Ready Player One: Slam debut done, Ankita Raina has her eye on the Singles
Ankita Raina’s journey is likely to resonate with the average Indian child hoping to grow into a professional sportsperson. Raina was not a wunderkind, not a teen sensation; merely a hardworking player drawing on every ounce of talent and clambering, one step at a time, to the elite level.
And now there she is: at the Australian Open, making her Grand Slam debut in doubles last week at the age of 28, after nine shots at qualifying in singles and at least a decade on the professional circuit. Raina is only the fifth Indian woman in the Open Era, and the first since Sania Mirza’s debut in 2005 to play a Grand Slam main draw match.
She lost in the opening round with first-time partner Mihaela Buzarnescu, but the unexpected Slam entry via doubles has reiterated India’s No 1 women’s player’s belief of fulfilling her primary goal — to play singles at the Slams.
“The first thing that came to my mind was — finally it has happened,” Raina says, speaking from Melbourne, of the moment she learnt about her Slam debut. “I began thinking of all the sacrifices that my family has made.”
Growing up in a middle-class household in Ahmedabad, Raina was introduced to tennis at the age of four. She would tag along with her brother to an academy near their home. She loved the game, and soon enough, became very good at playing it, excelling in U-12 and U-14 national- and Asia-level tournaments.
Realising their daughter’s potential, Raina’s parents — her mother, Lalita Raina, is an employee with the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) while her father, Ravinderkrishan Raina, works with a pharmaceutical company — shifted the family to Pune so she could enrol in the Hemant Bendrey Tennis Academy at the age of 14. Even though this meant her mother had to commute daily from Pune to Lonavala for work.
Bendrey, a well-known Indian tennis coach, saw a rare temperament in Raina. “Kids at that age often cry for days after losing. Ankita would cry for that one day, but would come back to the court the next day with the same enthusiasm,” Bendrey says. Also, she was always turning up at 7.30 am for training sessions that started at 8.30.
Bendrey believes he has coached youngsters more talented than Raina, some of whom even played the juniors at Wimbledon, but then faded away.
“This girl wanted to keep going. She had that persistence, and she survived,” he says.
Since turning pro in 2009, Raina has won 11 singles and 19 doubles titles on the ITF (International Tennis Federation) circuit, a rung below the elite WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) level. Since her maiden ITF triumph in 2011, she has won at least one title every year save 2015.
Raina broke into the Top 200 of world rankings in 2018, won the country a bronze medal at the 2018 Asian Games and played a key role in India earning a maiden playoffs spot in the Fed Cup (now the Billie Jean King Cup) last March.
On Friday, the current world No 181 in singles and 115 in doubles pocketed her maiden WTA Tour title, winning the Phillip Island Trophy doubles crown in Melbourne partnering Russia’s Kamilla Rakhimova. The triumph should propel her into the Top 100 of the doubles rankings. In singles at WTA tournaments, she stunned 2011 US Open champion Samantha Stosur at the 2019 Kunming Open and beat 126-ranked Elisabetta Cocciaretto at the Phillip Island Trophy. Raina will now seek a similar deep run in singles.
Meanwhile, she continues to travel alone, as she has done since she was 12, sorting out her own bookings, taking care of her food and tournament schedules. She has seldom been able to afford a travelling coach or trainer. Raina vividly remembers struggling with the food and language in China and panicking when she, then 14, missed her stop on a long-distance train in Morocco.
“I had to pull the chain to stop the train,” she says, laughing. “But such experiences gave me the extra edge to be mentally stronger, which helped me on court. Right now if I see a 12- or 14-year-old Indian girl travelling alone, I do wonder how I did it!”
Her attitude to losses remains the same. Her goal seems, first, to make it onto the court. Second, to give it her all while she’s there. “In tennis, you compete every week, so you are going to lose a lot of matches,” she says. “But you have to get up the next day and do the process again. Regardless of how long the wait will be. The journey has been great so far. But it’s not complete. I’m still waiting for a singles Grand Slam main draw. I’m sure it’s coming.”