Sania Mirza is back to take care of some unfinished business from Rio 2016. And this time she has a partner in Ankita Raina, who herself is no slouch either. While Raina will be taking part in her first Olympics, Sania will be taking part in her record fourth.
Sania Mirza, a former World No. 1 in women’s doubles and a six-time Grand Slam champion, has timely returned following her long injury layoff. Inactive for much of the past 24 months, her injury-protected rankings slid down only to ninth, meaning she could choose any Indian within the top 300 to partner with her at the Olympics, and she chose the current double’s 95th ranked Ankita Raina to be her partner.
The current Indian number 1 player in women’s singles as well as women’s doubles, Ankita Raina has several trophies to her credit. She has won 11 ITF titles, one WTA 250 title, and another WTA 125k title. Currently ranked number 180 in women’s singles, Ankita biggest moment in her tennis career came at the 2018 Asian Games when she won bronze in the women’s singles event.
Talking to The Hindu after the news of the qualification of the women’s doubles pair broke out. “Ankita is hardworking and sincere. She spent some time with me right before the Billie Jean King Cup,” said Sania. She had partnered Sunitha Rao, Rushmi Chakravarthi and Prarthana Thombare in the last three Olympics.
“I have never gone into the Olympics with a fellow female Indian player who is top-100 in the world. It is really good to play with someone who is on the tour on a regular basis. She has a long way to go, but at least, she is there,” said Sania.
Sania lacks match sharpness, having only contested in the Qatar and Dubai Opens this year. The veteran had some valuable minutes at Eastbourne and has currently made it through to the Round of 16 at Wimbledon in the mixed doubles event.
Just before the Wimbledon kicked off, Sania was talking about her training in the lead up to the Wimbledon and the ensuing Olympic Games. “I have been doing a lot of on-court work. I have been training off-court as well. I have been doing a lot of explosive movements and agility work just to stay sharp and powerful,” she said.
Interestingly, Sania and Ankita crossed paths in the first round of the mixed doubles event in an all-Indian affair. The pairing of Sania and Rohan Bopanna trounced the pairing of Ankita Raina and Ramkumar Ramanathan 6-2, 7-6. Sania and Rohan will face the 14th seed duo of Slovenian Andreja Klepač and Dutch Jean-Julien Rojer on 6th July.
Moreover, the duo of Sania and Ankita also boast a 5-0 winning streak at the Fed Cup, which led to India’s maiden play-offs entry at the event. The pair are due to train in England after the conclusion of the Wimbledon and will be the only pair to represent India at the Olympics this term after the men’s doubles pairing of Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan missed out on qualification.
The men not qualifying was more of a double whammy as it ruled out the possibility of a Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna mixed doubles pairing. It was imperative that Bopanna and Sharan improved their rankings (currently 38 and 75, respectively) ahead of the Olympics, as the low combined ranking of 113 would always depend on large scale withdrawals, and so it proved to be.
“The ITF has confirmed that Bopanna and Divij could not be entered as a team in the men’s doubles team. However, things might change till July 16 (if there are more withdrawals),” an AITA source told PTI.
And even if there are more withdrawals, the chances of India fielding a men’s doubles team are extremely thin. With priority given first to the singles-ranked players, then the singles-doubles combination, and then the doubles-doubles ranking combination.
With Sania and Rohan coming so close to winning a medal for India at Rio 2016, it was imperative for Bopanna to qualify via the men’s doubles category for him to be paired with Sania. India has failed to field a men’s doubles pairing for the first time since 1992 when a young Leander Peas and Ramesh Krishnan competed at the Barcelona Games.
With Sania and Ankita looking increasingly likely to be India’s only hope in Tennis, the onus of bagging India’s second-ever medal in Tennis at the Olympics lies on their shoulders. The pandemic has disrupted a lot of norms, and the inconsistent and makeshift training schedule for players in-between tournaments can cause a few early upsets. The Indian duo will need to be on their toes to mount a serious challenge for a podium finish.