When it comes to individual sport in India, it is the women who have stolen the march over their male counterparts. Whether it is badminton, tennis, boxing, archery or athletics, they have managed to capture the imagination of the country and stand shoulder to shoulder with the best in the world. It has led to a revolution even within the country, with more young girls picking up a tennis racket after the rise of Sania Mirza, and badminton flourishing as a sport after Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu’s exploits on the world stage.
In keeping with that healthy tradition, India has a potential superstar in the making. Ankita Raina is set to make her maiden appearance at the Australian Open 2021, becoming only the fourth Indian woman tennis player in the Open era to secure a place in the main draw of a Grand Slam. The Ahmedabad-player lost the final round in the singles qualifying but realised her long-time dream by signing up with Romania’s Mihaela Buzarnescu and securing a direct entry into the double’s main draw.
Raina played a key role in the Indian Fed Cup team’s progress, and is ecstatic to have made the big leap. “I know it’s doubles but India’s name will be there. These are the moments that spark something among people. Maybe a few will start dreaming that it’s possible. People start believing. We touch many small milestones but this one is at a pinnacle. Anyone who starts playing professional tennis, dreams of playing in a Grand Slam. Regardless of the fact that it is doubles, I will take it. I kept at it. I stayed in the process. Maybe next time, I will play singles too. After years of hard work, it is starting with doubles but singles will happen. It's first, so special,” she told PTI.
India’s Fed Cup captain Vishal Uppal is all praises for the 28-year-old. “It’s good that she has got the opportunity to play with the best. It will give her the belief that she belongs there. She is a very hard working, industrious player. I like her attitude, she won't give up,” he said. Ankita Raina has made it to a short but illustrious list, featuring Nirupama Mankad, Nirupama Vaidyanathan and Sania Mirza. Another notable mention is New-Jersey based player of Indian-origin Shikha Oberoi, who featured in the 2004 US Open.
Nirupama Mankad, India’s top ranked player from 1965-78, qualified for the mixed doubles in Wimbledon 1971 with Anand Amritraj, bowing out in the second round. Nirupama Vaidyanathan was the first Indian woman to feature in singles of a major, when she featured in the 1998 Australian Open. She beat Gloria Pizzchini in the first round, before getting knocked out in the second round. Then followed Sania Mirza, India’s finest women’s tennis player to date. She has won six Grand Slam titles, three each in doubles as well as mixed doubles. An icon who inspired an entire generation of young girls to pick up the tennis racket, she was only 18 when she made her majors debut at the Australian Open in 2005.
When Ankita Raina, along with her partner Mihaela Buzarnescu, takes on the Australian pair of Olivia Gadecki and Belinda Woolcock in the opening round on Wednesday, a billion voices will cheer for her. Like Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal, and Dipa Karmakar, her impact could go well beyond the courts, in encouraging a new generation of girls to pick up the sport and conquer unchartered territory. And that is no mean feat.