Ankita Raina: Inspiring the next generation of Indian tennis stars

In April 2018, Ankita Raina became only the fifth Indian singles player to break inside the world’s top 200. Fast-forward four months, and Raina was joined by the sixth member of this sparse and exclusive club – Karman Thandi – after an impressive run in Nanchang. Following in the footsteps of legend Sania Mirza can’t have been easy, but Ankita is ready for the challenge.

In this article, we chat with the Indian tennis star in what has been a breakthrough year in both the singles and Fed Cup competition.

The tough road to the top

Life on the tennis circuit is tough – we all know it. However, when there have only ever been four players to break into the top 200 before you, and only one of those reaching the world’s top 100, it is arguably even tougher. However, at 25 years-old, Ankita Raina is competing to etch her name into the Indian tennis history books in a season that is continuing to show steady progression.

“It took a while for me to get into the top 200 considering I had been close and I was finding it tough to get through. Everyone’s story is different from others, so the time doesn’t matter and because it was difficult, it’s more special. There were times where I felt this wouldn’t ever happen but I’m thankful to my family, coach and sponsors for always backing me and that kept me going even in the rough patches.”

Ankita is rightly proud of making the top 200, but the competition is getting tougher and tougher, making it a huge challenge to maintain her ranking. “The level has been improving and the circuit is getting stronger and tougher every year. A few years back, say when I was around 300/350, players ranked around 700/800 were easy to defeat, where as now that’s not the case.”

Despite the tough and challenging times, Ankita is now becoming more consistent in singles. With two ITF $25k titles in the bag already this year, Raina also tasted victory in Grand Slam qualifying for the first time after beating Maia Lumsden at Wimbledon. This has been followed with more appearances in higher level tournaments, with Raina taking advantage of the WTA $125k series in Asia, as well as ITF $60k events.

The recent introduction of the WTA $125k series is likely to play a pivotal role in introducing players from across the Asian continent to the WTA tour. With more points on offer, and easier direct entrance, Raina sees the benefits: “It has definitely helped, especially because even if you are not in the top 200 you can still get an entry. There are more points available which helps a player to get that big jump which is needed to get into top 200.”

And with more tournaments in India, Raina feels players from her region are given more opportunities than ever before from the ITF to lead a successful tennis career. “In India, we now have two big tournaments in Mumbai and Pune and Challengers for men’s in Bangalore and other cities. Also, in Asia we have the Australian Open wild card play offs tournament, meaning Indian players are helped and encouraged.”

Passion for the Fed Cup high in India

As well as becoming one of only a handful of players to reach the top 200, Ankita Raina has also had the pleasure of representing her nation at the Fed Cup. As reforms of the competition continues to be overlooked, the Fed Cup continues to show how impactful it is for grassroots tennis around the world.

Earlier this year, Ankita caused a huge upset as she defeated Yulia Putintseva, who was ranked over 170 places above her, in a Fed Cup Asia-Oceania Group tie. In emotional scenes, Raina was given the opportunity to shine in front of an atmospheric stadium.

“It’s still very fresh in my memory, definitely one of my best performances. The Fed Cup has always been my favourite week because that’s the only tournament every year we play as a team and also because we have India written on our backs. I feel my best performances have come when playing for the country in these team events – it’s the best time to learn how to handle and perform with pressure.”

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And with Ankita being joined in the top 200 by Karman Thandi, India could become a bigger player at the Fed Cup in the coming years.

“Firstly, I want to congratulate Karman and her family. I know what it takes to get here so I’m happy and extremely proud that we have one more player in the WTA top 200 charts. With myself and Karman breaking into the top 200, I feel more girls will be inspired and start believing that it is possible to be there.

“We already have a gang that is doing well on the pro-circuit and I’m very sure they will join us soon, such as Zeel Desai, Rutuja Bhosale, Pranjala Yadlapalli and Mahek Jain. I hope that we take Indian tennis to greater heights and have more Indian women’s players in the top 100 WTA rankings.”

The Asian Games and walking in Sania Mirza’s footsteps

Of course there is one standout Indian singles player that has reached the world’s top 30. Sania Mirza has won six Grand Slam titles in the Ladies and Mixed Doubles, as well as two Tour Finals trophies, and was named in Time Magazine’s 100 most inspirational people across the world.

“Sania has been an inspiration to not only Indian women but also to those who need the courage to stand up for themselves and the ones who wouldn’t even dare to dream. She has impacted many lives and changed the face of Indian sports and tennis. When I was little, I used to look up to her and dream, and here I am!

“I’ve had the chance to represent the Indian team a couple of times with her and her advice was to not hold myself back and go for my shots. My biggest lesson from her is to take a fearless attitude.”

Ankita and her coaches have already mapped the rest of the season out. After a few tournaments in China, Ankita will represent India at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia. Held every four years, Raina is looking to emulate Mirza’s recent successes having won a gold medal in the mixed doubles (2014) and a bronze medal in the 2010 singles. And it’s in these team events that will help continue the steady growth of girls’ participation in tennis in India.

A successful tournament from both Ankita and Karman Thandi could be the catalyst for an exciting future for women’s tennis in India. An increase in visibility and more names among the sport’s elite could spark more interest, as Ankita Raina looks to lead the line and continue to build on the legacy of Sania Mirza. Whatever happens, Ankita should be proud as she looks towards becoming only the second woman from her country to reach the world’s top 100.

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