On a call to Anning, China, tennis coach Hemant Bendrey could hear his ward sobbing on phone. He wasn’t surprised though, in fact he expected it. “That’s what happens when you play such a long and emotional match,” he explained. India’s highest ranked women’s singles player Ankita Raina had just pulled off her first win over a top 100 player, in a gruelling contest that lasted two hours and 49 minutes against 2011 US Open champion Samantha Stosur.
This was the 11th time Raina had come up against a top 100 player – Stosur, a former world no 4 is currently on 77. But the 7-5, 2-6, 7-5 result in the opener at the WTA 125K Series Kunming Open ended the wait for the 26-year-old.
“Definitely I was anxious,” an exhausted Raina says after the match against the Australian. “It was an intense match with all emotions and nerves. I cried after the match.” Back in Pune, Bendrey understood those emotions.
“She recited what I had told her last month.” It was a prediction: “That she would do well in this next month or so.” In that time, the world no 178 has reached the final of a W60 ITF event in Istanbul, Turkey, and now come up with the biggest win of her career.
Stosur travelled to China on the back of a Fed Cup high in which she paired up with Ashleigh Barty and won the deciding doubles rubber against Victoria Azarenka and Aryna Sabalenka to take Australia into the final.
On Wednesday, the Australian’s service game was not at its best, as she’d notch up the unenviable tally of 18 double faults – in the first set, she’d conceded at least two break points in each but one service game.
But Raina had done her homework. The pair had played each other last year in the first qualifying round of the Dubai Open. There the Indian had lost out 6-4, 6-4.
“We knew that Stosur plays a backhand slice, or converts it into a forehand,” Bendrey says. “She’s tricky on that flank because she’ll slice with a lot of spin or play drop shots. Normally when you see a player not playing a full-fledged backhand shot, you start targetting that. Instead we decided to go aggressive on her forehand to throw her off a bit. It worked too.”
Tactics in order, Raina had improved her own game in the interim as well. Over the past few years she’s been working on putting more punch in her returns of serve. That made a difference – whenever the 35-year-old did manage to put in a legal serve. At the same time, she’s learnt to control her nerve. “Ankita always had an aggressive forehand, but if she’d lose a few points, she’d start slowing down the pace to just keep the ball in play,” the coach explains.
Stosur took the initial lead though, winning the opening service game after six-deuce hold, and then getting a seven-deuce break on Raina’s serve to go 2-0 up. The Australian then started to fumble on her serve, and eventually conceded the crucial break through a double fault to give Raina the chance to serve for the opening set.
In the second, Stosur held firm, dictating rallies and serving just one double fault. But then she’d lose that rhythm in the deciding set.
The shanks and shaky serve was back, and Raina started to claw back. With Stosur serving at 5-5 in the third set, Raina had a break point opportunity – her 16th of the match. And she took it, playing a forehand winner down the line. She would have to hold her nerve in the next game as well, as she served for the match. Eventually she’d need a third match point to seal the tie. “At that stage, I just told myself to ‘believe,”’ Raina recalls, “‘It’s now or never.’” Exhausted, and elated, tears began to flow.
Over the last few years, Raina has started to punch above her weight, break into the top 200, win an Asian Games bronze medal, and now get a win over a player who has won seven Grand Slams.
Now she’s targetting a breakthrough to the top 100, and the Tokyo Olympic Games next year.