Breaking into the big league

SHE is just about ready to get her licence to drive a car. Yet, she is guilty of breaking the barriers, at great speed, in recent times.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

Sania Mirza... the first Indian player to win so many titles in such a short span of time. -- Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

SHE is just about ready to get her licence to drive a car. Yet, she is guilty of breaking the barriers, at great speed, in recent times.

Yes, Sania Mirza is guilty of breaking into the top 200 in the world of women's tennis, at an alarming speed. In doing so, even before she celebrated her 18th birthday, Sania joined Nirupama Sanjeev (nee Vaidyanathan) as the only Indians to have such a ranking.

It has been a fabulous season for Sania, as she won six singles titles in the ITF women's circuit, including the two back-to-back Challengers, the $25,000 tournaments in Lagos, Nigeria, recently, taking her career tally to 12 singles titles.

"It is very satisfying. Am very happy, as I have indeed come a long way since last year", Sania says with understandable pride, on reaching 193 in singles.

No Indian player has won this many titles and this quick. The undisputed queen of Indian tennis at one stage, Nirupama, who reached up to a career high 134 on the WTA computer, and won a round at the Australian Open in 1998, beating the 92nd Gloria Pizzichini, had won only two singles titles, including a $25,000 event in Bad Gogging, Germany, in 1996. The other title was a $10,000 tournament in Delhi, which was used as a warm-up tournament by her in 2000.

The globe-trotting Manisha Malhotra had won only five singles titles, and Rushmi Chakravarthi has won seven, and those seven have all come in India. Sai Jayalakshmy has won four. The likes of Isha Lakhani and Megha Vakharia have won only one each. None of them have broken into the top 300 in singles. Of course, it was a creditable effort by Manisha to have pushed her doubles ranking to a career-high 149.

The age eligibility rule of the WTA meant that Sania could play only 13 tournaments this year before her 18th birthday on November 15, and she had a target of reaching closer to top 225, a realistic one as she had finished 2003 at 399. However, a spell of solid play, when she reached the finals of a $25,000 tournament in Delhi, the semifinals of a $50,000 tournament in Lebanon, apart from the back-to-back titles in Nigeria, saw her reach far beyond the target, with a tournament to spare.

In between, Sania also came close to grabbing the wild card for the Australian Open, as she reached the final of the Asian Championship in Tashkent. The indications are that she may still get that wild card, as the winner, Na Li of China, may get a direct entry with her high rank.

"My knee has been hurting because of tendonitis and I had been advised rest by doctors about three months back. I had been taking pain-killers and playing the circuit because there was so much success. I was supposed to play in China or the tournament in Mumbai, but opted to rest and fast during the month of Ramzan", says Sania, quite satisfied about putting her game together with a tough attitude and making impressive progress.

If anyone jumped to the conclusion that Sania has been quite calculative in finding the right tournaments to assert her ability, going to some obscure corner of Africa, it may be pointed that she has won tough tournaments in the US and the UK, apart from winning clay court events in Europe, a real hard grind for an attacking player of her calibre.

Every record can be looked from a different angle. If you thought that Sania has been avoiding the pressure of competing at home, as only one of her dozen singles titles, has come in India, the first one in fact, back home in Hyderabad, in September 2002, it may be pointed out that she became the first Indian woman and the youngest Indian player to win a Tour event, when she won the doubles title with Liezel Huber of South Africa in the $140,000 Hyderabad Open early this season.

Actually, Sania was unlucky not to get a wild card for the Athens Games, as the pair that was beaten by her and Liezel in straight sets in the final of the WTA event, Ting Li and Tian Tian Sun of China, went on to win the doubles gold in the Olympic Games.

Of course, all good things cannot be happening at the same time, and Sania is quite content about developing a strong game and improving her physical fitness, thanks to useful stints with Bob Brett in Italy.

"We have changed the backhand and it has become quite good. Earlier it was very predictable, and now I can hit it anywhere with punch. The serve is not a weapon as yet, but it is not a weakness any more. I can win the toss and opt to serve now, knowing that I have the confidence to hold serve. I am moving better on court, and am improving my net game also", says Sania, even as she quickly admits that there is scope for further development in every department of her game.

More than her daring stroke play, Sania has been impressive with her energy on court and the tremendous focus. Four times she has won back-to-back singles titles to assert the high levels of her physical and mental energy.

"When you win you gain a lot of confidence. At the same time, you can easily have a bad day in two weeks. I have lost in quarterfinals or semifinals in some tournaments, after winning a title. But it gives me great satisfaction that I can stay focussed and be consistent for two weeks and beat the players all over again to twice prove that I am the best in the field. It is quite a lot of matches in a fortnight if you count the doubles as well", says Sania.

More than the confidence she has gained from the titles, Sania has given a fair indication of her ability despite the first round exit in two WTA tour events in Hyderabad and Casablanca against quality opponents.

Ranked a modest 403, Sania lost to the 59th ranked fourth seed Nicole Pratt of Australia in three sets in Hyderabad. When she lost to the 40th ranked top-seed, Emilie Loit of France in three sets in April this year, Sania had a ranking of 469. Both Nicole Pratt and Emilie Loit went on to win those tournaments.

There was no doubt that Sania could beat the best in the business for one set, but the question was how to win a second set against such quality players.

"Nicole Pratt was 30 and quite experienced. She was tougher on that day. I was very happy to put up a good fight against Emilie Loit, because the match was on clay, not exactly my favourite surface. Though I lost those matches, I gained a lot of confidence. I just need to tune my game a bit and develop mental toughness to beat the top players", says Sania.

With Liezel Huber of South Africa, Sania claimed the doubles title in the Hyderabad WTA Open. — Pic. H. SATISH-

Even last year in Doha, when she got a wild card for a tier-III WTA event, Sania had lost in three sets to Olga Blahotova of the Czech Republic.

Yes, from the time she became an instant celebrity by winning the Wimbledon junior doubles title last year, Sania has indeed come a long way. Her improved ranking and the fact that she can play as many tournaments as she wants without any restriction, may find Sania playing in higher grade tournaments next season.

In fact, she is not finished for the year as yet, and may play a couple of tournaments in December, so that she is ready to capitalise on the wild card for the Australian Open as and when she gets the chance. Even otherwise, Sania will get to compete in a lot of qualifying events on the WTA tour, and if she maintains her rate of growth she should be regularly figuring at least in the qualifying draws of the Grand Slams.

"I will travel for more tournaments from next season. Playing at the $10,000 level would still be an option depending on the situation. The $10,000 events in Europe are tougher than the $25,000 tournaments at home'', says Sania.

The target for next season is to break into the top 100. If she trains with the same intensity and enthusiasm that she has done this year, and does not sustain injuries, there is no reason why Sania cannot march ahead and become the best Indian woman tennis player ever. For sure, she is on the right track and moving in the right direction.

Unlike Nirupama, who had to struggle to keep herself on the road around the world because of financial constraints, Sania has been blessed with the best possible support. Her doting parents have also ensured that she never felt the need to rush home or look for a travelling coach, with their reassuring presence and shrewd guidance.

"It is no arrogance on my part to say this, but even Roger Federer does not have a coach. Of course, I am no genius like him, but so far I haven't felt the need to have a coach or a trainer travelling with me. Maybe, I will need one, to break into the next league, but so far it has been great", says Sania with a calm assurance.

Sania is ready to speed ahead in her journey to stardom. — Pic. K. GAJENDRAN-

It only goes to show that behind a strong game and an athletic physique, Sania has the backing of a sound mind that keeps ticking all the time and solves her problems on court.

It will take some time for Sania to match the consistency of Nirupama who stayed in the top 200 from 1996 to 2001, putting together a 177-151 win-loss record in singles and 104-91 record in doubles, earning $180,547 in the process. Nirupama, who is now based in the US, happily married, had won 10 doubles titles for a career best doubles ranking of 115.

Sania has strung together an 89-18 record in singles on the Tour, including an impressive 43-6 record for the season. She has lost only two of the 14 finals, and both were this season. The first was in a $10,000 event in Rabat and the other in Delhi in the $25,000 touranament. She has won five doubles titles, including the WTA Tour event, from 10 finals, in reaching a career-high doubles ranking of 166. She has collected about $40,000 in prize money, and more than half the money has been won this season.

If anything, Sania is ready to speed ahead, of the many milestones. Her parents may present her a new car on her 18th birthday, so that she can appease some of her appetite for speed, on the roads of Hyderabad.

The vigilant police may check her speeding back home, but on the professional tour it may be difficult to check Sania's speed to stardom.

Sania's titles Singles (12)

$10,000 ITF event, Hyderabad, September 22, 2002.

$10,000 ITF event, Manila, November 10, 2002. $10,000 ITF event, Manila, November 17, 2002. $10,000 ITF event, Benin, February 23, 2003. $10,000 ITF event, Benin, March 2, 2003. $10,000 ITF event, Jakarta, October 5, 2003.

$10,000 ITF event, Boca Raton, February 1, 2004.

$10,000 ITF event, Campo Basso, May 30, 2004. $10,000 ITF event, Wresham, August 8, 2004. $10,000 ITF event, London, August 15, 2004. $25,000 ITF event, Lagos, October 9, 2004. $25,000 ITF event, Lagos, October 16, 2004. Doubles (5)

$10,000 ITF event, Manila, January 7, 2002, with Radhika Tulpule

$10,000 ITF event, Benin, March 3, 2003, with Rebecca Dandeniya (GBR)

$140,000 WTA event, Hyderabad, February 22, 2004, with Liezel Huber (RSA)

$10,000 ITF event, London, August 15, 2004, with Rushmi Chakravarthi

$25,000 ITF event, Lagos, October 10, 2004, with Shelley Stephens (NZL).