Going places in a hurry

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

THE growing fan club of 18-year-old Sania Mirza is a clear hint that she has come of age. Formula One driver Narain Karthikeyan gets an autograph from her for his wife. Athens Olympics silver medallist and shooter Rajyavardhan Rathore calls up her parents to congratulate them on their daughter entering the third round of the Australian Open. And, the list of those who hail her feat is a virtual who's who of important people of India from different walks of life. Having scripted a piece of history by becoming the first ever Indian girl to win a WTA title when she won the Hyderabad Open on February 12, 2005, the Hyderabadi girl has certainly stepped into the elite zone. What exactly were her feelings from the Australian Open till the grand finale in the Hyderabad Open and her future plans? In an interview with The Sportstar, the new superstar of Indian sport speaks about various issues.

Question: How was the experience in the WTA Hyderabad Open?

Answer: Let me be very frank. Only after the first round win did I entertain hopes of winning the title. My attitude was to take the entire event set by set and not to think of who my opponent will be in the next round or how I should play in that match. I believe that God is with me. That feeling was always there. And more importantly everyone connected with my tennis and career was there, pushing me to give off my best. Thus I just developed the feeling gradually that why not think of winning WTA Open in front of my home crowd.

Did the high expectations and the capacity crowds at the venue put you under pressure?

Definitely not. For the simple reason that when I go on to the court no matter whether I am playing in the Grand Slam in Melbourne or in Hyderabad, I just try to shut out everything from my mind. I focus only on the game. And, leave the rest to the Almighty.

How about winning the title in Hyderabad without facing German Ana Lena Groenefeld, who was injured during the doubles match partnering Martina Navratilova forcing her to pull out of the event?

A special kiss from mother Naseema.-PTI

I should remind her that I had beaten her the last time I faced her in December 2004 in a tournament in the United States. So, it is not such an important factor to be discussed.

How difficult is it for you to come to terms with the fact that you are the first Indian ever to win a WTA title?

Quite difficult. Privacy is at a premium now. Okay that's what I opted for. You cannot blame anyone for that. Success brings all these factors into real life. I am ready for the challenge on any front. Now, definitely more number of people spontaneously recognise me on the streets. And, I am enjoying it.

Anything that is bothering you after the epic triumph?

Well, I have to answer a lot of questions from the media and I am mostly repeating the same answers. Let me be more serious. I am getting used to this. I have been in the news for the last six weeks whether I am playing or not. I don't think anyone else from any sport other than cricket has hogged the limelight so much as I have done of late.

To whom exactly do you dedicate this triumph?

To my parents Imran and Naseema, younger sister Anam and all family members. To all those 10 or 12 coaches who worked with me over the last few years. And the ball boys and the sparring partners who helped me in training sessions but who rarely get their due. To all the media and friends for their complete support even when I was going through a difficult phase.

What about the biggest crowd response for the Hyderabad Open in its three editions?

Sania Mirza with the Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports, Sunil Dutt.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

It was a tremendous experience to play in front of them. Fantastic feeling out there. And, I don't buy the argument that only my opponents were getting disturbed. If there is noise during the action on court, both the players are affected. You have to shut off from these things. You can't throw away your match because you are angry with these noisy crowds. It is not the question of encouraging or discouraging. In fact, most of the time the crowds were only yelling and not saying anything to a particular player.

Any souvenir you have from this memorable triumph in the Hyderabad WTA Open?

Well the new Sony Ericsson mobile (says with big smile). Well, nothing special. The grand finale itself was something that I should freeze in memory and look for some repeat performances.

Do you think it is time to have a travelling coach?

Because I am winning titles quite consistently right now I don't think I need one so badly. We are definitely looking at the issue seriously and will take the right decision at the right time.

Do you still feel that there were areas of concern in your game despite a great run starting from the Australian Open when you made history by becoming the only Indian girl ever to enter the third round of a Grand Slam?

I will put it this way. I would have been happier if I were to be completely fit for the WTA Open. I know that I made quite a few errors. Though I don't want to be specific with any particular stroke in my game, overall despite the fitness problems, I think I served really well.

How was the meeting with the legend Martina Navratilova?

There was never any serious discussion with her. It was just confined to saying `Hi'. She just remarked that a lot of people were waiting for my success. But it was great to be with her in the locker room. She is a legend by all means. It is one of those memorable moments in my career.

Critics say that you have triggered a virtual revolution in Indian women's tennis. How do you feel?

Obviously, I cannot be a judge of my own achievements. All that I can say is that I hope my performances in the Australian Open and the Hyderabad WTA Open would inspire lot more youngsters to take up the sport. I will be happy if the message goes around that tennis is a great sport. All that the parents have to look for is whether the child has the talent or not. Not to burden the kids with too much expectations very early.

Are you happy with the recognition bestowed on you?

Simply overwhelmed. The messages started coming right from the President of India, AICC president Ms Sonia Gandhi and many dignitaries. I mean these are the things that make a lot of difference to a sportsperson's career.

The tennis ace trying her hand at snooker.-AP

What exactly are your future plans?

After a few days break I will be hopefully back in action in the Dubai Open (trying to get a wild card entry) starting on February 28.

Realistically you were setting a target of cracking into the top 100 by the middle of the year and into the top 50 by the year-end. Having achieved the first objective since you are now ranked World No. 99, yet another first for an Indian girl, how do you look at things now?

I should admit that the timing of the Hyderabad Open was perfect for me after the good showing in the Australian Open. Definitely my confidence level was on a new high after that match against former World No.1 Serena Williams. Naturally when you start winning matches in a Grand Slam, it is bound to have a snowballing effect in terms of gaining confidence. For before the Australian Open my only dream was to win the first round. But, things started looking so good during that week. Mind you I was never nervous but certainly excited when I knew that I will be playing Serena. Certainly, the next time when I enter the centre court of a Grand Slam, there will be no butterflies in my stomach. So, against this backdrop, I should have a bright chance of breaking into top 50 by this year-end.

How much of your success do you attribute to Italy-based coach Bob Brett?

Oh, incidentally he called me up the evening after I won the WTA Open here. I felt very happy as it was a pleasant surprise. Apparently, he changed my whole attitude towards the game. The physical conditioning schedule there and the one-to-one focus he has with the six or eight players in the Academy is something really special. In fact once I finalise my tournament schedule I will be going to Italy as early as possible.

Is there anything serious on the injury front now?

Right now I have ankle injuries on both legs. The right one is the more classic case of a twisted one during the match and the left one is creating problems in movements. I will soon meet the Indian cricket team's physio and try to have a work out for better results.

Finally, what exactly is the message to the millions of your fans across India?

It will be good to expect something special from me in my next tournaments. But not too much. Let me have a bit more fun. Tennis is a great game. And let people remember me as someone who also produced some special results in the world of women's tennis.