SANIA MIRZA may have set a hot pace for the rest of Indian women tennis players.

Kamesh Srinivasan

SANIA MIRZA may have set a hot pace for the rest of Indian women tennis players. A pack of girls, however, are trying to catch up with the princess of Indian tennis with conviction and confidence. If the recent form of Isha Lakhani, Ankita Bhambri, Sanaa Bhambri and Megha Vakharia is anything to go by, the months ahead will see great competition.

While the two $10,000 ITF women's tournaments in Ahmedabad and Indore provided a platform for Lakhani, Ankita and Sanaa, the talented Vakharia did much better than the trio by reaching the semifinals of the $25,000 tournament in Phuket, Thailand, the following week.

Lakhani, the gutsy left-hander, did well to win the singles title at Indore, while Ankita Bhambri managed to make the final of Ahmedabad and the semifinals of Indore and went on to win both the doubles titles with her sister, 17-year-old Sanaa, who reached the final at Indore and put up a terrific fight against Lakhani. After being down 1-6, 2-5, Sanaa took the match to the decider.

Though these girls have considerable potential to reach a lot higher than where they currently figure on the WTA ranking list, there are many factors that hamper their development. While financial shortcomings have restricted most of them to competing at home, a string of injuries have troubled Lakhani, Vakharia and Ankita Bhambri forcing them to start afresh every time they strike their best form.

"I am happy with my game. I was pretty determined and wanted to win the title badly at Indore, and I am glad that I did it. It was a close defeat in Ahmedabad the earlier week. Beating Rushmi Chakravarthi in the first round in Phuket was also good, and I lost a close match in the next round. Overall, I am getting back my form, but I need to work very hard to make that jump into the next level. I think that I can do it," said 20-year-old Lakhani.

Lakhani, who had reached the quarterfinal of the US Open junior doubles with Sania Mirza and who, like Mirza, is a winner of the Asian junior title, has stagnated a bit after being out of the circuit with a knee injury from February to September last year. She opted to rest and recover rather than undergo surgery, which eventually meant a long lay-off. Quite significantly, Lakhani is the last Indian player to have beaten Mirza, which she did in the quarterfinals of the $25,000 tournament in Mumbai in 2003 on the way to the final. "Last year, I was at 350 when Sania was 425. She has done very well to capitalise on her chances. She has always travelled around the world for tournaments, while we did not have the resources to travel. Anyway, there is no point making comparisons, I will try to go for my goal. I know that I can reach pretty high, and for that I need to work very hard," said Lakhani. To find Sania Mirza at No. 70 in the world, beating the best of players like the US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia in such a convincing fashion as a 6-4, 6-2 score would suggest, has given a lot of confidence to the likes of Vakharia to believe in their ability to compete with the best.

"Sania's progress has opened our eyes. Earlier, we thought no Indian could reach this far or that we did not have the build to compete against the Europeans and the Russians. Now we realise that the difference is not much," said 20-year-old Vakharia.

A foot injury that was not properly diagnosed initially had spelt disaster for Vakharia as she was forced to rest from last October to April this year. "I am really thrilled to have been able to come back this strongly and this quick. The foot injury on the ball of my left foot is a very rare thing. Even in the US they didn't know how to go about curing it. Much later, I was advised to take calcium tablets to strengthen my bones, and that seems to have solved the problem," said Vakharia, who played six more tournaments in the US after hurting the bone at Allentown in June last year. "I am playing tennis without any training. That is why I am slow on court. Once I fully recover from the problem, I intend to train hard and play better. I am going to the US to play a series of tournaments," revealed Vakharia.

Ankita Bhambri is a classic example of a good player getting trapped at the lower level owing to lack of exposure to tournaments abroad. The 18-year-old Delhi girl had fared equally well as Sania Mirza in driving the Indian team to a No. 5 finish in the Junior Federation Cup under-16 competition in France. She had finished runner-up to Mirza in the Asian Junior Championship and had the game then to even beat her. In fact, she has one of the best serves in Indian women's tennis after Shikha Uberoi, and she can really hit her groundstrokes well. She could not give a good account of herself in the recent Fed Cup because of a foot injury. "The injury made a lot of difference to my game and the results. I hardly prepared for the Fed Cup as I couldn't do well in the $10,000 and $25,000 tournaments in the preceding weeks. That was because I was busy with my twelfth standard examination," said Bhambri.

Coach Aditya Sachdeva, who has been working with the Bhambri sisters, feels confident that the girls would do well this season. The main idea is to give them more tournaments so that they have more chances of getting better results and gathering WTA points. "I would have been happy with a singles title from one of the two girls. Overall, they are doing very well. While there is a restriction in the number of women's tournaments that Sanaa can compete in, we will try to make Ankita compete as much as possible. I am confident that she can break into the top 300 before the end of the season. We will make Sanaa compete in the juniors so that she is kept busy. Perhaps, that would help her get into the junior Grand Slams next season," said Sachdeva.

Sanaa had made it to the semifinal of the French Open doubles with Sania Mirza but did not take her junior career with the same enthusiasm. She still has one more year to leave her stamp on the junior circuit, even as she is getting smarter on the professional tour.

In the final at Indore, Sanaa Bhambri fought bravely against Lakhani and missed her chances while serving at 4-4 in the decider. The match showed that Sanaa had the consistency in her strokeplay but not the punch to beat Lakhani, who kept coming to the net on key points for successful volleys.

Sanaa had beaten Vakharia in the semifinal, after the latter was drained in the previous round in a three-hour marathon. "We are adding a new dimension to Sanaa's game. She will try to go to the net more. The more I see Sanaa the more confident I am that she will improve. Indore was her first final and it was a very encouraging sign," said coach Sachdeva. "It is a matter of time before I start finishing the points in match situations. I am doing it in practice. I need to practice with a lot of tough players," said the younger of the Bhambri sisters.

The Bhambri sisters have not had the advantage of high-level training to help them realise their potential. That aspect is also being taken care of, at least in the case of Sanaa, as she has been assured support by the Union government to train with Bob Brett at San Remo, Italy. "I need to train more and compete in more tournaments. I am bound to improve if I stay healthy, and be mentally tough to handle the challenges," said Sanaa, who reached the semifinal in the only women's tournament she played abroad this season — in Dubai. To put that achievement in perspective, Sania Mirza has played in about 300 junior international matches, in singles and doubles, around the world, apart from 200-odd matches on the professional tour, winning dozens of titles. She has also been training with Bob Brett a few times after having worked with nearly a dozen coaches through her career. Not everyone can afford to do that, but there is no doubt that there is a growing awareness among the girls and their parents about the need to stretch that bit extra to make the breakthrough. Because support is not coming thick and fast for women's tennis, it will not be a bad idea to increase the number of international tournaments for them at home. From the $10,000 tournaments and the odd $25,000 tournament, the girls do find it difficult to jump a few levels and compete well in the $140,000 WTA tournament held in Hyderabad. Mirza, with her experience, is able to use that stage better, as she showed by winning the doubles title last year and the singles title this season. While there is a $170,000 scheduled in Kolkata in September, it defies logic as to how both the All India Tennis Association (AITA) and entrepreneurs such as Mahesh Bhupathi, who runs both the WTA events through his company Globosport, do not feel the need to provide a few $50,000 and $75,000 tournaments for the Indian girls. Even a string of $25,000 tournaments would see a big jump in the performance in Indian women's tennis.

"There are only six points for winning a $10,000 tournament. What is six points if you are keen to make progress? And if you lose in the quarterfinals or the semifinals, you hardly get any points. You get to play only in seven or eight such tournaments in a season. How do we improve?" asked Lakhani. It may be noted that Sania Mirza is ranked at No. 70 with 466.25 points, while Shikha Uberoi is at 134 with 265.50 points. Mirza won ten $10,000 titles and two $25,000 titles, apart from reaching the final of a $50,000 tournament, before she made that breakthrough at the Australian Open this year by reaching the third round and putting up a decent fare against eventual champion Serena Williams. The confidence gained from the Melbourne experience helped her win the Hyderabad Open, and project a fabulous image in Dubai where the crowds came in thousands to adore the Indian girl who made the quarterfinals.

"The level of tennis is the same at $10,000, $25,000 or $50,000. It is better we try to compete in bigger tournaments as the rewards are better for the same effort," said Vakharia. As can be seen from the case of Mirza, no star is born overnight — they all come through the grind.

Lakhani, Ankita Bhambri and Vakharia have, between them, won half a dozen singles titles. Honestly, there is no dearth of talent, fitness or the drive to excel among the Indian girls. All they lack is the support.

Corporates look at tennis as a business proposition, and everyone wants to be associated with Sania Mirza because it makes good business sense.

If the current crop of players do not get the support that they deserve to lift Indian women's tennis to the next level, there is a good chance that most of them would just about reach the levels of Rushmi Chakravarthi and Sai Jayalakshmy, who have been competing around the world despite the limited resources and have been trapped in the 300 to 400 ranking zone. Their careers got stuck because of financial constraints and lack of proper guidance. Anyone for Indian women's tennis?