“She is waiting for her opportunity. And it will come – sooner or later” – Lalita Raina ji, sharing a mother’s perspective, on the tennis journey of Ankita Raina

If there were to be a movie filmed highlighting the qualities of Indian tennis players, Ankita Raina would surely find a designated spot for her tenacity and moral fibre. Her calibre of perseverance is known to all those who follow the game, and her endurance to try & win every single point with her athleticism, is something for her opponents to ponder upon. Where does she get these traits from?

Talking to us about Ankita Raina’s journey into tennis, her mother Lalita Raina ji, told us that she began playing from the age of four in an academy (AGETA) close to their house in Ahmedabad. Her first inspiration, elder brother Ankur Raina, was already into tennis. Lalitaji used to take both her children to the academy from a very young age. She was of the belief that both the kids should be involved in some sort of physical activity. She says, “Ankita was thoroughly enjoying it. Her school used to start at 8am, but before that early in the morning, I used to take her to the Academy. She used to play till 7:30am, and then get ready for her school”.

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Ankita Raina with her mother Lalita Raina ji.

This went on for 3-4 years. Then she started playing local, district and state-level tournaments at U8, U10 and U12, and she was already performing at a very good level. Ankita was selected for the National School Games while she was still in 2nd std, where she competed against fourteen year old girls. She won a Silver Medal at the event! Her brother also played competitive tennis till his 10th but later as he took up science stream, his schedule was extremely busy and so he further pursued studies. But he always looked out for his younger sister and supported her as he had been through those challenges so prepared her for it.

This is the first in a series of articles going in-depth into the journey of Ankita Raina, the Indian no.1 in singles and doubles on the WTA Rankings.

The article will also be available for read on http://www.scroll.in – a popular Indian news website

Ankita’s foundation in tennis

Her initial pillars of support were her brother, parents and coach from Ahmedabad. While she was still very young, she could play only a few tournaments, as Lalitaji was working under LIC and it was only possible whenever she could get her office leaves sanctioned. But then, since the age of 14 – Ankita started travelling alone – in India and abroad, chiefly because of personal and financial limitations. Be it Chennai, Bengaluru or Jordan, Syria – it was very tough but there was no other solution available to them. “God helped her. I firmly surmise so. That is why, having her things managed all by herself from such a tender age, I think she has become – a better human being, a better person and a better player as well”.

Back then, she used to play U14 Asian tour events throughout the year. Only top 8 Asian players would get selected and get the opportunity to go to Melbourne, Australia for the Asian Masters Juniors event. She got selected at the 8th spot. Turning the tides her way as she always does, she ended as the runners-up at the event in Jan 2007. That is when the Raina family realised that she needs better coaching, to channelize her talent effectively, and so they decided to shift for her betterment to Pune, when she was still 14.

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Lalita Raina ji cheering her daughter at her Grand Slam debut at French Open.

“It was a big decision for us. While we were in Ahmedabad, when the senior players used to come and play, they told Ankita has a great potential and that there was good coaching available in Pune. Earlier she used to have brief stints in Pune under Hemant Bendrey sir for 15 days or so, especially during vacations, when she used to stay at my uncle’s place. But now we thought it is time to shift permanently. I requested for my transfer to Pune. Unfortunately I could not get it. I got placed in Lonavala. But I decided it is better to stay in Pune and commute to Lonavala, as it is more helpful and easy for the children. I used to leave early in the morning and come back in the evening carrying out the local train hustles. I did this for three years on a regular basis. No doubt it was very hectic, but it was probably the need of the hour thinking about Ankita’s future. I can now safely say that it was a good decision. Bendrey sir used to take care of her scheduling and her fitness”.

Formative years

Ankita was highly focused and disciplined from the very beginning. Everybody including her very first coach had the same opinion – for her game and for her fitness”. Reciting a story, she said, “Ankita used to ask – Why was the head coach only playing with the older kids like her brother? Why were the younger kids only being taught by the assistant coach? Head coach told her that if only she could run 20 rounds around the academy, could she play with him. With the same discipline and grit, she actually ran 20 rounds, and was rejoiced to have earned the chance to play with the head coach, Mr V K Rawat. He had also told us back then that one day Ankita will earn herself a big name and respect in tennis. He gave us such a positive assurance even while she was very little. We had no clue what he saw in her. Probably because he had trained numerous kids before, he could see something special in Ankita”.

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Ankita and Lalitaji with the $25k title at Nonthaburi, Thailand.

On being asked if she would like to change anything during her formative years, Lalitaji said, “We would not like to change anything. Whatever happened was all for good. Very OK with whatever it has turned out to be”.

Plight of no succour continues

“Ankita has been the India no. 1 for over seven years now. She has won a Bronze at Asiad 2018. So we are hopeful of more sponsors coming forward to support her, especially this being an Olympic year. Good player needs an equally good coach to bring out the best in them and we are very thankful to have Hemant sir as Ankita’s mentor. If more sponsors come ahead, she would get equipped with a physio/trainer even during tournaments. This is extremely essential at the level she is competing now.

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Ankita smiling by the side of her mother, Lalitaji.

We are very thankful for the support she has been getting, however when you see the players from other countries at the same level or even lower, coming to the Grand Slams with their entire team of coaches, trainers and physios, we realize that there is more scope for support to be provided. Tennis is an extremely competitive sport, there are tournaments held every week. And you have to play them week-in and week-out to stay there at that level. If only there is a coach to monitor her game while she plays, will she be told about her mistakes, and modifications required in her game.

Now that she plays WTA Qualifying and Main Draw events more regularly, and mostly loses in the third sets, even against top100 players, that means her level is clearly there! She needs assistance in rectifying her mistakes. Even when she won the bronze, the kind of recurring support that was expected from corporates/Central Sports Ministry, seems still lacking. The reception and appreciation was however excellent – something we could not have imagined of. It was like a dream.

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Ravinder Kishen Raina ji (Father), Ankita Raina (Daughter) and Lalita Raina ji (Mother), in one frame.

People have to understand that even Asian level is not easy – you have to beat the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, to earn a medal for your country. And she is continuously delivering her best at that level. Next year – 2020 – is that of Tokyo Olympics. Just till a few days are left to go, nobody will bother to pat an eye about the athletes and their preparations, and then after the event, it will be told that India is not winning any medals.

Earlier when the former sports minister, Mr. Rathore announced about the TOPS – it was supposed to be INR 50000 as sort of pocket money, in addition to the cost of training. But I do not remember her getting anything. Probably once she got 50k. It was mostly like an on-paper incentive sort of thing. And then she was removed from TOPS – which was totally unreasonable for a top ranked Indian player for so many years. The 2nd/3rd/4th ranked players got it – which is good when everybody gets supported, but what is clearly wrong is leaving the no. 1 player out”.

How does she manage her expenses?

“During the initial years, we used to fund her all by ourselves. We have taken so many loans during the process. Mr Vyas from Ahmedabad, a Pharma company head, from Dishman Pharmaceuticals used to help us. From 2013, she is receiving support from the Gujarat Government. It was very encouraging that the former Gujarat Chief Minister and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi Ji himself came forward to support her and in prospect all the other budding Gujarati athletes. We are very thankful to him and Sports Authority of Gujarat for the foundational and continued support they have been providing. She could reach at this level because of that assistance.

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Ankita and Lalitaji with the former Sports Minister of India, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore ji, during the reception of the Asian Games medalists.

She has also received great support from the principal of her college. Even during her final exams, he used to permit her to play the tournaments. He was very encouraging and we are extremely thankful to them. We are also very thankful to ONGC for the kindness and support over the years and Yonex for taking care of her equipment and clothing requirements. All the support that we could provide her with, was all worth it.

Personal space back at home

When Lalitaji was asked if there are any kind of rituals that Ankita follows whenever she comes back home after weeks on tour and whether she is requested to prepare something special for her daughter, she responded, “Yeah, she wants to enjoy, but from the last few years she is very diet conscious. She is very disciplined herself, and even when I tell her that nothing will happen if she eats something else for one day, she also asks me to support her! Her favourites are obviously Dum Aloo and Pani Puri”.

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Happy family. Ankita Raina with her mom, uncle and aunt. (Credits: Kamesh Srinivasan ji)

How closely does she follow her ward?

Do you follow her tournaments? She has previously said that whenever you are present in the audience she gets that extra motivation to perform better.

“Yes I have seen her play a few times as a professional – and I distinctly remember when she played beautifully with so much conviction and confidence against tough opponents during the Fed Cup 2018 matches in New Delhi. I follow her match score lines online regularly. I also like to watch Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka on TV. We saw Simona vs Serena in London together, and I told Ankita that confidence, self-belief and her fitness were the main reasons why Simona Halep won the Wimbledon 2019. And I have similar thoughts on Bianca Andreescu defeating Serena in New York. I think confidence level and fitness levels are what decide the matches now.

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Lalitaji at the entrance of Wimbledon, London.

When Ankita was playing U13 in MSLTA, and Sania Mirza was playing at CCI, that is when we saw her for the first time, with her mother. She has been a big inspiration. And Ankita was extremely happy to team up with Sania for the Fed Cup.

Stories to share

Recalling yet another incident depicting Ankita’s determination, she told that when a 15 year old Ankita was down 0-7 against a player in 2nd round of Nike Masters, when the match was stopped courtesy to rainfall, she asked her mother if it was remotely possible to spring a comeback. She told her daughter to forget the score-line and go in there as if it was a new match the next day, and if she has belief in her game then certainly anything was within her reach. And abiding by her mother’s philosophy Ankita went on to win that match 9-7 and then the entire tournament!

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Ankita and Lalitaji with a member at the Australian Open.

Lalitaji was a table tennis player herself. She herself loves sports. She does not play now but does practise Yoga. She winded up saying, “If Ankita gets adequate sponsorship, I am sure she will do something wonderful. In WTA, it takes only one or two tournaments to get that break. She is waiting for her opportunity. And it will come – sooner or later.”

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