Disbelief was etched on Ankita Raina’s face as her opponent Peangtarn Plipuech’s return sailed well wide of the court. She raised her arms over her head, mouth still agape, as she slowly walked to the net to meet Plipeuch. On her chair, she covered her face with her towel, still unable to comprehend her 6-2, 6-2 win. “Usually I’m very emotional, but I had mixed feelings when I won the last point,” she says. “I didn’t know if I was going to cry. I really wanted to win this one.”
A day earlier at the CCI Courts, Raina had pulled off an upset first-round win over Russia’s Veronika Kudermetova – her first ever main draw victory at a WTA event. On Thursday, she picked up her second in a row, and is now in the quarterfinals of the Mumbai Open 125K Series.
But unlike the first round, for the match against the Plipeuch however, the 24-year-old had a specific plan.
The two had last met two years ago in the first round qualifiers of a WTA event in Hong Kong. The Thai player came from behind to win in three sets on that occasion. “She hasn’t changed her style much since then,” says Raina. “She’s puts in a lot of variation and runs down balls. So I too needed to play smart.”
Against Kudermetova, Raina was satisfied with letting the opponent stay behind the baseline. But for the match against Plipeuch, the world No.293 started mixing play and forcing the Thai to rush up to the net. The tactic was clear – groundstrokes were struck sweetly and with power, pushing the opponent beyond the baseline, then finishing the point off with a drop-shot if the court wasn’t open for a winner. It’s a strategy that Plipeuch, a crafy player herself, has applied. Only Raina executed the plan to greater effect.
By the second set, Raina would eventually stop relying on her ground strokes to set up the point. At 30-0, and already 3-1 up in the second set, the Ahmedabad girl served straight at Plipeuch, and then elegantly cushioned the return to kill the rally.
That point particularly kept Plipeuch guessing, as the Thai became unsure of her positioning while receiving serve. Instead of standing at the usual spot behind the baseline, she took her chances standing well inside. But she could not adjust to Raina’s serve – which itself had been tweaked before the match.
The courts have been relatively slow, and the balls grow heavy after a few games, making it harder to produce shot-speed. “Ankita was serving at least 10 k’s slower than usual because of the balls and courts,” says her coach Hemant Bendrey. “There was no point putting more stress on the shoulders because you just can’t get that much power. So instead she was placing her serves.”
There was no holding back on her strokes though, especially when she was pushed out wide – a tactic she had worked on before the tournament started. “She’s always been a good runner, but when she’s forced wide and has to play a defensive shot, we wanted her to return deep and with power rather than just getting it back in play,” Bendrey says.
Over the last six months, Raina has worked with a trainer in Pune to build up the explosive power. “It’s basically the first-step quickness that she’s worked on,” says Gaurav Nijohn, her trainer. “It helps her react faster to what an opponent throws at her, and then she can play her shots much better.”
The developed skill has boosted her retrieving skills with more power in her returns, particularly shots down the line.
Early in the second set, Plipeuch had stretched Raina with a cross-court shot deep onto the backhand side. The world No.244 rushed up to the net anticipating the Indian to lob defensively. But Raina was already a step ahead and powerfully drove back past her opponent.
“It was a smarter game from me today than how I usually play,” Raina says. “I’m glad I was able to adjust my game and bring in more variation when needed.”
A day earlier, she had twice called for her coach during changeovers. She needed someone to tell her to stay calm and stick to her strengths. On Thursday, Bendrey wasn’t needed on court. Raina had it all covered.