MUMBAI: Ankita Raina was the last standing Indian in the singles draw of the L&T Mumbai Open and when she converted on her third match point, she was not only showered by applause from the modest crowd at the Cricket Club of India but also had her team and family to embrace.
“Usually it’s just me sitting in my room with the laptop,” the 24-year-old said. “Win or lose.” But Raina had her entire entourage as witness on Wednesday as she scripted one of the biggest wins of her pro-career. Having received a wildcard into the main draw of the WTA 125K series event in Mumbai, Raina defeated higher-ranked Russian Veronika Kudermetova 7-6 (2), 6-3 in the first round.
Only on Monday, she had conceded the tag of India’s No 1 player to rising teenager Karman Kaur Thandi. But as Karman, Rutuja Bhosale and Zeel Desai were sent packing in straight sets in their respective opening rounds, Raina became the only Indian to progress. She made the match much closer than it deserved to be, conceding a 5-1 lead in the first set to draw it out to the tie-breaker. But once she had taken the lead, Ankita counter-punched her way past a tiring Kudermetova.
“After I lost the lead, I was just telling myself to stay calm and stick to what I was doing right early on,” she said. “That’s what my coach was also telling me.”
The WTA tour allows the players one coaching break every set and it was one of the rare occasions where the Indian was able to use outside help, of her coach Hemant Bendrey, to guide her.
Raina, who originally hails from Kashmir, was born and brought up in Ahmedabad and receives financial support from the Sports Authority of Gujarat. Although the money is enough for her to travel for tournaments, around 25 per year, she does not yet have resources to travel with a coach or trainer.
“It’s nice to have people around here,” she said. “It’s definitely very lonely on the road. At this level, the women (competitors) rarely talk to each other. They are all with their entourage, I barely even get a ‘Hi!’.”
Currently ranked 293, Raina began going abroad for tournaments as early as 16 and she is probably the only Indian woman who travels all by herself – the rest usually travel with at least one member of the family.
“It’s not just about the tennis,” she explains. “You have to do everything on your own. We go to obscure towns and cities and sometimes even getting food becomes a challenge, and ideally we have to eat within half an hour of our match or training session. But since I have been travelling from very young age, I have become used to it.”
But Fed Cup captain and coach Nandan Bal believes that Raina, whose highest ranking was 222 in 2015, needs to look at investing in a support staff. “She needs that outside vision, even if it is only for 10 weeks a year,” added Bal. “Her work ethic is up there with the best. Even today, she could have easily gone on for another two sets. But I think it’s time that she gets results for all the hard work she puts in.”
The 24-year-old, who has recently added trainer Gaurav Nijhon to her support staff, though will not have too much time to bask in her ‘home’ victory. On Thursday, she takes on Thailand’s Peangtarn Plipuech in the second round.