The delicately delicious onion-tomato orgy on mutton for the Rogan Josh, was the biggest sacrifice Ankita Raina remembers making at the altar of tennis success. Olive oil drizzled salads and the bland pasta staple replaced the waft of a wonder memory of that Kashmiri kernel.
Ankita’s journey will continue from a strong showing at the Fed Cup in Delhi to the next port of call as she tries to better her ranking beyond 222—the highest she reached around the time the last Fed Cup was played in India at Hyderabad in 2015. India’s No 1 takes flights mostly now, but recalled the train journey she undertook alone in 2012 as a 19-year-old finding her perfect Rogan Josh. “I was playing a tournament in Delhi and realised it’d been long since I visited my grandparents in Kashmir. First, all the cousins had planned to go, but then everyone else chickened out. There is a lot of strife there, but Kashmir is really heaven on earth, I found a lot of sukoon (peace) there at that time,” she had said, speaking in the summer of 2015. “Also, I really like mutton cooked in our Kashmiri style—with lots of onion and tomatoes. That impulsive train journey was memorable,” she’d added with a sigh.
Ankita is accustomed to long, meandering journeys in tennis—and not just matches that last 2 hours-24 minutes, and 2 hours-53 the next day to beat Chieh-Yu Hsu— incidentally India’s longest Fed Cup tie over the last weekend in Delhi. “I always loved travelling by train as a child, and hated returning home. Tennis took me to places like Kavali in Andhra, Gulbarga and Mandya and I started travelling alone at 14. It used to be scary sometimes – new places, new culture, but I realised I don’t panic immediately. Also you can’t stop trains by pulling chains in Morocco!” she laughs retelling her pet tale.
Ankita Raina’s oft-told Casablanca story involves a miss and a sigh. Followed by some shrill, hysterical cries of ‘Pull it again, man!’ as she tried to stop a train she was travelling in, by cranking repeatedly at the first thing resembling a chain, with a friend screaming nearby.
The pair of them, teenaged tennis players from India, had landed at Casablanca and were to take a connecting train from the basement of the airport to Rabat in Morocco for a junior tournament. The two misheard announcements alternating in Arabic and French and would miss their station just as Ankita – an accomplished train traveller back home owing to her India-wide criss-crossing for ITF juniors meets, immediately scanned around for a chain to pull and bring the train to a halt. It’s when she rushed to the door pressing frantically at the buttons – that the chaos reached a crescendo. The pair were slapped a fine of 6000 dirhams. This opened the floodgates of the bawling friend. “When the TC came, I told him how we were headed for a tennis tournament, and were traveling alone. We were very little and howling, and they finally understood and put us on the train back,” she recalled.
India’s top singles player at World No 253 has had a different graph than the country’s high-achieving predecessor in singles—Sania Mirza. At 25, the results haven’t come in a bunch and she continues to battle to climb every step of the rankings ladder. The turbulence on the flight up hasn’t quite stopped. “My first flight alone was to Hyderabad and I told people I was 15. I was actually carrying a note from parents that said I was 12 and needed supervision,” she recalled. Other adventures include winning a meet in Muzaffarnagar, watched by a ring of phlegmatic policemen guarding the tournament in the crime-infested area.
When you don’t hit the double digits of rankings early in tennis, there’s a lot of unglamorous detours and wrong trains where life inadvertently takes you. Remaining undefeated in singles through a zonal Fed Cup week in your national capital has taken time to happen, with the double-fisted backhand and the serve variations for speed and placement, still being work in progress.
Though her father accompanied her to meets in her pre-teens, it was her mum who nudged her into tennis. “I started at 4. My mother was a sports enthusiast who did athletics and TT. Travelling with a parent though means double the cost so I had to learn to fend for myself very early,” she added. The family had first watched Tim Henman play a Satellite Challenger at Ahmedabad where young Ankita chased the Brit for autographs, and it was from watching Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi that the girl started falling for the game.
After some male players from Ahmedabad started training at Hemant Bendre’s academy in Pune, Ankita would shift too. Though her favourite surface for her aggressive game remains grass, she’d do well on hard courts even while practicing on clay— taking her time to learn the proper clay game of slices and slugging. Ankita favoured the chip and charge and took a liking for the drop shot—something she used when downing Yulia Putintseva, the 81-ranked combustible Kazakh. As a kid, Ankita started loving smacking the ball and didn’t hold back even if they kept landing long and thumping against fences at Ahmedabad.
The forehand was developing into a weapon, but in 2012 she’d run into a Chinese at a meet to secure a wildcard for the Australian Open who kept banging the ball with such menace that rallying at that speed got impossible. She would double her gym work to gain that kind of power, and though she detested running rounds, weight training soon became the favourite part of her workout. “I have puked during running sessions though to try and get to that level of stamina,” she recalled. 2013 would see her change her diet after extensive travel and oily food gave her acidity and sore throats during matches. “I was a foodie. Then suddenly my dietician was telling me about olive oil and eating right,” she said.
All the time she would be wracked by the perennial dilemma—whether to chase titles at smaller events that fetched her headlines to woo the sponsors, or whether to play the higher graded meets of WTA and push for ranking points. “All my time was spent making decisions—taking gambles on meets and balancing risks, one eye at the entry date, the other at withdrawals. Retreating from Japan, going to Marrakesh. “After the last Fed Cup, Sania advised me on which tournaments to pick. When she was coming up, she was an inspiration and it was a dream to try play like her. Everyone used to say, Indians are not that strong, and we don’t have the genes for tennis. It’s difficult but Sania proved it’s possible,” she added.
On rough days, the family including brother Ankur, would be rushing from embassy to airport—with Ankita taking in her stride different cities and time zones—just trying to get to the venue, tired and spent and losing in the first round as a result. “There are times when I’d feel low and not confident. But I’d think that when I succeed all the praise will be for me, while my family is doing it all selflessly,” she said.
Her transition from juniors to seniors was typically protracted, and she’d seek help of a psychologist. Ankita frequently started using the drop shot in stiff tie breakers. “After a point, finishing the crunch matches is all mental,” she had said, after a few close matches at the Fed Cup went the other way.
From 2015 to now, Raina seems to have sorted out her end-game and won all her singles matches this time. Her parents who’d watched Sharapova win the Wimbledon in 2004, would chip in with advice: how Cibulkova was always on her toes and jumping on court, how Ivanovic picked everything on the rise, how Federer stayed calm and Nadal covered the court. “I went through a phase where I used to be confused – I wanted to be calm and aggressive also at the same time,” she chuckled, adding that though she used to be shy off-court, she could pull out the fangs when playing.
Ankita, meanwhile faced problems that tennis divinity rarely does. “First it was tough to travel much, then I started feeling the need for a physio. The shoulder would get tight when I pushed too hard in training,” she said. She’d stack up some good results in doubles in makeshift partnerships, but it needed solid singles results for Raina to grab eyeballs.