Tokyo: Indian tennis players need nothing less than a miraculous performance to edge closer to the medal rounds as an underprepared team of Sania Mirza and debutante Ankita Raina face a tough Ukrainian challenge in the first game while Sumit Nagal has a tough draw in the singles competition starting on Saturday.
Mirza, who is making a record fourth Olympic appearance, and debutant Raina head to the Olympics without playing a single competitive match together this year, far from ideal preparation for the world’s biggest sporting event.
The last time Mirza and Raina shared the court was in March 2020 during the Billie Jean King Cup.
They will open their campaign against Ukrainian twin sisters Nadiia and Lyudmyla Kichenok.
“Every game is going to be a challenge and we’ll take it one game at a time. Due to pandemic and quarantine rules, we were playing different tournaments. So after the Fed Cup we didn’t have a chance to play together,” Raina told PTI.
However, Mirza has tons of experience and she plays a player who is known for punching above his weight while representing the nation.
Raina has a big heart for the fight, but it will all depend on how well Mirza performs, who hasn’t been at his best with his serve being an issue.
At the recent Wimbledon Championships, Mirza gradually improved his game from the baseline, but his weak serve was easily tackled by rivals.
Interestingly, when Mirza returned to competitive tennis after the COVID-19-induced break in March this year, she and her Slovenian partner Andreja Klepac had faced the same Ukrainian sister pair and prevailed.
Ranked as low as 137 after the maternity break, Mirza, 34, has played just eight games this season with a 4-4 win-loss record.
Raina, 28, ranked 100, has only one main draw singles victory since the start of the 2021 season.
In doubles, she captured her first-ever WTA title with partner Kamila Rakhimova at the Phillip Island Trophy in Melbourne in February and broke into the top 100 in doubles, but then suffered five straight first-round defeats.
Without Mirza’s protected ranking of nine, India would not have a women’s doubles team at the Games.
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In contrast, Nadiia, ranked 44th, had played eight WTA Tour events with her sister Lyudmyla Kichenok, ranked 48th, in 2020 and one this year.
Together they haven’t had much success, but Nadiia has otherwise had some decent results with Romania’s Raluca Olaru in 2021.
They took victory in St. Petersburg (WTA 500) in March and reached the semi-finals in Stuttgart (WTA 500) in April and finished second in Bad Homburg last month.
If Mirza and Raina win their first match, they could face eighth seeds from the USA Nicole Melichar (double world number 9) and Alison Riske (single world number 36) in the next round.
In men’s singles, Nagal is extremely lucky to be admitted to the Olympics because with a rank of 144 at the June 14 deadline, he was far from being selected.
However, a wave of withdrawals pushed him inside.
Nagal’s recent performances do not inspire confidence even though at the start of the season he scored the biggest win of his career beating world number 22 Cristian Garin.
However, after that he only managed two quarter-final appearances at Challenger level, struggling hard on the Tour.
Nagal had hinted that he had health issues and that was the reason why he was not getting the desired results.
He faces Asian Games champion Denis Istomin in his first round. The Uzbekistan veteran claimed the 2018 Jakarta Games quota by winning the men’s singles title.
The grinder that is Nagal, there is a possibility he will overtake the 34-year-old Uzbek, but the Indian could next face world number two and Australian Open runner-up Danill Medvedev of Russia and this could be the end of the road for him. .