In the big league

P.V. SIVAKUMAR

Sania Mirza won one title from two finals in 2005. She is expected to win a few more in 2006 if everything goes well, writes KAMESH SRINIVASAN.

SANIA Mirza is the superstar of Indian sport. The 19-year-old tennis star had a fabulous season this year when she not only made the world take notice of her but also look at her with awe. The Hyderabad girl soared to a career-high No. 31 in the WTA rankings as she kept herself busy shaking hands with the biggest names in the game such as Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Venus Williams, Serena Williams and Nadia Petrova.

That was a huge leap considering that she was ranked No. 169 on December 27, 2004. Sania had a 33-20 win-loss record in singles for the season when she won fewer matches than in the previous year, but she was obviously competing in the big league and reaping the big rewards. She had lost only 20 matches earlier in her career in the professional circuit and won 96 matches.

The fact that she took her earnings past the $300,000 mark, with $254,414 coming in 2005 was proof that she was quite comfortable competing against the best in the business and that too on the biggest stages of the Tour.

Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia would vouch for Sania's resolve. The 2004 US Open champion was leading 4-0 and 40-30 on her serve when Sania got over a painfully twisted ankle, wiped away her tears, and blew the Russian off the court for a 6-4, 6-2 triumph in the second round in Dubai in front of an adoring crowd that made her feel at home.

As a wild card at the Australian Open, Sania, in the third round, matched the eventual champion Serena Williams stroke for stroke in the second set after being down by two match points. With that performance Sania proved that she was capable of beating the best ever WTA ranking achieved by an Indian — No. 134 by Nirupama Sanjeev (nee Vaidyanathan) a few years ago.

At Wimbledon, Sania played with such composure against Kuznetsova on the centre court in the second round that she ran her rival close. Fortunately for the Russian, she came up with some telling volleys in the nick of time to stave off the Indian's challenge. The match, however, proved beyond doubt that Sania was Top-10 material.

It was only a logical conclusion as Sania, earlier in February, had won her maiden WTA Tour singles title at the Hyderabad Open in front of her home crowd. (She had won the doubles title the previous year at the same tournament). The victory also underlined the fact that she was taking the right steps to not only move up the computer rankings, but also in everyone's estimation.

Sania also proved she had the mental toughness to take on the best as she showed in the $1.3 million event in San Diego where she humbled the world No. 9 Nadia Petrova 6-2, 6-1. All that she needs is a strong first serve. Then, a deceptive second serve and better physical fitness to out-run her athletic opponents. The volleys had already improved in practice, and it was just a matter of time before they would be put away crisply in matches.

While coach John Farrington of the Bahamas, who joined her on the US circuit, has been sharpening her game, Sania did very well to be with Tony Roche in Sydney for a three-week stint as the season was running out, despite a painful lower-back strain while serving.

Money was not a problem for Sania. Flooded with endorsements through the season, it was a lot easier for her to spare the big dollars to be with the world No.1 Roger Federer's latest coach. After all, she has the personality, the charm and an aura about her — which very few in Indian sport can match — to easily be the most marketable sports personality after Indian cricket stars such as Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid.

Barring the injuries she had to grapple with and a few controversies involving her in a section of the media, Sania had a splendid season. "Exhilarating'' by her own admission.

When did she actually believe she belonged to the top league?

"Probably, when I managed to hold my own in the second set against Serena Williams at the Australian Open,'' she says.

Against the Top-10 players, Sania had a 2-4 record for the season, which is not really bad for someone playing in her first full season as a professional. The Top-10 players are very tough. They don't give you any easy points, and players like the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, serve big on the big points.

"Initially I was a little overawed when I faced Serena but then I started enjoying myself against the Top-10 players. Obviously, they make very few mistakes and if you are not playing your best, they have the capacity to humiliate you on court with their power and skill,'' Sania says.

The pundits would have us believe that she has a mountain to climb next season as she has the onerous task of not only matching her exploits in the year that has gone by, but also do better in her efforts to climb up the slippery WTA ladder.

Sania won one title from two finals in 2005. She is expected to win a few more in 2006 if everything goes well and injuries don't recur to torment her.

A careful look at her points collection shows that she had won only 306 of her 900-odd points in the first six months. The trick would be to push her ranking close to the Top-20 in the first six months of the next season and try to stay there. Sania's best spell in the 2005 season was on the US circuit. She is capable of building on it as she enjoys playing on the hard-courts.

"I look forward to an enjoyable and tough season ahead of me. I feel equipped physically, mentally and game-wise for 2006, but there is no room for complacency. It is a very competitive sport,'' she says.

Sania first set Top-100 ranking as her target for 2005 and then hurriedly revised it to Top-50. She broke into the Top-50 early August after beating Petrova. So, what would be a realistic target for her in 2006?

"I would just like to be good enough to get into the draws of all the Grand Slams and Tier I and Tier II tournaments. I am looking forward to having a big run in a few of them. The rankings will take care of themselves,'' Sania says.

From winning the Asian junior title in 2002 to winning the Wimbledon junior doubles crown in 2003 to finishing runner-up in the Asian Championship in 2004 that fetched her the ticket to the Australian Open, Sania has handled the pressures of expectations pretty well. The expectations would only increase hereafter and with it the pressures, for she is not an unknown entity any more as she was in 2004. Today, Sania is as popular as the Indian cricketers.

"Of course, the pressure in India is immense. Not even a Sharapova or a Davenport face the kind of pressure that I have had to because you can't argue with numbers! When the Indian cricket team does badly, all the 11 players are blamed, but if I have an off day, I have to single-handedly face the music. It makes it even more difficult because tennis is just catching up in our country and not many people understand the game well enough,'' she says.

Yes, you cannot argue with that. One thing people keep telling about her is that she needs to be more consistent. Yet, make no mistake, she is where she is because she is unpredictable. She has the audacity to go for her shots at any stage, whether she is a match point up or down.

"I do take quite a lot of risks, and make more unforced errors, but that is my game. You can't make progress in any walk of life without taking the risks,'' argues Sania.

That sums up the girl. She is what she is because she takes her chances.

HIGHLIGHTS 2005 SINGLES Winner: Hyderabad Open. Finalist: Forest Hills Classic. Semifinalist: Japan Open, Tokyo. Quarterfinalist: Dubai Open; Cincinnati. DOUBLES

Semifinalist: Cincinnati (with Yuliana Fedak of Ukraine); Sunfeast Open in Kolkata (with Ruano Pascual of Spain); Japan Open (with Shahar Peer of Israel).