A good beginning, it is

PTI

For Sania Mirza, the Asian Games has been the turning point. She did not lose a set in the singles till the final. Her good showing against the Czech Republic and Croatia in the Hopman Cup and the semi-final appearance in Hobart have set her up for a good 2007, writes Nandita Sridhar.

In the two years that she's been under the spotlight so far, Sania Mirza has been viewed and judged in extremes. We winced at a potential forehand thunderbolt that turned into an ugly error, as much as we applauded a squeaky clean winner. We admired her confidence, the new-age Indian woman pluck that took her past gender and cultural barriers, but were equally quick in labelling her arrogant and brash. Sania was hailed as Indian women's tennis's lone torchbearer as quickly as she was later dismissed as a one-season wonder. Our gleeful prophetic reminders that the second year in professional sport was one of the toughest were not without a snigger at her every loss.

Successful Indian sportsmen and sportswomen are victims of their own success. With success come great expectations, a lack of balance and perspective in the way they are judged, and glib generalisations on expected behaviour (specially for the women). It's even more difficult for successful sportswomen with good looks, having to repeatedly prove their commitment to the sport after every fleeting appearance in advertisements. To Sania's credit, despite the frenzied reactions to her climb up in 2005 and accusations of a fuzzed sense of priorities in 2006, when her game plunged, she has shown improvement after the 2006 WTA season.

In hindsight, her lack of substantial success last year might have been a blessing in disguise. The draws did well to frown on her in the Slams. Losing to the likes of Anastasia Myskina, Elena Dementieva and Francesca Schiavone on the big stage threw up a lot more lessons than any win against someone ranked in the 100s.

Her weaknesses were exposed, with opponents realising that as much as her aggression accentuated her powerful forehand, it failed to do the same to her backhand. As much as her arms generated the forehand power, her legs lacked the speed and suppleness to survive long matches. Big defeats teach you things that no easy wins can. "I'm getting to play a lot more balls now, and not leaving the court open," she said after the 2007 Hopman Cup. An interesting revelation, which means that she doesn't mind an occasional grind as opposed to her routine bang-fest, and that her improved fitness is allowing her to reach more balls.

Fitness has never been the strongpoint of Indian sportswomen, with most of them being prone to excessive bulk. Sania's admiration for Martina Hingis's fitness (the Swiss Miss was never known for her fitness) after being knocked out of the Sunfeast Open must be brushed off as overestimation that comes when one is whomped. "I'm never going to be a great athlete," she said after the loss, but added that she would work on her fitness.

Sania's stint with South African Heath Mathews, who is doubling up as trainer and physio, has worked well so far. And the understanding that she needs an improved all-round game is a step in the right direction. "She has got the right speed and the explosive power now. The focus now is on the upper body and adding muscle strength to make her a better player," Mathews said. He was also working on her flexibility, the trainer added.

AP

Sania's win-loss record in WTA and Grand Slam events in 2006 was 20-24, with 14 straight-set wins, six three-set wins, 11 straight-set losses and 13 three-set losses. Only twice did she manage to win after losing the first set.

Figures might sometimes make for superficial assessment, but these numbers suggest that Sania is someone who thrives on early rhythm and momentum, a fly-high-or-fall-flat sort who can feed off a good start, even when things get shaky in between. "I need to learn to win from such (losing the first set) situations," she said. Both of Sania's victories after being a set down have come in the latter part of 2006, which shows that she's learning.

For Sania, the Asian Games has been the turning point. She did not let slip a set in the singles event till she lost in the final in Doha. Her good performances against the Czech Republic and Croatia in the Hopman Cup, and the semi-final appearance in Hobart have set her up for a good 2007. Whatever happened last year must be brushed off as history. She must forget the failures, but remember the lessons. The off-court controversies in 2006, mediocre performances and troubles with finding the right coach might have been too much for her young mind to handle. The attention might have been a distraction, but worse things have happened in sport than a teenager's head clouded by sudden fame. A few good results in 2007, and all will be forgotten.

Having dispensed with some of the bulk, and working on her backhand, it would take some time for the 20-year-old to show results. In this context, appointing a full-time travelling coach will be something worth considering.

Sania needs to keep an eye on her opponents forever looking to exploit the chinks in her armour. Hingis hit the ball to her backhand, while little-known Camille Pin lobbed to victory against Sania in Bangalore last year. Sania's Australian Open doubles partner, Anabel Medina Garrigues of Spain, exploited the Indian's fatigue in Perth. "I think that she was a little tired. I just had to hit my balls higher. She is always playing with the backhand. I don't think she likes to play rallies and she would prefer to play three- or four-shot rallies. I was focusing on that and hitting more than three out of four balls. I think this is why I won," she said.

What will be most important for her success in 2007 is confidence. Two years after it all began in the coming-of-age 2005 Australian Open campaign, Sania is now high on confidence again. "Obviously I've had a tough year, it's been a very average year, but at the time when I had to peak, I did. I think I am playing the best tennis I ever did and I think my fitness levels have gone up quite a few notches and that has helped my performance a lot and I think I worked hard in the last one, one-and-a-half months and I'm happy that it's paying off now," Sania said after the Asian Games in December last year.

Under no pressure to defend WTA points, she needs the encouragement to experiment on court, to make improvements, and the freedom to fail. She's going to lose matches, but most importantly, she's got to learn from every loss. It would do well for her if expectations don't rise after each win, and the obits don't come out after each loss.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

SINGLES: Winner: 2005 Hyderabad Finalist: 2005 Forest Hills Semi-finalist: 2007 Hobart; 2006 Kolkata; 2005 Tokyo (Japan Open). Quarter-finalist: 2006 Cincinnati, Forest Hills, Seoul, Tashkent; 2005 Dubai, Cincinnati. DOUBLES: Winner: 2006 Bangalore, Kolkata (with Huber); 2004 Hyderabad (with Huber). Finalist: 2006 Amelia Island (with Huber), Istanbul (with Molik), Cincinnati (with Domachowska). Semi-finalist: 2006 Stanford (with Mattek); 2005 Cincinnati (with Fedak), Kolkata (with Ruano Pascual), Japan Open (with Peer). RANKING: Season-ending singles 2006: 66; 2005: 31; 2004: 206; 2003: 399; 2002: 837; 2001: 987. Career-high singles: No. 31 (October 10, 2005) Career-high doubles: No. 24 (November 13, 2006).