Ankita Raina and Karman Kaur Thandi teamed up for doubles on the pro circuit for the first time at the WTA 125K Series event in Chinese Taipei over the weekend, and their final ended in tears.
In fact, everybody on court was crying and all the tears were being shed for one of Ankita-Karman's opponents, Natela Dzalamidze of Russia, whose attempt at a down-the-line winner ended with the ball missing the line and Dzalamide on the ground, screaming in agony, unable to get up.
Up 3-6, 7-5, 12-11 on serve, and with multiple match points saved on either side, fourth-seeds Dzalamidze and compatriot Olga Doroshina looked like they had the match won, when Dzalamidze missed her winner and sustained a hamstring injury.
"In the process, she fell and she was screaming in agony. She was crying a lot, and her partner tried to help her get up, but she couldn't even move, such was the shock," recalls Ankita. "The physio came on court and carried her to her chair. She looked at us across the court, and gestured with her hands indicating that it's over.
"She started crying even more, and apologised to her partner, who was crying too. All of us were crying -- I went to the other side, gave her a hug and said I was sorry. When I looked at Karman, I saw she was crying as well, and that's when I first realised that we had won the tournament. It was such a confusing situation."
How 20-year-old Karman came together to play with Ankita, five years her senior, reminds Ankita of her own earlier years, when she approached Rushmi Chakravarthi and then enjoyed some success on the ITF circuit in 2012. "She [Karman] had asked me earlier as well, and I am more than happy to play with an Indian. It's easier to communicate and if something is not working, you can try and tell her and it makes it more convenient," says Ankita.
"Previously, even if we had wanted to play together, it would have been difficult with our combined rankings. She asked me in Mumbai [in October] when we were playing the WTA Open, and I said let's try this week."
Karman is taller and wields a bigger serve, but where Ankita thinks they are similar is in the aggression in their groundstrokes. "She has a big serve, that helps at crucial points, and opponents also have this thing in their mind," she says. "Since I have been playing for a long time on the circuit, I have the experience, and if I tell her 'let's do this or try this', she's quite positive about it. She has her own observations, and that helped in the semifinals as well."
Playing with Karman brought Ankita a long-cherished dream after going through 12 different doubles partners from 10 nationalities for the year. "I really wished and wanted to win a WTA title, and I had this thing in my mind and told my coach [Hemant Bendrey] that I really wish I do well here. This was the last month, and it happened." She had success at the Asian Games too, where she became just the second Indian woman after Sania Mirza to have won a singles medal in tennis.
The Asian Games saw Ankita compete in singles, doubles and mixed doubles -- she came agonisingly close to medalling in the mixed event alongside Rohan Bopanna -- and the need to play successive matches on a single day wasn't completely alien to her. "When we used to play U-14 or U-16 tournaments at the national level, we used to play three to four matches in one day, but as you go higher, the level and the intensity goes up," she says, pointing to an ITF tournament in Jinan, China just ahead of the Games in Palembang, where a run to the semis in doubles and quarters in singles proved useful preparation.
"One of the days [in Jinan], I had to play three matches in one day, starting at four in the afternoon. That day I slept at one or two in the morning, and started again the next day because I had won. I saw that and I realised that I could have the same situation, but the intensity and everything will be higher, because everybody will be giving their best. That was good."
Sunday will remain special though as it was the maiden WTA title for both Indians, even though it came as an opponent sustained a horrific hamstring injury. "It was very unfortunate because it was such a good match," says Ankita. "Even for us as players, we enjoyed it so much -- the nerves, the adrenaline, everything -- and now when I think about it, we are used to getting that and because of that, we like to be in tough matches.
"It was such a close fight, and they got the best tennis out of us. I would wish for more of the same for 2019 - to keep working and keep grinding. Ups and downs will be there, but getting mentally and physically stronger will be the key."