Ankita Raina: COVID-19 induced break has made me more passionate about tennis

Ankita Raina
·5-min read

At the start of the year, I won two singles titles and two in doubles. Then there was a runner-up finish in Jodhpur and the Fed Cup run. At that point, I was feeling that things are going well, and I'm about to peak. I was really looking forward to the grand slams and when you're playing like that you need an opportunity to play at the higher events. You get good points and jump higher in rankings.

And that's when the pandemic happened.

It was a challenging situation across the whole world and there were people who had much tougher situations than us athletes. We were still in a better position. There were people who were not getting meals or they were away from their families or they were stranded. Or like the frontline workers who had to work for god knows how many hours, doctors, police, and everyone who are highly exposed to the virus.

One good thing was that I was supposed to fly to Australia and I waited a day extra. I was feeling that something huge might happen in the country, it was there already in Australia. So I waited a day extra to book my flight. And the same night, we got an email from ITF saying all the tournaments are cancelled.

At that point, I had travelled a lot. I started from Australia up until the Fed Cup where we had a historic win. I thought, okay, a few weeks at home, time to train, etc. But then it went longer than expected. And in lockdown, you couldn't even practice. So that was a completely different situation. I tried to do things that I could do while staying at home. I did some visualisation and mental training online with my psychologist. I did some yoga, meditation workshops and then there are like, online courses by ITF on tennis and history.

The pandemic has taught us to be really patient. We were in a situation we hadn't been in the past and had no idea how long it would take. With the lockdown, we had no clue yeh kab khatam hoga (when will it get over). The most important thing it has taught me is to be patient and you need that in life and sport. When the situation is out of your control, you have to see what is the best you can do. For me, it has never been that I have been away from tennis for this long. So I would think what was the other thing that I could do?

I don't remember the last time there was such a big gap between hitting a tennis ball. Even when I was young and playing U-14 and U-16, I would always play a national tournament or something. Itna bada gap kabhi nahi hua tha jitna is time hua (never has there been such a long gap as it was during the lockdown).

But it's made me more passionate about the sport. I had a few weeks of practice and went for a tournament because I badly wanted to start playing regardless. Maine itne dino se nahi khela tha (I had not played for so long)! I had early exits like usually in a 25K I would make semi-finals and here I was playing qualifying in 80K or 100K.

I have never had such a break so I worked on things that I would have little time for like getting stronger and fitter. That's how you think, right? But when I didn't get the results, I was disappointed. But I just kept telling myself that there are other players in this situation who are finding it tough to travel. I at least had the opportunity so I played back-to-back tournaments for three months. At some point, of course, you will feel bad about it, but I just tried to look at the positive side of it.

I am glad that I ended the year on a good note, on a winning note. It was an ITF 100K but the level was like a WTA 250 event. All the top singles players were there and that usually doesn't happen for an ITF 100K. The field was very strong and we got in as the last team. I didn't have a partner until two hours to the deadline.

My singles match against Katerina Siniakova (World No. 59) was scheduled first. It was a good match and I felt I had the same level of confidence as I did before the pandemic. Even though I lost the match, I was happy with my game and took what I could take from it, got a lot of confidence and it went into my doubles.

For 2021, I want to break through into the top-100 in singles and I believe that I can do it. Then I want to play the main draw of a slam and the Olympics of course.

The season starts with the Australian Open qualifiers. I always enjoy Australia a lot, I always look forward to it and enjoy going there. The women's qualifiers are in Dubai and I like it there too. The weather, the conditions suit me. I don't mind Dubai as well. The qualifiers are there but there should have been a warm-up event. There's Abu Dhabi but the dates are clashing and the rule of one tournament per week doesn't help. So they could have scheduled better and started the tournament early.

(Ankita Raina is India's highest ranked singles player and won the bronze medal at the 2018 Asian Games. She won gold medals in singles and mixed-doubles at the 2016 South Asian Games. She spoke to Tanuj Lakhina)

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