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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Ankita Raina sure-footed for clay course ahead of French Open qualifying

“Sometimes, you just want to sit down and have a cup of coffee,” Ankita Raina says over the phone from Paris, wolfing down a meal squeezed in between gruelling practice sessions. “You’re out of a tournament, you rush back to pick up your bags, check suitable flights and book tickets, make your way to the airport almost always on the verge of missing a flight. Then you arrive and head straight to the practice courts, and the cycle is repeated. There’s no time to process your defeats. Or even the wins.”
This week has been another whirlwind for India’s number one. After winning a doubles title in China, Raina touched home base in Pune to put in the hours on the clay courts at the PYC Hindu Gymkhana and get the unenviable task of getting her visa sorted out before the 7,000km flight to the venue of her next adventure, the French Open.
Three wins in qualifiers, starting with beating World No. 117 Russian Evgeniya Rodina on Tuesday, and the 25-year-old will become the fourth Indian woman in the Open Era to make the singles main draw of a Grand Slam after Nirupama Sanjeev (1998 Australian Open), Shikha Uberoi (who was representing USA at the 2004 US Open) and Sania Mirza (2005 Australian Open, and eight more times). The stakes are high, and jet lag and acclimatisation can wait. Straight to the practice courts it is.
“Clay isn’t my favourite surface, but I have been practising in China and Pune. Of course, European clay is different. You need to work on the footwork, all the sliding. You need strong muscles and core for balance. Most importantly, you have to play a bit defensive, which is difficult for me since I like to attack. Here, it’s all about being patient.” The world No 181, however, is no stranger to being patient. She won both the junior and women’s national championships in 2009, has been the country’s top-ranked player for almost five years (save for a week last November when Karman Kaur Thandi stepped up), but cracked the top 200 last month, in her 10th year on the circuit. Reminded of her long travails at the Delhi Open in 2016, Raina had produced an irate reply: “I’ve set many goals, many ranking targets in the past. I’ve stopped doing it now.”
“It had just been too long,” Raina says now. “There were girls I had beaten or at least pushed to three sets who were playing Grand Slam main draws. I kept thinking, ‘why is it taking me so long’.”
A long wait
Coach Hemant Bendrey—who began coaching a 12-year-old Raina “because of her drive. This young girl would take a bus from Vimannagar to Corporation building, then take a rickshaw to come to the Gymkhana at 8:30 in the morning, and leave in the evening alone”—sheds some light. “It was a long wait. It shouldn’t take more than one and a half years to move up from 300 to 200. Then another year for the top 100. Obviously, it has been a long wait,” says Bendrey. “But if you look at the season she’s having, I believe she will catch up. The progress now should be quicker.” A quarterfinal run at November’s WTA event in Mumbai meant Ankita started the year at 259. She won the $25,000 ITF tournament in Gwalior, her first singles title since Pune 2014 and reached the semi-finals in Kofu, Japan, before winning the doubles title in Luan. But it was her coming-of-age performance at February’s Fed Cup ties that triggered the run. Raina clocked eight hours and seven minutes over four balmy afternoons (not counting the two doubles rubbers), grinding out wins against higher-ranked players, including Kazakhstan’s 81st-ranked Yulia Putintseva, to keep India in the Asia/Oceania Group I.
“That week was something completely different. Easily my best Fed Cup performance. Those wins gave me the belief that I can play better than what my rank suggests,” says Raina.
Bendrey always had that belief. “She was different from the start. She wanted to play points, play matches. Others would practise hard but fizzle in competition. Back then, Indian girls were still looping the ball back. Sania started the hitting trend, and Ankita has a similar game,” says Bendrey. “But at times, the confidence would be a little shaky. That is what she has improved. Her strokes are more powerful, on-court movement is better. She is in a better shape physically. But it’s the mental strength which is making the difference.” Her previous trysts with Paris have been limited to transits, and Raina realises this week could be another, a short layover before she rejoins the non-glamorous, but gruelling lower circuit. “Everybody around me is very excited. I am too, this is a dream come true. But one can’t get carried away,” says Raina. “And honestly, when I stepped on the court, it stopped being Roland Garros. For me, it’s just another tournament. I have to take it as any other match, and have to keep working hard on the tour to make this a regular thing.”
Raina’s former partner and close friend Emily Webley-Smith recently penned a heartfelt letter on Twitter, writing about the harsh life playing in the lower echelons. Raina too chips in. “Everybody thinks that you are travelling the world, going sightseeing, eating different cuisines, having a ball. It’s completely different. It’s a grind. Yes, sometimes girls do go visit places, some would go to the mall, have fun. That’s one thing I cut back on to limit expenses. Because if I go to the mall, I will probably end up buying something,” guffaws Raina. She would do well to take in the moment, and perhaps get some French Press at a Parisian cafe. She’s earned that much.