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Billie Jean King Cup: Ankita Raina, India go down fighting to Latvia in playoff tie

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Latvia beat India 3-1 in the Billie Jean King Cup playoff with Ankita Raina once again highlighting her fighting spirit despite two defeats.

Ankita Raina produced a spirited display against Anastasija Sevastova but it wasn’t enough for a win. Image: Latvian Tennis Union / Raimonds Volonts

Another shaky start, another frustrated opponent, another close finish. That sums up Ankita Raina’s weekend in Jurmala, Latvia. She had annoyed and rattled Jelena Ostapenko on the opening day of the Billie Jean King Cup playoff and in the reverse singles, she did the same to Anastasija Sevastova.

In both contests, Raina started poorly, her serve completely evading her and produced errors aplenty, losing 2-6 and 0-6. If Ostapenko needed to pull off two remarkable backhand winners to fend off Raina in the closing stages, Sevastova banked on her forehand and two timely aces. What was common, however, to the push was Raina extending the length of the rallies and forcing the higher ranked Latvians into making errors.

An example of it arrived in the eighth game of the second set between Raina and Sevastova. A lengthy exchange from the baseline was followed by slices, drop shots, lobs before the eventual backhand winner down the line from the strings of the Indian’s racket. She didn’t even celebrate – for lack of energy and because the job remained incomplete.

In that game, Raina had two set points to force a decider. A huge turnaround from being bageled in the first set and looking far from convincing. But just as Ostapenko a day prior, World No 47 Sevastova raised her errant game just in time to prolong the set. She would go on to hold and get the break back.

Sevastova would make it four games in a row with consecutive breaks only for Raina to dig in and convert a third break point while saving a match point of her own. In the tiebreak, the 2018 US Open semi-finalist never looked out of control to seal the match.

With the 6-0, 7-6 triumph, Latvia took an unassailable 3-0 lead in the tie but India later got a consolation win in the doubles featuring Zeel Desai and Rutuja Bhosale. Sania Mirza, who was initially pencilled in to play the doubles, remained on the sidelines for the dead rubber giving the youngsters some much-needed experience.

The onus of pulling off an upset fell significantly on Raina, the 2018 Asian Games bronze medallist who recently won her maiden WTA doubles title. In Latvia, when she struggled, she found it hard to get the balls back and the serve was there for the taking.

But when she found her rhythm, she hurried her opponents and moved them to the corners. The strategy remained to stay in the point, extend the rallies and wait for an error against players who like to attack. But in such moments, what went missing, and proved to be the decisive factor between a win and a loss, was the absence of a level head in key situations, big shots for quick points and in not being aggressive enough.

Ostapenko said, “It was tough to play. She plays a different game. She was making quite a few strange shots.”

The 28-year-old from Ahmedabad did what she does best and most effectively: fight. She ran down the balls, kept rallies alive and waited. Waited for an error. Like she had against Ostapenko who buckled when things didn’t go to plan. Sevastova, despite the 6-0 start, struggled to get her rhythm in the second set and trailed for the most part. Raina, when it was time to twist the knife, wasn’t aggressive enough, something she admitted in the press conference later.

“She gave me a lot of points in the first set. In the second, lost my backhand a little bit. When she starts leading, it pushes her up. She has nothing to lose and starts playing better. We saw that yesterday. I knew I had to stay with her in the rallies,”Sevastova said

India’s non-playing captain and former Davis Cupper Vishal Uppal said developing weapons would help Raina close out such situations in the future.

“Both Ostapenko and Sevastova showed why they’re in the top-50. Because at 4-4 or 5-5, they just happen to find that extra gear. Ankita, for her part, stayed pretty solid through that. But it’s just the quality of the Latvian girls that they were able to raise their level at the crucial points, and that made the difference,” said Uppal.

“She (Raina) has to keep improving and adding things to her game. 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.”

India return to the Asia/Oceania group stage next year after a maiden foray into the World Group playoffs. Latvia, meanwhile, who came agonisingly close to beating the United States last year, return to the 2022 Qualifiers.

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