Girl on the high road: Ankita Raina closes in on Grand Slam dream

In March, Ankita Raina won the $25,000 ITF tournament in Gwalior -- her first singles title in over three years. Photo courtesy of Ankita Raina

At 25, Ankita Raina has lived half her life on her own. Flitting alone across tennis courts, countries and continents, tucked behind a book or with earphones plugged in, the No. 187-ranked player is now speeding towards her biggest dream: a Grand Slam appearance. It also brings with it the luxury of having a coach beside her for a tournament. Usually for Ankita, travelling overseas for competitions is about a lot more than worrying about playing matches. For the average player living outside the top 100, like India's highest-ranked female singles player, it's a tough grind: managing visas, flights, food, hotels and the whole paraphernalia that goes into getting on to an unfamiliar court against an unknown opponent in a faraway land.

In March, Ankita won the $25,000 ITF tournament in Gwalior -- her first singles title in over three years. Her previous win was the Pune ITF in December 2014. Now, she has been travelling for seven consecutive weeks, making the semi-finals in Kofu, Japan and winning the doubles title at the $60,000 ITF in Luan, China last week before catching a three-day breather and heading to Paris for the French Open qualifiers.

"I thought of how badly I wanted to be in the top 200 all these past years. All the struggles, challenges and doubts I'd fought came flooding back. But I know without all of it I wouldn't be the person I am today."

"Oh, I really want to qualify and play Serena [Williams] in the first round," Ankita tells ESPN. "I will definitely go around Paris and try and get a hit with a top-10 player. I think I need to sit down and make a wish list first."

The past six months have been life-changing for Ankita. In April, she became only the fifth Indian female player -- after Sania Mirza, Nirupama Vaidyanathan, Shikha Uberoi and Sunitha Rao -- to move into the top 200. She celebrated by crying in her hotel room in Kashiwa, Japan, where she had travelled for an ITF tournament. "I thought of how badly I wanted to be in the top 200 all these past years. All the struggles, challenges and doubts I'd fought came flooding back. But I know without all of it I wouldn't be the person I am today. Sometimes I see a little girl playing at my club and I feel she's trying so hard and that motivates me. It also reminds me of my own childhood days."

It helped that growing up Ankita had a tennis academy right behind her home in Ahmedabad. It meant that her older brother got into tennis and she followed him into the sport when she was just four. Having a sports enthusiast for a mother - she was into table tennis and athletics in college - also worked to Ankita's favour when, as a 14-year-old, she began training in Pune under current coach Hemant Bendrey. She would take a bus every morning from her relatives' home in Vimannagar to the Corporation building, 10km away, and travel the rest in an auto-rickshaw to her coaching sessions at the PYC Gymkhana.

"What was special about Ankita was that even as a young teen the motivation and will to play was entirely hers," Bendrey, who is travelling with her for the French Open, tells ESPN. "She didn't, like most others of her age, have a pushy parent behind her. And that showed in her dedication. She was willing to train as long as you'd ask her to and work as hard as you'd wanted her to and often even more. It made it very easy for me to coach her. Her only wish was to play a Grand Slam some day. Every day she would tirelessly ask me when it would happen. Every year she would work towards just that one goal, of qualifying for a Grand Slam, and every year she would fall short. But she never gave up. I'm so happy that finally she's going to live her biggest dream."

Ankita's career took a fresh turn at last year's Mumbai Open. She made the quarterfinals, the only Indian to do so, and that gave her renewed belief. In February, she shone in the Fed Cup and stayed unbeaten against much higher-ranked players Yulia Putintseva and Lin Zhu. Days later, she battled world No. 44 Samantha Stosur for an hour and forty minutes in the first round of the Dubai Tennis Championships. Then ranked 253, Ankita broke the former Grand Slam champion back in four games. In the end, it didn't matter that she'd lost -- she wasn't even supposed to be there in the first place.

"It was just a chance I took after a good run in Fed Cup. I was lucky to get in as an alternate," says Ankita. "I didn't even get one ball in my hitting zone! Every single ball was like two to three feet above my head. Before the match, my coach told me that Samantha spins a lot and doesn't play like the other women's players I was used to. So I thought to myself, 'OK, I'll have to be really patient and probably play from a few steps behind the baseline.' But when the match started, I was like 'Oh my God! Am I playing Nadal or what?' because I'd never come across someone who could spin the ball like Samantha. My coach felt that I didn't have a chance against her and it would be a very quick match. But to his surprise it went neck to neck until Samantha served it out in both the sets."

For most tournaments overseas that she travels alone for, Ankita's primary challenge lies in practice. "The first problem for her is to decide what to practice before and after a match," Bendrey says. "Usually, I watch videos of her opponents and tell her what to do over a video call. The second is that of finding a practice partner. Most of the other players travel with their coaches so it's not a concern for them. But it's the first thing Ankita has to worry about if she goes deep into the draw. There have been tournaments where she has gone in straight for matches without practice because there was no one to hit with. I have sometimes wondered how she manages to do what she does."

"What's special about Ankita is that she can adapt to the speed of her opponent and also generate speed of her own. I'd say she has the speed of a top-100 player." Hemant Bendrey, Ankita Raina's coach

But Ankita found a way around it, at least when she could. "So [British player] Emily Webley-Smith and I have been good friends and played a lot of similar tournaments, as she was in Asia as well as India many times. My coach thought of this idea where we would play doubles together and she would also help me with watching my singles matches and if there was something I thought I needed to work on during the tournament and I'd help her with the lodging and food expenses. I have just one or two really good friends on the circuit because on the WTA, mostly players travel with their coaches, trainers and physios, so they don't even bother saying a hello."

Between catching red-eye flights and crashing at cheap Airbnb rentals, Ankita also had some upsetting news to deal with earlier this year. Despite being India's top-ranked female singles player, she didn't find a place in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS). Of course, the Sports Ministry was forced to course correct after she broke into the top 200. "I was obviously a bit upset at first but it comes naturally to me to turn disappointment into motivation," she says. "The monthly stipend of Rs 50,000 [which TOPS athletes are eligible for] may not sound like a lot but trust me, it can make a big difference. It can take care of flight expenses for one more person, so my coach or physio can come along. Plus, if you look at players who are performing week in and week out, they have at least two people with them, so their court booking, practice, food, recovery, massage, transport, hotel -- and the list goes on -- is taken care of. Plus you have someone cheering for you.'

After Ankita, the only other Indian female singles player in the top 400 is Karman Kaur Thandi at No. 254. There's little rivalry and a lot of laughs when they're together, Ankita says. "I know we need to get better and have more players at least in the top 300 but Karman's been doing well and has made it into the 300 quite early compared to me, which is good," she says. "Of course, there's also Rutuja [Bhosale], Pranjala [Yadlapalli] and Zeel [Desai] who're finding their way up. All of us were together for the Fed Cup and we had quite a laugh riot. Also, for me, it was a different feeling being the oldest member of the team. Of course, apart from the coach."

Blessed with a fearless forehand, Ankita is now working on explosiveness and stability and adding greater speed to her serves. "Over the last six months we've also been focusing on improving her on-court movement," Bendrey says. "Players are going to hit harder and the ball is going to come faster at you, so have to pick pace. It's helping her a lot but there's still work to be done. What's special about Ankita is that she can adapt to her opponent's speed and also generate speed of her own. I'd say she has the speed of a top-100 player."

But Roland Garros could be a different kettle of fish. Slow courts, balls with high bounce and a higher quality of opposition, for example. For Ankita though, who leads the life of a tennis nomad, unfamiliar conditions aren't quite the most intimidating. She's only too used to playing on a different surface every other weekend. Of course, this is going to be her biggest-ever stage.

The prospect of stepping on to the hallowed red surface is yet to sink in though. "I'm still telling myself every day that this is finally going to happen," she says.