Ankita Raina’s performance on the ITF circuit indicates she could be the country’s best female player. What has it taken her to get there?
Ankita Raina has the uncluttered game of a lucid thinker. Her recent performance on the ITF circuit suggests she is currently India’s best female tennis player: she has one winner’s trophy and three runner-up plates from her last four $10,000 tournaments; none of her final losses was to an Indian.
But the 20-year-old’s mental clarity, so evident when she plays these days, has taken work to achieve. Between 2009 and 2010, she won the ADIDAS Nationals and the National grass-court championship, and earned a call-up to the Indian Fed Cup squad. Just 16, she was hailed as the next Sania Mirza. Not surprisingly, the expectations addled her brain. It hurt her game at a critical point.
“I kept losing for two years,” she says. “It was an important time for me, going from the junior to the pro circuit, there were a lot of expectations from everybody, and I kept losing.”
Had Ankita not been asked by her sponsors to consult sports psychologist Devashree Marathe, there’s no telling what might have happened to her career.
“Things started improving,” she says. “I worked mentally. When I talked with her, I found I could sort things out. And she taught me techniques, she made me understand that it was a period where I was moving from junior to senior tennis, and that I would lose more than I used to.”
Focussed on the present
Ankita learnt about the importance of staying in the present, of playing one point at a time, of not thinking of what might happen if she lost. But these are easy matters to talk about. In the heat of battle, when the mind starts to misbehave, it’s vastly more difficult to relax into the moment. Not until the $10,000 event at the Madras Gymkhana Club in Chennai recently did Ankita succeed completely.
Having lost two close finals in Hyderabad from advantageous positions, she faced severe pressure in her matches here against the veteran Rushmi Chakravarthi, Eetee Maheta, and Serbia’s Barbara Bonic. Each time she controlled her thoughts, focussing them on the ball at hand.
Ankita said it was a breakthrough. Others noticed — Bonic agreed that Ankita was mentally the strongest of the Indians she had played. Her mental strength and the ability to flatten her forehand set Ankita apart from her Indian rivals. The move from Ahmedabad to Pune, to train with Hemant Bendrey at PYC Gymkhana, has helped add to her game without compromising on her individuality.
“If you see the other girls, they play with a lot of top-spin and they play cross-cross-cross,” says Ankita. “They have more control. Whereas I take a lot more risk, I go more down the line, I play more aggressive. But now I can also play with spin for control and finish the point by hitting flat.”
Ankita realises the importance of having a weapon — having trained with Sania, the only Indian woman to break into the top 50, she knows she needs at least one world-class quality. At her current level, the forehand stands out; Ankita can outhit most other girls from the back-court off this flank.
Whether she can do this and improve continually against stronger opposition will determine if she can get to the next level. “My goal is to reach the top 200 by the year end,” she says, talking of quite a climb, for she’s currently No. 489. “I need to improve my serve, my movement. I think it’s important to play foreign players with different styles. I’ll come to know what I lack and where I can get better.”
For someone who chooses to travel alone, so the money saved from each tournament can enable her to play another, it isn’t an unrealistic ambition.