Ankita Raina's dream debut at the Australian Open has dissipated early and almost without noise. The Indian and her Romanian partner Mihaela Buzarnescu were roundly beaten by Australian wildcards Olivia Gadecki and Belinda Woolcock 6-3, 6-0 in the first round on Thursday. Rohan Bopanna, who is in the mixed doubles draw with China's Yingying Duan, is India's only remaining player at the year's first Grand Slam after Divij Sharan also lost his men's doubles first-round encounter earlier on Thursday. Bopanna himself and Sumit Nagal lost in the first round of the doubles and singles draws, respectively, as well.
Ankita went into the match with the gilded distinction of being only the fifth Indian women's player to feature in the main draw of a Grand Slam and the first since Sania Mirza to do so.
Since the start of 2019, Ankita has made seven attempts at breaking into a Grand Slam singles main draw. This time she went as far as the final round of Australian Open qualifying, held in Dubai due to the pandemic. She was later flown to Melbourne along with five other women players to serve out a mandatory 14-day quarantine and wait for a potential lucky-loser spot. In a pandemic-era tournament where withdrawals could pile up, it seemed like she was in with a fair chance. But the draw on February 4 went by without as much as a squeak of good news for the 28-year-old Indian, who then made a practical choice to try her luck in doubles, where she's ranked 115 in the world.
Despite being primarily a singles player, Ankita has played more than her fair share of doubles. In fact, three of her five ITF titles last year were from doubles. Ankita hit up Buzarnescu, whom she'd run into at smaller tournaments through the year, for a possible partnership and they signed in a day before the deadline.
Buzarnescu ended her singles campaign early with a first-round loss against Canadian star Bianca Andreescu. She did give the eighth seed a scare, though, with Andreescu surviving three break points in the deciding set.
Although Ankita and the 32-year-old Romanian had never paired up before, they have 54 ITF doubles titles between them. On Thursday, however, they were clearly the weaker set of players on court.
Early in the match, in the third game of the first set, the Indo-Romanian pair were riding on three break points before Gadecki, who's also making her first Grand Slam appearance, foxed her opponents with a clever drop shot for the Australians to go up 3-0. In the next game, with Buzarnescu serving, the pair quickly went from game point to staring at a break point. They managed to collect themselves and the Romanian dispatched an ace down the T for the duo to finally scramble on to the scoreboard.
Ankita, playing on her stronger ad court side, struggled with her serve, failing to hold even once in the match. Her tentative net play, botching up reflex volleys too often, also let the pair down. The Indo-Romanian pair ushered in their first break of serve in the seventh game but the Australians went on to take the set 6-3 without much fuss. Gadecki, all of 18 years of age, was imperious at the net and Raina was broken to love in the third game. At 5-0, with Gadecki serving for the match, Buzarnescu ballooned a return long before Raina succumbed with a forehand slap into the net.
It's been a harsh induction into the Grand Slam club for Ankita. She hit the road in August last year, playing at least 10 tournaments. Even during the months that courts were shut and sporting events were at a standstill last year, she got herself a rebound tennis machine at home to get a feel of the ball on the racquet. It's a stationary equipment that can be kept indoors and has a ball attached to a spring-like stick. Essentially a ball-stroking machine, it's generally used by tennis coaches to familiarise beginners in the sport with contact point and swing.
For now, from the windy outside court of Melbourne Park, Ankita will have to pick up the pieces, make sense of what's smacked her and move on.