With the Novak Djokovic detention saga raging, India’s Ankita Raina, who had recovered from Covid-19 barely a few days earlier, was a bit anxious when she landed in Melbourne on Saturday. All the documents, clearances, tests and doctor’s reports were in order, yet there was an air of uncertainty.
“I was a bit nervous, honestly, especially when I got to the immigration,” Raina said. Unlike the world No 1 though, there was no drama around Raina entering Australia.
The Australian Open qualifying event starts on Monday and four Indians with contrasting lead-ups will vie for spots in the singles main draw of the season-opening Grand Slam. The Australian Open was the last Slam that had Indian representation in singles, in Sumit Nagal last year.
Rohan-Ramkumar win title
This time, Ramkumar Ramanathan will turn up as India’s highest-ranked singles player, his confidence boosted after playing five solid matches and winning the ATP 250 Adelaide International doubles title with senior compatriot Rohan Bopanna on Sunday.
Raina, India’s top woman player, though had to scramble to make it in time for the qualifiers, having tested positive on landing in India from Paris two weeks ago. The subsequent quarantine protocols left her schedule haywire. Yuki Bhambri, a former top-100 pro, will mark his return to the Grand Slam stage after three years, his dodgy knee having allowed precious little tennis in the period. Prajnesh Gunneswaran, knocked off the top spot by Ramkumar, will have a point to prove as well.
Ramkumar, 27, has taken 22 unsuccessful shots at qualifying for a Slam so far. The India No 1 ranked 184 has had a successful couple of months. He won his maiden Challenger singles title in Bahrain in November, and on Sunday his first ATP Tour title partnering Bopanna—he won his 20th title. The unseeded pair, pairing up for the first time on the Tour, stunned top seeds Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo 7-6(6), 6-1 in the final.
They took down three seeds in five matches through the week, and although Ramkumar lost in the singles qualifiers, taking plenty of game time, and a title, to Melbourne Park should help as he faces Italian world No 197 Gian Marco Moroni in the opening round. “A great week ended on a high note… I’ll surely keep it going,” Ramkumar told PTI.
Getting even a training session has been a task for Raina. Landing in New Delhi from Paris on December 26, the mandatory RT-PCR arrival test at the airport returned positive despite Raina showing no symptoms. A panic-hit Raina was shifted to a hospital from the airport and thereafter to a quarantine hotel in the capital where she completed her isolation period. “It was a big blow. The only thing that was going on in my head was AO. I was supposed to travel to Dubai on the 28th and take the charter flight to Melbourne on 29th. Now, there was no other choice but to remain in isolation.”
Raina could step out only after returning a negative test. She squeezed in one hitting session with Prerna Bhambri in Delhi before boarding a last-minute flight to Melbourne. “Here in Melbourne too I will just get one session before my match,” Raina, who will take on sixth seed Lesia Tsurenko in the first qualifying round, said. “I have no expectations.”
Yuki Bhambri too heads into the qualifiers without a no-pressure mindset. Once ranked world No 83, he returned to competitive tennis in February last year, after a gap of 875 days. A persistent knee injury having sidelined him since October 2018, Bhambri took baby steps in his comeback quest in the stop-start 2021 season. After playing all of four singles matches and a few doubles ties last year, the knee flared up again, coinciding with Covid infection.
“Maybe Covid affected it, because it was a similar time when I got the virus and my knee went bad again. But the knee feels ok now. I’ve put in a lot of hard yards and am ready to go and rumble,” Bhambri said.
His last singles match on the Tour was in March 2021 in Dubai, where he beat Prajnesh and Ramkumar. His last Grand Slam outing was in 2018. The 29-year-old is excited to be back playing tennis at the biggest stage again. “I’ve had great success here and a lot of good memories. So, absolutely buzzing,” Bhambri, the 2009 Australian Open junior champion, said. “I really missed being here. I feel ready and I’m hoping my past experience of playing here and at Slams is going to push me and help me get over the line.”