. 1 in Indian women’s singles. But her stock continues to grow because of the tough competition from her peers, all vying for that top spot.

The train journey from Casablanca to Rabat takes a little more than an hour. But anxiety was growing for two Indian tennis players on board as the interim stations flew by. Ankita Raina and her companion tried to make sense of the announcements, uttered in French and Arabic, and asked their fellow travellers if Rabat was approaching.

“Just as the train was pulling out of a station, one of them told us this is where we had to get down,” recalls Raina, who was on one of her very first tennis trips abroad at the age of 16 with another young tennis player from her home city of Ahmedabad.

“I pulled the emergency chain because that's what you would do in India. But these were different trains. The automatic doors did not open after the train stopped. Some railway police came and said we had to pay a fine of 6,000 dirhams — which is a huge amount — for stopping the train. They took us back to the station. But obviously, we didn't have that kind of money on us. My friend started crying, and on seeing her, I started crying too. They didn't know what to do with two teary teenage girls from India, so they let us off.”

Raina, aged 24 now and better for the experience, tells the story with a degree of amusement. She has been on tour for eight years and fits the definition of a tennis journeywoman. Playing in obscure cities to vie for crucial ranking points, the curly-haired, hazel-eyed player is naturally upbeat despite having lived the lonely life of a tennis professional.

“At this level, you don't even get a 'Hi' from the other girls,” says Raina, who reached a career-high of 222 in 2015 without the luxury of having a coach, trainer or family travel with her. “They are all busy with their own entourage. After the match, win or lose, I am usually by myself in the room, maybe surfing the net.”

That was one of the reasons why, when given an opportunity to play in front of a crowd made up of friends, family and well-wishers, she made the most of it. At the L&T Mumbai Open in November 2017 — a tournament that is part of the WTA 125K series — Raina put on her best performance so far by making it to the quarterfinals.

Dressed in a purple-orange one-piece and wearing her heart on her proverbial sleeve, Raina worked her way to the last eight with an impressive range and variety in play.

Of the four Indian wildcard entrants, she was the only one who got past the first round. Raina also regained the India women’s singles No. 1 spot during the tournament. Though she wasn't quite able to get past the quarterfinal hurdle, the week in Mumbai went some way in helping her figure out where her game stands. She doesn’t have the overpowering shots, but Raina has a retriever’s heart; she can chase down any ball on the tennis court.

Ankita Raina is the Indian women's singles no 1
Ankita Raina is the Indian women's singles no 1

One of the biggest advantages was having her coach, Hemant Bendrey, on the sidelines to guide her through the tricky corners. The women's tour allows for on-court coaching once a set. Not having a travelling coach when she plays around 25 tournaments a season is a big setback, especially since most competitions are away from home. The Pune-based player also added trainer Gaurav Nijhon to her crew recently. Tennis has become intensely physical, and with Raina's game revolving so heavily on her fitness and speed, the professional help from her team has helped her rise through the ranks.

“The Sports Authority of Gujarat supports me so that I can travel around through the year,” she says. “But having a coach travel will be great. Right now the women's game is so competitive; even players ranked around the 500-600 play almost as good at some ranked around 200. The quality has gone up a few notches in the past few years.”

And Raina has been on the top of the women's game in India for some time now. No one has quite been able to fill into Sania Mirza's shoes, but the battling Raina has been the best of the lot for the past few years.

“She works as hard as anyone else on the tour,” says India's Fed Cup coach and captain Nandan Bal. “She needs a little more self-belief to break into that top-200 now.”

Her style of play is heavily based on fitness
Her style of play is heavily based on fitness

Staying on her toes

Raina is also mindful of the competition brewing at home. On 20th November 2017, the Monday that the Mumbai Open started, the lanky, 19-year-old Karman Kaur Thandi had displaced her as the No. 1 player in India. The Delhi teenager has made all the right moves in the past couple of years. As Mahesh Bhupathi mentors her, she has had access to one of the best tennis centres in the world — the Mouratoglou Academy in France. Patrick Mouratoglou famously coaches Serena Williams, and though he does not coach Thandi personally, she has trained at the academy for a few weeks the past two years.

“People like Grigor Dimitrov train there,” says Thandi, who has played practice sets with Frenchwoman Alize Cornet. Thandi has a forehand almost as big as Mirza's; she will learn to harness the power over time. But in a rare quality for an Indian girl, the six-foot-tall Thandi possesses a massive serve. Her game is not quite there yet, but the teen plays like she belongs on the big stage. That’s half the battle won.

“Karman is definitely an exciting prospect,” adds Bal. “But what is heartening to see is that we now have a good progression of women's players. Raina and Thandi are the best in the country at the moment, but you also have players like Rutuja Bhosale (21), Zeel Desai (18), Mihika Yadav (18), and Riya Bhatia (20). After that, there are also a couple of really good players in the under-16 and under-14 groups.”

Zeel Desai, Rutuja Bhosale, Ankita Raina and Karman Kaur Thandi
Zeel Desai, Rutuja Bhosale, Ankita Raina and Karman Kaur Thandi

Like Thandi, Desai has big ground-strokes to dictate play. But at 18, she is still growing into her 5'10 frame and adapting to the power and pace of play at this level. Alongside Raina, Thandi and Desai, Rutuja Bhosale was the fourth wildcard entrant at the Mumbai Open.

Unlike her counterparts, Bhosale picked a more circuitous route in her career. She was the only Indian to win a round when the last WTA 125K series event was held in Pune in 2012. Only 16-years-old then and one of the most promising juniors in the country, Bhosale chose to take up a tennis scholarship at Texas A&M University and graduated with a business studies degree. The once-meek Bhosale from Shrirampur — a small town in Maharasthtra’s Ahmednagar district — has emerged a stronger, smarter player.

“I was very shy before going there,” says Bhosale. “But we were put in a course where I had to stand and talk in front of 100-150 people. It has given me a lot of confidence. Also, college tennis there is played to packed stadiums and really crazy crowds. One of my teammates was spat upon, it is that competitive,” recalls Bhosale.

During NCAA College tournaments, six matches are played simultaneously, dividing the team coach’s attention. That helped Bhosale think independently and come up with solutions herself.

“Through the four years in college, I always knew I was going to come back and play professionally,” she asserts. Though the 21-year-old went out in the opening round in Mumbai, she showed a lot of spirit during her 4-6, 3-6 loss to Israel's Deniz Khazaniuk. Her serve was wobbly, but the wiry Bhosale has deceptively punchy ground-strokes, especially the telling backhand down the line.

Since she resumed with pro tennis in June 2017, Bhosale has played 11 tournaments and won two ITF Futures titles. Having started 2017 ranked 811, she climbed to 527 on the WTA charts by the end of the year.

As they currently stand, with Raina leading the pack at 260 in the rankings as of the final week of January 2018, the Indian women are still a long way away from making a dent on the global game. But their collective rise has been as good as Indian tennis has seen.

Ankita had reached the quarterfinals of the 2017 Mumbai Open
Ankita had reached the quarterfinals of the 2017 Mumbai Open