Rishika Sunkara holds the unique distinction of having been the Indian Junior and WTA No.1 in her career. In this conversation as part of the series on the journey of Ankita Raina, Rishika takes us through her friendship with Ankita and some of their close encounters on the court.
How do you know each other and what were your initial impressions of Ankita?
I’ve known Ankita Raina since the age of 10. We played several U12 tournaments together and from then on to most of the Junior tournaments and then onto the Women’s tour.
We’ve been playing together since then for quite some time. We’ve had a lot of memories together. We had bonded really well. We literally grew up together through tennis and also bonded quite a bit off court.
We played quite a bit together on the tour. We ensured that our tennis rivalry was restricted to on-court. We had a very good understanding together on the court too.
At the WTA $125K event in Pune, we were supposed to play each other in the qualifying rounds. Before the draw came out, we had asked each other to warm up. We then came to know that we are drawn up against each other but we did not care. We literally warmed up each other in the morning and then played the match in the afternoon. That’s how close we are.
She has been the Indian No.1 for several years now. Any qualities of Ankita that separated her from the cohort?
She is one most hard working person that I have personally known. Very disciplined with her routines. I have always looked up to her for that discipline. She knows what needs to be done. She has always believed in herself.
Back then, when the results were not coming – she stuck to it and believed that with hard work she can make it to the top even if the current results were not indicative. She believes in giving her best.
She has had great support from Hemant Bendrey sir. She has a very good support system around her and most importantly, she trusts them which is very important.
On the transition from the Junior to the Pro tour
We were both 16 and still playing primarily on the ITF Junior tour but playing a couple of Pro tour events here and there. We were both discussing a lot and trying to figure out on how to take that step forward. It was about 2009 or 10. It was really hard.
The big move that Ankita made was in 2013. It was in the first half of the year. She already had very good results at the $10K level with a couple of titles and few finals appearances. That was when Ankita Raina had become the Indian No.1 for the first time. I think the combination of the results and the No.1 ranking really boosted her confidence.
After these results, she started playing the $25Ks. She didn’t do great initially as it is a big jump in level but she didn’t back down, continued to put in more hard work and it took her almost a complete year to establish herself at that level. In 2014 in Pune, she won her first title at that level.
It was a big big boost for not just Ankita Raina but for most of us girls on the circuit too. Till then, we were winning at the $10K level but not at the higher level (beyond Sania Mirza) – she was the first to break that barrier from the Indian circuit during that phase.
Your assessment on Ankita Raina – what works and what could she do more at the Grand Slam levels.
Fitness plays a very big role at the Grand Slam level. She and her team have been working a lot on her game. Aggressiveness and confidence also matter a lot. She has it. Sometimes it is a matter of few tourneys where things click and you start believing that you belong there.
She could possibly work on her serve to get a few more free points. At that level, the serve matters a lot. You need a big weapon at that level to crack a few of these big matches.
She has great mental strength, a great mover and is very consistent. She has a lot more to her game.
I feel developing a big weapon will help Ankita in transitioning smoothly to the next level.
Any matches against Ankita Raina that you remember.
There were a few. One was the ITF $10K final in Hyderabad. It was a very long match and I lost in the 3rd set. We had played each other so many times by then and so that day, it was more about who wanted it more and can maintain that level for a longer duration.
Another memorable match was the WTA $125K in Pune which I had mentioned before. It was always a matter of few points in our matches. I was able to pull that match off in Pune.
Any tourney that you both won together in doubles?
We did not play that many tourneys together in doubles. We won the Kolkata Grass Court Nationals in doubles.
You’ve both represented the country together in the Junior Fed Cup and also progressed to the Women’s Fed Cup team in 2013/14 – Any special memories and with having your best friend beside you?
We got selected for the Fed cup for the first time in the same year. It was a memorable occasion. After the struggles we had gone through together, that was a big step for us. It was held in Astana, Kazakhstan. We stayed together and we were really excited.
Another fun memory off court was us making a snowman. It took us a few hours with lots of trips indoor and outdoor because it was so cold, but we finally got it together. It wasn’t the most perfect but we had a great time!
Indian Fed Cup qualified for the Playoffs now. A historic achievement – a testimony to the effort of players from many years who helped the team reach where it has today. Your thoughts, especially given that people close to you like Sania Mirza, Ankita Raina and others have led from the front?
It’s such a big achievement! I am so proud of the whole team. I was part of the times where we struggled to even qualify for the Group-1 stage. We had some close defeats and they were disheartening. I remember Sania sitting all of us down after those losses and make sure we learn from it everytime and work harder. It was a long journey from so many years and the effort and hardwork had to pay off. The team has always been motivated to achieve big and especially to lift women’s tennis in India.
Ankita has been playing really well in the fed cup from last couple of years and has a really good win-loss record in singles. Rutuja did extremely well this time and Sania being back on the team helped us to crack those crucial doubles win and it all got together for an historic achievement.