India, Ankita Raina outclassed by Latvia in Billie Jean King CupApril 18, 2021
Jelena Ostapenko had to resort to defence, an option she does not like to fallback on. She ran the width of the court a few times, playing most shots on the stretch and trying to be patient. And when she ran out of it, again on the run to her right, she struck an unreturnable angled forehand winner. Both Ostapenko and India’s Ankita Raina stood for a moment to process the point and how it ended.
“How she found that angle surprised even her,” the commentator said, describing Ostapenko’s reaction.
The 2017 French Open champion later played a powerful backhand down the line winner to end the match.
A day later, on Saturday, Raina had 2018 US Open semi-finalist Anastasija Sevastova reeling from long rallies. Eventually the World No.47 unleashed a ruthless down-the-line forehand winner and later rained down an ace out wide to close out the match.
With it, Latvia had won, expectedly, the Billie Jean King Cup World Group Playoff tie at home 3-1 against underdogs India. What rankled Ostapenko and Sevastova (former World No.5 and 11 respectively) was how they had to struggle to get the wins against Raina.
The Indian outfit was spearheaded by World No.174 Raina, who only recently won her first ever WTA title, in doubles.
Along with her to play singles were Rutuja Bhosale (ranked 419), debutant Zeel Desai (568), and Karman Kaur Thandi (621). Former doubles World No.1 Sania Mirza was also in the team.
Eventually, Mirza opted out of playing the dead rubber doubles match that Bhosale and Desai won 6-4, 7-5, 10-2.
Hopes of pulling off upset wins were largely on Raina, the 2018 Asian Games bronze medallist. She had weak starts in her two matches; she lost the opening set 6-2 to Ostapenko, without holding serve, and 6-0 to Sevastova in the third rubber. She hassled and harried her opponents during different phases of the matches but she didn’t have the class nor did she possess the one big shot to decisively turn the match in her favour.
Raina’s playing style makes her a disrupter. Ostapenko dubbed her an “ugly player” who is “difficult to play.”
The 28-year-old from Ahmedabad doesn’t have powerful groundstrokes, nor does she have a serve that can bail her out of trouble. Her greatest weapon is the heart for a fight and strong legs. She likes to lengthen rallies, tire the opponent and draw an error. It’s a useful strategy to have against the hard-hitting Ostapenko, who can self-destruct should things not go to plan. Even Sevastova, a crafty right-hander who mixes her shots with relish, likes shorter rallies. When Raina refused to give in, they struggled to find their rhythm.
Raina took the second set in the opening rubber against Ostapenko, eventually forcing the Latvian, who was struggling with a back problem, to play her best tennis in the last three games of the match. Ostapenko won it 6-2, 5-7, 7-5.
In the third rubber, Raina led for most of the second set before Sevastova found her range in her backhand and serve to win the tiebreaker, winning 6-0, 7-6(4).
Developing on-court weapons, however, can tip the odds in Raina’s favour the next time she’s in such a position.
“She has to keep improving and adding things to her game,” says Vishal Uppal, the team captain.
“Playing more aggressive is one, if her net game improves then it’ll give her the confidence to come up and finish points quickly, that’ll be good. It’s important for her to stay focused and when she has someone under pressure, to keep that pressure and not let it get away. She’s a diligent worker, but if she adds a few tactical moves to her game, maybe she can break into the top 100.”
Thandi was nominated to play the second rubber. She’s spent the past few years struggling with injury, but gave a decent showing in the opening set, armed with a big serve and strong forehand. But the intensity dropped in the second, allowing the tricky Sevastova to race to a 6-4, 6-0 win.
With the tie out of reach, Bhosale and Desai were called on to replace Mirza and Raina to play the doubles, a dead rubber this time, against Daniela Vismane and debutant Patricija Spaka. It proved to be a mere consolation.