If you follow Indian tennis, you would have definitely heard of Ankita Raina.
I don’t, so I hadn’t until I had her sitting next to me on a flight to Mumbai.
She walked into the aircraft with an air of quiet, matter-of-fact confidence – lugging a big, bulging sports bag that carried her gear and a small backpack.
She had a mobile phone, an extra charger and a book – all of which she laid out neatly on the seat as she prepared to settle in for the flight while looking around to get a fix on her surroundings.
At first glance, she could have been just another sporty young lady but then she wasn’t, as I realized when I woke up from my usual aircraft-taking-off nap routine. To my embarrassment I found that I was sitting next to a star – India’s top woman tennis player!
She was poised, but yet child-like, happy to engage in a conversation and laughingly share her stories from her travels to play in top tennis tournaments across the world – from the Wimbledon to Flushing Meadows and Roland Garros and Australia, China and even Morocco – mostly travelling alone as she can’t usually afford to carry her coach and family.
As I heard Ankita’s stories, I began to marvel this young lady who started playing tennis in Ahmedabad at the age of four (before moving to Pune for coaching) and has been hopping in out of international flights and checking into hotels in strange cities across the world all by herself since her teens.
With a twinkle in her eyes she told me how at a young age she pulled the chain to stop a train in Morocco, as she feared she had missed her stop as language barrier made it difficult for her figure out whether she had reached her destination.
Everybody on the train spoke French or Arabic, and not English. Helpless bawling helped when she was hauled to the station master and asked to pay a hefty fine, she said.
Or how once the airline staff wouldn’t let her go in Mumbai as she was a minor and her family had to drive up from Pune in the dead of the night to take her home!
And then how she had to show up at a tournament sleepless due to late flight changes for a match in China and still win it in straight sets. Impressive!
She also quietly and earnestly whispered that she had been bumped up into the business class thanks to an upgrade voucher one of her friends had given her.
Down to earth, realistic and supremely confident, the 26-year-old was also keen to get a picture with a well-known singer on the flight.
“Should I ask him,” she asked me.” I really want to get a picture with him.”
Will she put it on her social media handles, I asked. No, she replied, adding that she wanted the picture only because she loved his songs. She did put it on her Instagram page!
Ankita’s story of is one of determination, focus and dedication. It is also one of a young Indian who aspired to reach the top, worked hard and managed to get to there despite many odds.
She was in Mumbai to play in the premier tennis league before going back home to Pune – rest, eat home food (which she said she misses on her travels; the Gujrati thali is her favourite) and allow her mother – who works with an insurance firm – to embrace and pamper her.
She misses her family and coach during her travels, as others on the circuit travel with their parents and support staff, but she said travelling alone from a young age hasn’t made her lonely. It has made her stronger and more focused to achieve what she has set out to.
I wished her best of luck for the 2020 season as we parted ways and told her I would try and follow her journey to more success – breaking into the world top 100.
On my way out from the airport I kicked myself for missing out on a selfie moment. But then, there is always that next time!
You can follow her on @ankita_champ (Twitter) and #ankitaraina_official on Instagram.