French Open 2018: Ankita Raina & Yuki Bhambri Spearhead Indian Challenge – Ready To Break New Grounds!

– By Rahul Bhutani, 20th May, 2018

The second Grand Slam of the year French Open, also called the Roland Garros, is upon us and while all the fans are going gaga over the usual suspects – Nadal, Halep, Djokovic, and others; it is an interesting Slam from an Indian fan’s perspective. While there is no regular participant in Sania Mirza, who will be missing this edition owing to her pregnancy, there will be a fresh Indian face participating in the women singles. Also with Yuki making it to the main draw, for the first time here in French Open, in so many news there is more focus on the singles side than the doubles from an Indian outlook.

A breakthrough year for Ankita Raina…

Ankita played for seven consecutive weeks in Japan and China following her win in Gwalior and the impressive performances have seen her hit a career high of 187 and reach 175 in the doubles ranking just short of her career high doubles ranking of 159. (PC: Reuters)

India’s top-ranked women’s singles player Ankita Raina is all set to break a six-year lull of no Indian participation in the women’ s singles event at a Grand Slam (main-draw and qualification). Ankita, currently ranked 187th in the world has made it to the qualifying rounds of the Roland Garros on the back on an impressive run in the last few months. Sania Mirza was the last Indian to play in the women’ s singles event of a Grand Slam when she made the first round in 2012 Australian Open and subsequently shifted her priorities to doubles. Mirza was also the last Indian women to play in French Open singles in 2011 where she made the second round losing to Agnieszka Radwanska.

It has been nothing short of a remarkable last six months for Ankita Raina. Her exclusion from the TOPS scheme in October last year despite having been the Indian No.1 in favor of the younger Kamran Kaur Thandi and the doubles specialist Prarthana Thombare raised a lot of eyebrows but Ankita “let her racquet do the talking”. Her impressive performances have taken her to a career high of 187 and she has also been included in the TOPS scheme. Ankita’ s resurgence started at the Mumbai Open, India’ s only WTA Challenger-level event in November last year, where she had the quarterfinals. She then followed it up by reaching the semi-finals of the ITF $25k event in Navi Mumbai and ended the year with a ranking of 283.

2018 started on a high note for Ankita, as he won all the four singles matches she played in the Fed Cup including the big upset of 2016 Roland Garros quarterfinalist Yulia Putintseva. Ankita carried her rich vein of form to the Dubai Premier WTA event where she put up a good show against the former world No.4 and US Open Champion, Sam Stosur, going down 4-6 4-6 in the qualifiers. Ankita then followed this up by winning the ITF $25k event in Gwalior which capitulated here to a career high of 212 in the WTA Rankings. A semifinals and quarterfinals showing in the string of three ITF $25k events in Japan saw Ankita break into the Top 200 for the first time, and becoming only the third Indian female citizen to do so after Nirupama and Sania. Following her successes in Japan, Ankita played for another four consecutive weeks in China qualifying into the WTA $125k event in Zhengzhou and making it to the second round of another WTA $125k event in Anning. It ended on sweet note making it to the QFs in ITF $60k in Luan in singles, where she was a finalist last year, and also winning the doubles title.

Ankita broke into the top 300 for the first time in 2013 but had been stuck in the 200-300 ranking range for almost five years before she broke the barrier for the first time this year. A standout feature in her performances this year has been the consistency with which she has defeated players ranked between 200-400. Five of her defeats in last seven tournaments were to players ranked within the top 150 and even those matches Ankita held her ground and put in some fighting performances!

Playing in a Grand Slam will give Ankita’ s career a much-needed boost and the Indian fans will be hoping that the Indian No. 1 can become a regular at the Slams.

Depth On Men’s Singles Visible…

Yuki all set to make in Main Draw debut at the Roland-Garros. (PC: Rediff)

Yuki Bhambri will be the first Indian to feature in the main draw of the French Open after Somdev Devvarman played it in the 2014 edition. Yuki started the year 2017 with a ranking of 534 and a string of impressive performances over last 1.5 years saw him reach a career high of 83 last month. Bhambri qualified for the main draw of both Indian Wells and Miami in March this year reaching the third round and second round respectively. The highlight of the run was a win over the 12th ranked Lucas Pouille. A triumph in the big ATP Challenger in Taipei last month ensured Yuki qualified for both the Roland Garros for the first time and in all probabilities should make the cut for Wimbledon as well. Among the four slams, Yuki has only played in the main draw of  Australian Open so far – in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Ramkumar Ramanathan, Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Sumit Nagal will play in the qualifying rounds of the Roland Garros. 23-year-old Ramkumar, ranked a modest 124 in the world is likely to be seeded 10th in the qualifiers and this gives him a chance to make his first main draw. Yuki’ s win in the Taipei Challenger incidentally came over Ramkumar and the finals run took Ram to a career high of 115 last month. The architect of India’s Davis Cup win over China, Prajnesh Gunneswaran comes into the French Open qualifiers at a rank of 175. Prajnesh won the big ATP Clay Challenger in Anning last month and will be looking to make it to the main draw. #NextGenATP Sumit Nagal hasn’t been in the best of the form coming into the tournament but having trained in Europe for a couple of months, will also look to make a mark.

On the doubles front, Rohan Bopanna & Divij Sharan will lead the Indian challenge which will no doubt miss Sania Mirza. Rohan is the defending mixed doubles champion who will be looking for another good run in the men’s doubles and mixed doubles but for once the focus from Indian perspective will be on Ankita Raina and Yuki Bhambri who are set to break new grounds when the French Open gets underway on the dirty clay!

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