Ankita Raina had a luxury that she never had before while playing a WTA Tour match. At the Mumbai Open 125K Series, the 24-year-old had a coach in the stands, ready to come down and give advice whenever called.
And Ankita did ask for help during changeovers, twice, in her first round match against Veronika Kudermetova. The message was always the same, and simple. “‘Just stay calm and play your shots’,” she recalls her coach telling her.
Till then, Ankita, a counter-puncher, had been tiring her Russian opponent with a brand of percentage tennis that had steadily started frustrating Kudermetova. But at the CCI Courts, there was someone who could tell the world. no 293 Indian to keep her nerve and not hold back on her shots.
“She’s a very hard worker, but lacks self-belief,” says Fed Cup captain and coach Nandan Bal.
The advice worked, as she’d slug her way to a 7-6, 6-3 win in 96 minutes – the biggest win of her career.
This wasn’t the first time Ankita was playing in an event of this magnitude. She had even played in a Premier competition – Stuttgart Open – last year. But she’s never made it to the main draw of a tour event. And she’s never had any company with her during her travels abroad, let alone having a coach by her side. It made the professional circuit even more difficult than it is.
“The tour, especially for players ranked in the 200s and 300s, can be a very lonely and vicious place,” she says. “Players keep to themselves and talk only to their coaches or whoever is travelling with them. There’s not even a ‘hi’ to another player. And I go through all that without anyone with me.”
Hailing from a middle-class family in Ahmedabad, Ankita began playing the sport when she was merely five. As she grew, her skills developed and her talent provided promise of a bright future. The financial demands of the sport, however, forced her to do the travelling all by herself.
“It’s difficult at the start because you have to sort everything out for yourself, be it your tickets or your food,” Ankita says. “It makes you mentally stronger though, as you get used to it.”
She remembers running into trouble in one of her earliest trips. Then 16, Ankita was to play a tournament in Morocco along with another young player who was travelling abroad for the first time. The pair touched down in Casablanca and were to take a train to Rabat where the tournament was being hosted.
All announcements were in French and Arabic, as were the boards with the names of the stations.
“We didn’t even know we had reached Rabat till the train started moving, so we decided to pull the emergency chain, open the door and walk back to the platform just like we’d have done in India,” she says. “But these were fancy trains with automatic doors that wouldn’t open.”
The two teenagers were slapped with a fine of 6000 Dirhams. “Both of us started crying in the station master’s office. He must have gotten scared that two little girls were howling, so he told us how to get to Rabat and let us go,” she adds.
It’s been eight years since that incident, and Ankita has spent every minute of it alone on tour. It’s an aspect that has forced her Pune-based trainer to devise only a basic programme for her to work on when she is away. “I can’t give her a long list of things to work on because she’s alone and handling everything herself. A big list of fitness drills will just confuse her then,” says Gaurav Nijohn, who has been working with Ankita for the past six months. “You have to give her things slowly, then keep building up once she starts getting used to it.”
The initial additions have increased the time of her warm-up routines during training, and imposed a 20-30 minutes daily pool session to improve her recovery.
It’s helped Ankita boost her stamina, which was her greatest weapon against Kudermetova, ranked 233.
Though the Russian had flat and powerful groundstrokes, the Indian could run them down and keep the ball in play, tiring the 20-year-old who started making errors. She had eventually concede the match with a double fault.
This was Ankita’s first ever win in the main draw of a WTA event. And she’s now experienced the benefit of a coach watching from court-side. “That is the biggest advantage, and the way to get to the next level,” she says.