On a frantic Friday evening, amidst making travel arrangements, Anikta Raina hurriedly tried to round up all of her belongings in the hotel room after her month-long trip to Melbourne. There were two more welcome additions to the baggage: a beautiful trophy and brimming self-belief.
Earlier in the day, Raina had clinched her maiden WTA title. The 28-year-old, in the company of Russia’s Kamila Rakhimova, defeated Anna Blinkova and Anastasia Potapova 2-6, 6-4, 10-7 to win the Philip Island Trophy. Raina’s triumph at the WTA 250 event saw her become the first Indian woman since Sania Mirza to win a tour-level title.
“I’m very happy, very excited,” Raina told the Olympic Channel from Melbourne. “It has been a long trip – I got here on January 16 – and I have played a few tournaments here. I am thrilled that I have a trophy to take back home.”
It was an apt exclamation point on a wild, long, potentially career-defining ride in Melbourne.
Her trip had begun on the back of a disappointing loss in the third round of qualifiers for the Australian Open in Dubai. Though Raina admits being ‘bit upset’ at not making the cut for the main draw, she travelled to Melbourne as one of the six lucky losers.
The Indian narrowly missed a main draw entry – four of the lucky losers got into the main draw, Raina was sixth on the list – but she made her Grand Slam debut in the women’s doubles event. She is only the fourth Indian woman to have featured in a main draw at a major – after Nirupama Mankad, Nirupama Vaidyanathan and Mirza.
“These little achievements and milestones go a long way,” says the Ahmedabad-native, who has been on the pro tour for more than 10 years now.
“Just being in Melbourne through the two weeks of the Australian Open, among the best players in the world, was an incredible experience. Every day that I got to be there, play there was a bonus.
“I have been working on this for years. There were times, in the past, when I was desperate to play in a Grand Slam. But I am more patient now, I feel like things happen when they have to happen. Winning the doubles trophy is a great motivation; it means I am on the right path. I am sure I will be able to replicate that kind of form in singles as well.”
While Raina, through her experience, believes that things happen when they have to, she hasn’t quite been relying on luck alone to coast through her career. Her plucky game an embodiment of her grit. Raina is known to be one of the hardest working players and is finally reaping the rewards.
Her breakthrough at the Phillip Island WTA is likely to lift her into the top-100 of doubles. Raina is already the highest ranked Indian woman – in singles (181) and doubles (115).
Raina’s march up the rankings ladder may also be significant given it is an Olympic year. With Mirza likely to use her protected ranking of 9, the 28-year-old is in pole position to team up with her at the Tokyo Games.
“I have been looking forward to and preparing for the Olympic Games for the past 2-3 years now,” said Raina. “The (2018) Asian Games was part of the learning curve. And I came back with a medal (bronze). It is great that I am playing well with the Olympics a few months away. If I do get to make my Olympic debut in Tokyo, with a legend like Sania…that’s as much as one can ask for.”
For tennis players, who prefer taking one week at a time, the Olympics may seem a long way away. Raina hasn’t even had the time to stop and soak in her title victory in Melbourne.
“Maybe I’ll have a nice dinner to celebrate,” she said. “But right now I am just trying to get things in place for the next tournament.”
On Saturday, Raina will travel to Adelaide, her last stop of the Australian sojourn, carrying an extra glint of silver and confidence.