Ankita Raina is a rare gem in Indian Women`s tennis. To be India`s No.1 women`s singles player requires a lot of attributes and she has it all. To do well in a sport like tennis which is still evolving in India makes it all the more difficult. After breaking inside top 200 on the WTA and fresh from her maiden appearances at the French Open and Wimbledon where she played the qualifying rounds she is ready to take the next plunge in the professional circuit.
I caught up with this rare gem as she lands in India after her Wimbledon. She speaks at length about her recent exploits and her tennis journey thus far, as she embarks on her next journey.
ME: How is the feeling after featuring in both the French Open and the Wimbledon? Your years of practice and hard work is surely reaping fruits. Out of these two Grand Slams which one is still your favorite in terms of memory.
Ankita: For me the feeling is something I cannot put into words. It has always been my dream. Like you said, it has taken years of practice and hard work. Most importantly the support, belief and patience from my family and coach has been the key because that is what keeps you going in tough times. Since childhood I remember this one grand slam which is Wimbledon and since I first played on grass as a kid, I absolutely loved it but never thought I would play my first slam on clay. So it was a surprise and a big boast for me. I think both the slams are different to each other which makes them special in different ways. My mother and coach accompanied me at the Roland Garros and that has been one of my wishes. At the same time I have always dreamt about Wimbledon as a kid and also I won my debut match there so it is special as well.
Ankita Raina at the French Open 2018.
ME: You have been playing the best tennis of your life. What are the factors you see in this sudden transformation?
Ankita: The first would be belief which makes a huge difference and can take you places in no time. The Mumbai Open WTA Tournament helped a lot and it has been like a game changer because playing at home ground, with the support of home crowd and the familiar atmosphere helped a lot. I am very glad it happened and grateful to the organisers. Another factor would be maturity that comes with time and experience.
ME: Was your showing in the Fed Cup also someway responsible for your showing of late? You played out of your skin and won all the matches there and also beat some quality players on the way.
Ankita: I always have performed better when representing India in the Fed Cup or even in the last Asian games. Playing for India always brings the best out of me.
ME: Also your coach, Hemant Bendrey is travelling with you now. I am sure it is helping you. Is it going to be a more regular feature of him travelling with you or it is going to be for a select few tournaments?
Ankita: He traveled for these two slams otherwise I have been travelling by myself on the circuit since I was 14 years old. With the support of some more funds coming in he will at least be able to travel for a few big events like the WTA since on court coach is allowed so it is helpful.
ME: At the Wimbledon qualifying, you really fought well against a fancied opponent like Vitalia Diatchenko and made it a close fight till the end. Do you think you can take such opponents now or you still need to make a few adjustments to your game?
Ankita: There is always a scope for improvement and I feel little things here and there help. As you might be aware my opponent beat Maria Sharapova in three sets. That was a really good match I played and I was kind of heartbroken but I am proud of myself as I made it difficult for her. I was 2-6/ 3-5 down and came back from there. Also this year I have had quite a few matches against top 100 players where I had the chance and then lost closely in the third set so the belief is just getting stronger because I can see I am getting the chances against these players so you never know when the break comes. One just needs to keep working regardless of the results.
Ankita Raina at the Wimbledon 2018
ME: You are looking physically stronger now. Are you putting more on your strength and conditioning regime?
Ankita: As my tennis was always based on being aggressive, I was always working extra on my physical conditioning.
ME: What are your short term and long term goals now?
Ankita: At the moment I am preparing for the Asian Games. Year end goal is to be top 150 so that I can compete at the higher level.
ME: You did mention about your short term and long term goals? But If I would ask what is you biggest dream as a tennis player?
Ankita: My dream is to get the Gold medal at the Olympics, win the majors and eventually become no.1 in the world.
ME: You seem to be a fighter. There was a time when you got stuck around 250-300 mark on the WTA but you kept on fighting. What are the ingredients that kept you going at that time when things at times were not moving?
Ankita: The fighter attitude, I get it from my mother. It was not very easy and I had moments where felt very low but I am very grateful to my coach and my family who stood by me in the toughest times. They did not give up on me even when I was at my worst. My coach taught me to focus on the process and not worry about the results. Also, as a little girl I always had dreams and somewhere they kept me going. My mother is my inspiration and since my brother had also played the same sport, he did have an idea how tough it gets and has always been my backbone.
ME: Can you tell us about your tennis journey a little bit from your younger days. We all know it had been a struggle and we want our young players to know more about it as an inspiration.
Ankita: I started playing tennis at the age of 4 years. I think the biggest challenge that I have faced is traveling alone since I was 14 years. Also staying away from family most of the times since I started training in Pune.
ME: What are your goals at the Asian Games? It must be a great feeling to represent the country at the games. Also any thought for Olympics or is still a bit far away for you to really think about it now?
Ankita: Definitely it is the best feeling to play for the country and is a privilege. I am very grateful to have this opportunity. My goal is accuracy in my serve this year so that will be the goal at the Asian Games as well. Olympics is the long term goal and I am preparing for it.
ME: Also it must be a good feeling to be in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) scheme that you definitely deserve as the country`s top woman player.
Ankita: I am happy that I will have some extra support now. I am hoping to travel with one more person (coach/trainer/physio) and not just by myself. This will make things easier and help me perform better. But I am grateful and thank Sports Authority of Gujarat who has supported me in my journey so far and because of whom I have reached here. I would like to thank ONGC and Yonex who have encouraged and supported me.
ME: What do you think are your strength now as a player and what are the things you would still like to improve upon?
Ankita: My strengths are my perseverance and ability to work hard. Every player has to improve till they retire. Improvement and learning is a life long journey.
ME: What are your views on the other upcoming Indian players on the tour? What is the future looking like?
Ankita: We have a bunch of good juniors like Mahak Jain who are making the transition to the women’s circuit. In the women category we have Karman, Rutuja, Pranjala and Zeel who have been performing well recently. I think all of us have potential to make it in the top 100. As far as Karman is concerned she is already close to breaking top 200 and getting closer to playing the Slams.
ME: What is your typical day of training when you are not on the tour? Can you please break it up in terms of the schedule for our young players?
Ankita: I have my first session at 6.30 am to 9.00 am and then at 10.30 am I work in the gym /on court physical training. Then for 30-45 mins I work on my serve at around 12:30 pm. After lunch I rest and do my recovery for next day.
ME: Are your strict on your diet? What does your diet look like?
Ankita: Yes, I try to follow some basic guidelines given by my dietitian and also the food to be avoided as advised by my doctor. I keep it simple as I am traveling most of the weeks by making sure every meal has protein, carbs and fibre. I have cut down on sugar completely so that means anything that has added sugar I have stopped having it. As far as tea or coffee is concerned I have it without sugar. Anything that has natural sugar is fine like fruits, dry fruits, honey, etc. Before I used to have deserts or sweets occasionally but now I have stopped that completely.
ME: Which is you favorite surface?
Ankita: My favourite surface has always been grass.
ME: Who are your role models?
Ankita: Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal and of course Sania Mirza, who has been an inspiration for everyone in India. Also I have always looked up to my mother as a role model.
ME: You have a busy schedule but when you are free what do you like to do most?
Ankita: I like to read and watch matches. Dance is a stress reliever for me and I love doing that.
ME: Thank you so much Ankita and wishing you all the success on the tennis court. Wishing that you keep on shining for the country and for yourself.
Ankita: Thank you so much and nice to see your great work for promoting Indian tennis. Wishing you all the best to you too.
As she prepares to leave India for another battle on the tennis court, she is eyeing for greater glory. Also in a country where top women tennis professionals is a rare commodity, her resolve and tenacity has given the assurance that Indian women can be world beaters too.