"Doubles is important, but obviously singles is the priority"

After a well deserved rest, Sania Mirza is back on court with renewed hunger, writes Kamesh Srinivasan.

Sania Mirza turned 20 on November 15. There are not many in Indian sports who have been discussed and scrutinised so early in their careers as much as this Hyderabad lass. She has stayed in the top-50 for the better part of the season despite the predictions of fall.

Without doubt it has been a pretty tough season for her. It could have been a lot more memorable but for the fact that Sania had to endure high ranked opponents early in three of the four Grand Slams.

While she lost to the 43rd ranked Michaella Krajicek of the Netherlands in the second round at the Australian Open, Sania ran into the former champion, the 11th ranked Anastasia Myskina of Russia at the French Open and another Russian, the eighth ranked Elena Dementieva, in the first round at Wimbledon.

She enjoyed better form in the second half of the season. She has improved her physical fitness and is not bothered by injuries. Sania lost in three sets to the 15th ranked Francesca Schiavone of Italy in the second round of the US Open.

Yet, much in contrast to the constant projections about her `slipping' in the rankings even when she fell by only one or two rungs, Sania had done very well to be ranked No. 55 in the world, exactly a year after she had enjoyed her career best ranking of No. 31.

"Yes, it was a tough year, but an educative one. I am reasonably happy. I would have been happier had I finished in the top-50, but I cannot complain. I have grown as a player and as a person. In terms of results, I consider it a decent year, and not half as bad as some would like to believe," says Sania. Sania did have a memorable triumph over Martina Hingis in Seoul, a few days after she had been run over by the Swiss star in the semifinal at Kolkata.

"Yes, it was a huge boost to my confidence. But even when she beat me by that scoreline (6-0, 6-1) at Kolkata, I knew that I had not played badly," she says.

"In Kolkata, she played unbelievable tennis, almost error-free. When a top player is in that zone, you know you cannot do much. I think I still have some way to go before I become a top class professional who can turn matches around even in such situations."

Actually, Sania played the five-time Grand Slam singles champion, thrice this season. How does she compare those matches?

"In Dubai, I had my chances, especially in the second set at 5-all, but I made a couple of errors and Martina took advantage of that (for a 6-4, 7-5 win). In Kolkata, she gave me no chance, because she was in the zone. But, I knew she would not be able to repeat that kind of flawless effort. In Korea, I had worked out with my team, what exactly I needed to do to run her close. Fortunately, things worked out! I would rather not discuss the strategy as I may need to use it again against her," she says with understandable pride.

Hingis was ranked No. 8 when Sania beat her, and it was the Indian girl's third victory over a top-10 player. She had beaten Svetlana Kuznetsova and Nadia Petrova of Russia last season. "It is always a thrill to beat a top-10 player. To win against one of the all-time greats like Hingis was huge and memorable," she says.

There have been other matches like the one against Dementieva at Wimbledon, where Sania did have her chances but was not able to convert them. Sania did spend time with Roger Federer's coach Tony Roche before the season and has been taking assistance from former national champions Asif Ismail and S. Narendranath in short stints while on tour.

Obviously, it was not for want of tennis intelligence that she has not been able to get better results, but due to physical shortcomings.

She has played some top players like Daniela Hantuchova, Dementieva, Flavia Panetta, Myskina, Patty Schnider and of course, Hingis. What are her observations about competing against such quality players?

"I need to improve physically before I can start beating them more consistently. But, I know that I am not too far behind them as far as stroke play is concerned," Sania says with typical self-belief.

Even as she had to be content with one semifinal and four quarterfinal appearances in the season in singles, Sania had a fabulous time stringing together a 31-16 record in doubles that saw her catapult from No. 109 to 26 in the world rankings.

She won the title with Liezel Huber of South Africa at Bangalore and Kolkata. She also reached the finals with Huber at Amelia Island; with Alicia Molik of Australia in Istanbul and with Marta Domachowska of Poland at Cincinnati.

"I am happy with my doubles record this season. Doubles is important, but obviously singles is the priority," says Sania, after closing the season with a 51-40 win-loss record in singles and doubles.

She may be done for the season on the WTA Tour, but the Asian Hopman's Cup and the Asian Games demand her attention. She had won the bronze medal, in the mixed doubles, along with Leander Paes, as a 15- year-old in the last Asian Games at Busan. Sania would look to improve on that.

"I think we have a very good chance in mixed doubles at the Asian Games. Singles will not be easy considering that the likes of Na Li of China and Ai Sugiyama of Japan will be around. I will be playing in the team championship as well, but I may not play in the individual doubles event as one can only opt for playing in the team and two other events," she says, as she looks forward to the challenge at the Doha Asian Games.

More than anything else, Sania is happy that she has been able to improve physically and be ready for the tough challenges ahead.

"I am at my healthiest right now, by the grace of God. The injuries did hamper my progress as I played for six months with a plastered elbow and that restricted my arm movement. I was also unable to work on my fitness because of the niggling injuries earlier."

Sania has definitely shown her ability and given enough hints that she would be ready to attack the top rungs of the rankings next season. She has worked very hard to make sure that she does not kick the platform that she had so painstakingly built with a solid performance in 2005.

"It has not been easy, but I am satisfied with the way I have stuck around strongly in the top 75. I am richer in experience and feel confident that I will do better next season," she says.

After a well deserved rest, Sania is back on court with renewed hunger as she had started "missing the game." That is a healthy sign. Her rivals better watch out.

Sania Mirza with her new physical trainer Heath Matthews of South Africa. Her father Imran Mirza is sitting next to her.-MOHAMMED ABDUL HAQ

Imran on his daughter

He was a good cricketer, but Imran Mirza also loves tennis, especially when his daughter is playing. He has been travelling with her to tournaments and training stints for quite long.

Imran is quite happy with Sania's game, but admits that a lot more work still needs to be done.

"Having had the benefit of seeing what it takes to be in the top 100 and then to stay there, I can say that Sania has done reasonably well and her development seems to be headed in the right direction,'' Imran says.

"Sania has given the top players a run for their money and that is satisfying. The wins against Panetta and Hingis inspire confidence. However, a few inherent weaknesses in her game, particularly in her physical condition, have taken the match away from her when competing against some of the top players. It will take some more time to overcome these shortcomings, but I can see her getting there in due course of time,'' he says.

The win against the come-back queen Hingis at Seoul has been the highpoint for Sania this season, and Imran was quite proud about his daughter's ability to execute a certain game plan.

"Sania played the match of her life while beating Hingis in Korea. The victory was even sweeter as it came five days after she had been thrashed by one of the greats of modern tennis. We were delighted that the strategy that we had devised for Sania after watching her play Hingis in the two earlier matches was executed brilliantly by her in Korea,'' he says with pride. Doubles was indeed a nice option to stay afloat in tournaments this season for Sania, and to retain the confidence in her game.

"Of course, doubles is a great option. After all, are not Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes world renowned for their doubles prowess? Sania is nowhere in their class in doubles but I can't understand why her achievements in doubles are ignored! She is a very good singles player, but in my opinion, she has the ability to be a world-beater in doubles. Her progress has been rapid this season. The reason is that her overall game and strokes have improved considerably. This has given her great results when covering half the court. In order to translate these results into singles, she needs to work on her physical fitness. Sania was unable to do that because she was carrying injuries for the first six months of the year,'' says Imran.

It has been a love-hate relationship with the media, and there has been a general restraint about Sania interacting with any media for the better part of the season, in an attempt to help her focus on her game rather than get caught in controversies.

"Some sections of the media love to sensationalise what they think sells and create controversies where there are none, in order to make interesting reading or viewing. In professions like films, perhaps it is necessary to be popular to be successful. As a professional tennis player, Sania's job is to give her best on court for her country and it is our duty to keep her away from frivolous distractions created by irresponsible people that can impede her growth as a rare sports achiever for the country,'' says Imran.

He is also peeved to find people constantly stating that Sania has been lucky to get a lot of support from the government of Andhra Pradesh.

"Sania did receive monetary incentives from the government during her developing years for winning a handful of medals and trophies in international tournaments like the Afro-Asian Games, the Asian Games, Wimbledon, the Asian junior championship... There has been a lot of noise in the media and all around about Sania being the only lucky one, though I can easily name a dozen other sportspersons who were adequately rewarded by the government. It is surprising that nobody has even mentioned the huge amounts that Sania has already paid back to the government in the form of taxes that already amount to a few times more than what the government awarded her! She is one of the highest income tax payers in Andhra Pradesh and proud to be contributing to the development of our country,'' stresses Imran.