Ankita Raina’s ranking almost always warrants a double-take, especially on days like Thursday. For the second day in a row, she put in a performance far superior than her ranking of 253 would suggest, defeating Kazakhstan’s 81st-ranked Yulia Putintseva 6-3, 1-6, 6-4. While India lost the Fed Cup Asia/Oceania Group I tie 1-2, Raina showed why she has long been the top women’s singles player in the country. During the 2 hour 24 minute-long dogfight, Raina overcame inept umpiring and a gritty-but-petulant opponent, who arrived in Delhi with something of a reputation. The Moscow-born player, who switched to representing Kazakhstan in 2012, is not known for her sportsmanship. After her third-round exit at last month’s Australian Open, Putintseva was criticised for a running battle with officials and her refusal to shake the chair umpire’s hand. During the Connecticut Open last year, she asked her coach to “wipe the idiotic grin off your face”, and in 2013, told CoCo Vandeweghe, “You are a terrible player, only serve. I win all the rallies,” which led the American to tweet: “I have never played a person with worst sportsmanship.”
On Thursday, Putintseva tossed her racquet around, yelled at the linesmen, the chair umpire, the net cord, and was immoderately exasperated by people shuffling around the court, the speakers belting out ‘Chak de India’, and the high-revving superbikes passing the DLTA Complex by. Clearly, image rehabilitation was not on the agenda. Which was a shame, because when she was not losing her cool, Putintseva, with her steely glare, bullish legs and quick hands, looked every bit a player who was ranked 27 last year and has wins over the likes of Venus Williams, Dominica Cibulkova and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
However, Raina was craftier on the day. She produced a drop shot on the third point of the match, ensuring that her opponent remained worried about more than just the lateral movement. Putintseva attempted a drop shot on the next point, only for Raina to dash forward and deposit it cross court. While she doesn’t possess the strongest of serves, Raina switched them up effectively, sending down slow, top-spinners out wide, which would often kick up higher than the 5-foot-4 Putintseva. The Indian wasn’t afraid to engage in a slugfest either, matching the baseliner stroke for stroke. “I was amazed by the long points,” Raina said after the match. “I have been working a lot on that, along with my fitness.” Raina would build up a point before attacking her opponent’s backhand side; a ploy she used successfully for most of the match. After failing to convert a break point in the sixth game, Raina broke Putintseva in the eighth and won the set in the next game with a drop shot (having to win a point twice after a call error).
Linesmen under fire
The opening game of the second set lasted 10 minutes, and saw four deuce points before Raina broke Putintseva and looked on course for a quick win. However, three lousy calls in the next game had her concede the break back, reversing the momentum in the Kazakh’s favour, who didn’t let a deflated Raina win another game in the set.
“A couple of calls in that game were ridiculous,” said captain Ankita Bhambri. “2-0 there, and we would have won in straight sets. (Putintseva) was down and out. But that break sparked her up, and affected (Raina).” With her double-fisted backhand crashing against the net with alarming regularity, Raina started hitting deep semi-moonballs to no avail. Putintseva also adapted to the rising serves, standing well inside the baseline and returning early to break Raina to love in the third game of the decider. The Indian, though, fought back when it mattered. Down 1-3 and two break points, Raina managed to serve out a tight game which saw a close call go against Putintseva. The Kazakh was left arguing with the umpire and the lapse in concentration was enough for Raina to bring the match back on serve.
Fittingly, the match concluded with another contentious call, as Putintseva sent a backhand marginally wide. Raina let out a squeal, but paused the celebrations as her opponent marched toward the chair, wagging a finger at the umpire with the Kazakhstan captain joining in. The call remained and Raina crouched on the court.
“When I saw them disputing the call, I almost burst into tears,” Raina said. Both players did burst into tears soon afterwards. While Putintseva was inconsolably angry after the loss, Raina bawled into her mother’s arms for close to a minute. Both the players were back on court half an hour later, and Raina and Prarthana Thombare were beaten 0-6, 4-6 by Putintseva and Zarina Diyas. Karman Kaur Thandi earlier lost the opener 3-6, 2-6 to world No. 55 Diyas. Up next is Karan Rastogi’s Hong Kong, and the hosts need to win the tie to avoid relegation. India’s best player however remains unperturbed. “We will see tomorrow. New day, new game,” Raina signed off.