For the first time since the 2004 Athens Olympics, India is set to field a two-member Tennis contingent for the mega-event. However, the women's doubles team - comprising veteran Sania Mirza and youngster Ankita Raina - is looking formidable, thus keeping hopes alive at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
In spite of producing so many grand slam winners in doubles, India’s most notable achievement at the Olympics came in the men’s singles event. Kolkata-boy Leander Paes claimed the Bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games as after losing to Andre Agassi in the semis, the Indian got the better of Brazilian Fernando Meligeni in the bronze medal match. However, since then, no Indian singles player has made any sort of impact in the quadrennial event.
India came tantalizingly close to claiming a second-ever medal at the Olympics when the men’s doubles pair of Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes reached the semi-finals at the 2004 Athens Games. The duo was outclassed by the German pair of Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Scuttler in the semi-final, before going down to Croatia's Mario Ancic and Ivan Ljubicic in an epic bronze medal match.
The pair of Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna also finished fourth at the 2016 Rio Olympics, losing to the Czech pair of Lucie Hradecka and Radek Stepanek to finish fourth. Unfortunately, India is set to field only two athletes in Tennis for the upcoming 2021 Tokyo Games, which is the weakest contingent since the 2004 Athens edition. However, with the perfect mix of young talent with vast experience, we expect a noteworthy outing in Tokyo.
Let us have a closer look at India’s women’s doubles pair for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics:
Sania Mirza (Women's Doubles)
India’s long search for a prominent female figure in Tennis finally ended soon after the stroke of the century, when a certain Sania Mirza showed a glimpse of fitting perfectly as the missing piece. Her first break surfaced at the 2002 Asian Games, where she claimed a bronze medal in the mixed team event partnering with the legendary Leader Paes. However, it took her a girl’s doubles title win at the 2003 Wimbledon Championships to gain the publicity she deserved; her graph only soared post the same.
At the 2015 Australian Open, she became India’s first-ever player to feature in the main draw of a grand slam event, winning the first and second-round matches before perishing against eventual champion Serena Williams. Later that year, the Mumbai-born athlete bettered her reputation by reaching the fourth round at the US Open, which was itself a record, only to see herself get ousted by the then world no. 1 Maria Sharapova. Sania’s accolades overflowed as she became the first Indian female Tennis player to claim a WTA title when she owned the 2005 Hyderabad open.
Her career-best WTA rank of 27 is still the highest for an Indian, across genders. The peaking, however, followed by a dip, as she failed to strengthen her foothold in the circuit for the next couple of years, with no singles titles to her name. Escalating injury issues prompted Sania to shift her domain to doubles events. Her resurgence was evident when she bagged a first grand slam win at the 2009 Australian Open alongside Mahesh Bhupathi. So far, she’s won six slams, three each in doubles and mixed doubles to stamp her name as the greatest ever female Tennis player from the country.
Sania Mirza made her olympic debut at the 2008 Beijing Games, where she suffered a first-round exit in the singles event, while she could progress no further than the round-of-16 in the doubles event alongside Sunitha Rao. It was in the 2016 Rio Olympics that she came closest to pocket a medal, crashing out in the semi-finals in the mixed doubles event. Following a long hiatus from the sport, the Tennis star returned to competitive Tennis in January 2020. With her showing no signs of feebleness post-return, Sania Mirza will aim to accomplish the unconquered territory at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
Ankita Raina (Women's Doubles)
After rigorous toil in the domestic circuit, where Ankita Raina enjoyed mixed success, her quantum leap arrived at the 2017 Mumbai Open. She qualified for the quarter-finals of the defunct WTA 125K series to open doors for future success. The first indication transpired when the Gujarat-born athlete broke into the top-200 (181) in the WTA Rankings in April 2018, after winning a 25K title. Later that year, she followed it up with a bronze medal win at the Jakarta Asian Games, thus becoming the second-ever Indian after Sania Mirza to claim a podium finish at the multi-sports event.
Raina pulled-off an unexpected coup when she won the 2018 OEC Taipei WTA Challenger alongside country-mate Karman Kaur Thandi. However, her biggest singles win still remains the one over former US Open champion Samatha Stosur at the 2019 Kunming Open. At the 2021 Australian Open, she became only the third ever female player from India to feature in the main draw of a grand slam event, when she partnered Mihaela Buzarnescu, only to crash out in the first round.
The 2021 Phillip Island Trophy, held earlier this year, remains one of Raina’s most remarkable outings. Not only did she win her first WTA singles main draw match of her career, she also stormed to her maiden title win in doubles alongside Kamilia Rakhimova. She thus became only the second Indian to claim a WTA title after Sania Mirza. She recently broke into the top-100 of the world rankings. With a decent build-up to the Games, teaming up the experienced Sania Mirza would boost Raina's medal-winning probabilities when the Tokyo Olympics gets underway on July 23.