The career graph of a sportsperson is usually characterised by crests and troughs and Ankita Raina got to experience both extremes over the latter half of last week. On Friday, Raina reached one of the peaks of her career, holding aloft a shiny piece of silverware — her first WTA doubles title — at the Phillip Island Open in Melbourne. That win would catapult her inside the top 100 of the doubles rankings.
It would also make her the highest-ranked Indian women’s tennis player in both singles (WR 168) and doubles (WR 94). The equaliser for that high was being bundled out in the first round of qualification at the WTA 500 Adelaide International on Sunday and then being unable to compete in the doubles since her partner had opted out at the last minute.
That disappointment, the 28-year-old Indian might even argue, came in before she even got the chance to let the original win soak in. She did a couple of hours of post-match recovery work, then rushed back to her hotel to pack for the tournament she was playing in Adelaide a day later. While her phone buzzed incessantly with notifications of congratulatory messages, she only had time to speak to her parents and her coach in India. “The last thing you want to do just after the biggest win of your career, is pack your bags with stuff that’s being lying around your room for one month but that’s what I did,” she says.
A rushed, late dinner later, she went to sleep at 2 am, just enough time to get a little bit of sleep before having to catch a morning flight to Adelaide. It was only after getting a hitting session on the court that she was finally able to grab a meal and finally get some rest.
The rush of travelling, lack of sleep, and an ‘uncooperative’ early morning match a few hours later clearly told. On Sunday, she lost in the first round of qualifying in the singles event. And unlike in Phillip Island, where she found a partner in Russia’s Kamilla Rakhimova with just 15 minutes left for submitting a doubles entry, there was no such luck in Adelaide. With her partner — UK’s Heather Watson — having decided to opt out of the tournament a day before, Raina’s tournament ended on the very first day.
But just because her tournament ended in as disappointing a fashion as possible didn’t mean that Ankita would decide simply to call it a day. “After my match, I went back to the gym. I used the treadmill and the bike to flush out (the lactic acid buildup) from my legs. I jogged and then stretched. I made sure to get something to eat, then went for physiotherapy and massage,” she says.
Ankita says she couldn’t treat her defeat any different from her win just a couple of days before. “That’s the thing about being an athlete. One day you might win a grand slam or a big tournament and next week you could start from round 1 and you can lose. That’s why you learn to love the process because the actual moment is gone in a second,” she says.
The last few months have only cemented this belief in her. “Last year, all the problems in travelling and playing tournaments during the pandemic gave me a whole new perspective on the sport. It wasn’t as if I wasn’t grateful about being a professional athlete before but I started feeling a lot more passionate about the sport when I realised what an opportunity I was getting to do what I do. The fact was that I got to travel after the pandemic when so many players couldn’t because of visa issues and entry barriers being so high. I still lost a lot of matches — most of them in the first few rounds — but I felt at least I had the opportunity to compete. I had to do justice to that opportunity” she says.
For Ankita, that means putting in the grind even when things aren’t always working out for you. She describes it by giving an example of watching one of her playing icons– Rafael Nadal competing at the Australian Open, where she made her own grand slam main draw debut in doubles – at Melbourne this year.
“I was watching Nadal play and I found his routine was what people might call obsessive. Everything he was doing, even the way he placed his water bottle, had to be done in a very specific way. Everything he did had to be very precise. Even when he made a mistake, he would be very precise with what he was doing. As I was I was watching his game, I realised the level of intensity and perfection that he was striving to achieve,” she says.
But while Nadal is a 20-time Grand slam singles champion, Ankita still finds plenty of motivation for her own career. “He’s obviously won so many Grand Slams, but there’s no end to striving to get better. It’s different for everyone. Someone is talented, someone is more hardworking but everyone has to grind,” she says.
Which means that just because she’s just won her first WTA title, jumped into the top 100 and now moves even closer to a coveted place in the Olympics in July, doesn’t mean she can relax. From her own very-recent experience, success one day might be followed up by struggle just a day later. She equates it to being in a tennis match. “This is my perspective on life as well. If you keep going and persevere, you don’t know when you might achieve a moment of success. You might get there or you might not. All you can do is put the effort. You just have to keep putting the ball back on court,” she says.