Another Sania saga

What Sania Mirza needs immediately is a full-time tennis coach.-AP

It’s crucial that Sania Mirza, who has achieved her career-best ranking of No. 30, balances doubles and singles play. Her fitness might have improved, but doing double duty in a harsh schedule could backfire, writes Nandita Sridhar.

Sania Mirza’s breakthrough arrival two seasons ago was the first stamp of stereotype defiance. Thereafter, she proved that Indian women could hit whiplash forehands, speak their minds, and successfully deal with the systematic malfunctioning that plagues Indian sport. Not content with those, she has now proved that an Indian could belong to the WTA top-30.

The rise took place — as it had to — on the quick US hardcourts that do not aid high bounce. On a surface tailor-made for her, Sania chose to piece things together. Things started coming together in the beginning of the year, after which a knee injury pegged her back. Roland Garros was never the perfect stage for redemption, and after a moderate Wimbledon, there were question marks. To her credit, Sania has brushed off these losses admirably.

In what can be safely described as the best few weeks of her young career, Sania still has the back-court explosiveness that we saw in 2005, but has shed the gawky rawness that the others exploited last year. She’s getting to the ball quicker, and is setting up points effectively with a backhand down-the-line shot. Added to these is the cross-court forehand that she has beefed up.

Tactically, doubles has helped her come up with a Plan B. Against Shahar Peer at the Acura Classic, Sania was armed with sufficient inputs on her friend and doubles partner. Coming to the net to shorten the points worked in the decider. “I really didn’t want to spend so much time on the court,” said Sania. “We all know that (Peer) is one of the best on the Tour at running down shots. If I keep hitting and ripping from behind the baseline, she’s going to keep tracking down balls,” she added. Sania has left behind days of stubborn apathy towards Plan B. It does help that her volleys have come a long way from half-hearted jabs.

A reasonably kind draw at the US Open (where she is likely to be seeded) could help her match her best Grand Slam result (fourth round, 2005 US Open). On current form, she is potentially capable of a top-20 spot. However, a lot of that would depend on how she handles negative situations. Fatigue, opponents who intimidate and other factors will come into play consistently. By her own admission, she is mentally getting there.

“Mental strength,” Sania said on how she beat Sybille Bammer on a hot day in tough conditions. “I started to feel tired late in the second set, then I regrouped. It was all mental. I told myself to hang in there,” she said.

Players have different ways of evolving. Some arrive early, mature early and fade away early, while a few others need time to understand the demands of the Tour, to assess their rivals and, most importantly, to understand themselves and their bodies. The surprise factor that worked for Sania in 2005 faded away in quick time. Nadia Petrova, who Sania shocked in 2005, took her out easily at Wimbledon this year.

“I think I was more of a surprise for her. Two years ago she didn’t really know I was just coming up and she didn’t really know who I was and how I played and stuff. And obviously I’ve been around for a while now,” said Sania. Aware that the others are improving, and assessing their rivals’ game better Sania has done commendable work towards all-round improvement.

What will be crucial is how she balances doubles and singles. Singles success might make it hard to remain fresh for doubles, which is an acceptable sacrifice, but the reverse would be unhealthy for her progress. Her fitness might have significantly improved thanks to fitness trainer Heath Mathew, but doing double duty in a harsh schedule could backfire.

A full-time tennis coach — something that has been frequently discussed — could be what she needs now. The obsession with fitness alone in tennis is churning out sprinters who make a quick dash to the ball, only to run out of ideas thereafter.

Sania needs to improve on dealing with strokes of heft and angle and to destabilise the game’s biggest hitters, besides consistently working on the serve. “My serve has never been my weapon, and that’s something that I’ll always want to improve more and more. I know that it can probably not be a strength, but I don’t want it to be a weakness anymore,” she said. She needs a tennis-specific coach who will work on these areas.

Post-US Open might be the best time for that, which would help Sania in the 2008 season. She needs the right guidance at the right time to progress steadily. The biggest advantage is that she has age on her side. It’s hard no doubt to keep things in perspective, but it’s worth a fleeting thought, that she’s just a 20-year-old girl.