One last fling at the junior level

Sania Mirza is a talented young girl with a heart of a champion. After the dream run, real challenges begin now for her.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

P.V. SIVAKUMAR

SHE has been dancing to the dictates of the television cameras, and this time it looked an endless exercise. Sania Mirza went through what no other Indian girl had experienced over a few generations. Winning the Wimbledon title, though only among the juniors and just in doubles, was a big step in the tough world of tennis!

The 16-year-old Hyderabad girl was showered with accolades and kept in the media glare, especially by the doting television cameras, for days together after she won the junior girls doubles title in the Mecca of tennis, in the strong company of the 16-year-old Alisa Kleybanova of Russia.

For most of us who had known Sania for the last few years, it was not a surprise, for the girl had been making short but sure steps forward. There was only one question after the latest effort, whether she would flinch from the glare. She did not.

"Yes, that was she, and she did a good job," said Mahesh Bhupathi, who has been trying to make it that much easier for the girl with the support through his company, Globosport.

It is this ability to look through the camera lens, without batting an eyelid, that has made Sania what she is today. It is the self-confidence, and the relaxed attitude to be herself despite all the attention, that differentiates Sania from the rest of the pack. For sure, Sania will not be overawed by any situation, though she was really overwhelmed by the attention and affection bestowed on her.

"Well, it was different from what I had felt earlier. It felt very good. So many people coming up to me and congratulating me, it was a great feeling. But things have become normal now, and I have to sweat to reach the next level. I am already training six to seven hours a day," said Sania as she returned to training regimen, and even got to hit with Mahesh for a few days.

Sania had been used to being followed by the television cameras about a year or so ago, even in the National level tournaments, as there was a certain aura about her, that made many feel, that she would really make it big, some day.

"I think the media has been great. Even when I used to play the Shriram Nationals or the zonal competitions, the media backed me. It has supported me all along. This time, it was a lot more than ever. Some times it may be difficult saying the same thing to so many people so many times, but overall it has been a great experience," said Sania.

Sania's father Imran Khan made a simple observation to her, saying that she should enjoy the whole experience till it lasted. "For, after some time all thing would only be memories," said Imran Khan.

What splendid memories. The effort captured everyone's imagination so much, that the deeds of Leander Paes, who won the mixed doubles title with Martina Navratilova and the commendable consistency of Mahesh in reaching his 11th Grand Slam final, with Max Mirnyi, paled into insignificance. After all, they had done it all many times over. The little girl was doing it for the first time.

If anything, Sania would not be intimidated, both on and off the court. When the Wimbledon draw was out, she found that her first round of doubles was against the top-seeds.

"I told myself not to be worried about anything, and just try my best. We tried to play our normal game. It was a tough match and we were mentally prepared for it. Once we won that match, I knew that we had a good chance. When we eventually won the final, I couldn't believe it for some time," said Sania, as she recollected the wonderful memories, that would not fade that easy.

Imran had worked relentlessly along with his wife Naseema, over the years, in building a sound foundation for his talented daughter. At least one parent had been travelling with the girl all through her career so far, and Sania has indeed played numerous international tournaments around the world in the last few years, in the under-16, under-18 and women's sections.

"It was a great experience. It convinced me and my parents that we had all been working well, taking the right steps and working in the right direction. It was a culmination of 10 years of slogging, getting up at 5 a.m. and training for long hours. I hope that I can continue in the same fashion and do well in the next level," said the young girl, with a rare degree of maturity.

"If I start thinking about what people think or say, then I will not be able to do what I can, to the best of my ability. I have always tried my best, and no matter the high expectations, I will continue to try my best. I only hope people understand how hard it is even at the junior level in international tennis," she said, in taking one's breath away, with her sense of equanimity.

Sania had indeed progressed step by step, right from the under-14 level. She helped the Indian under-16 team finish fifth from among 80-odd countries last year, in the company of Ankita Bhambri. She had won the Asian junior girls title, which no other Indian girl had won before. She had been winning the singles and doubles titles consistently in the ITF junior tournaments, including the one in Manila early this year in a grade `I' tournament, which is next only to a Grand Slam in standard.

Sania had also won five singles titles in the $10,000 women's tournaments, and four of them were abroad. She had competed in the WTA Tour events, offering more than a $100,000 in prize money. She had been improving steadily all along, digesting the facts and tuning her game, irrespective of the level of competition.

"In India, people are very hungry for success. When they get a little, they want more and more, and very quickly too. But then, it is all part of the game, and one has to handle the pressure of expectations. There is pressure on everyone who performs, to perform better. It is only natural that people expect a lot more from me. I don't blame them. It is not in my nature to find fault with such an attitude. But as long as I try my best, I don't think there will be any room for complaint," said Sania, once again asserting her understanding of the delicate subject of handling pressure.

It is this understanding that has guided Sania past so many hurdles, a lot better than the punch in her groundstrokes, the biggest weapon that she takes on court.

Having achieved the target of winning a Grand Slam title, Sania would soon be focusing purely on the women's circuit. The Canadian Open followed by the U.S. Open will be the last junior events for Sania.

Though there will be a limitation to the number of tournaments that she can play in the women's circuit till she becomes 18, Sania would train hard to hone her skills when not playing tournaments, rather than shuffle between juniors and seniors over the next season.

"I am looking forward to doing well in the women's circuit. I need to win the $25,000 events, the bigger Challengers, and slowly start doing well in the WTA Tour events. I am at 419 now, and need to keep pushing my ranking up. There is a lot of work to be done," observed Sania, as she highlighted the task on hand.

The tonic for the whole exercise that lies ahead has come from the Wimbledon triumph. There is a firm belief that sustained effort would sustain the success. Why not!

"The junior Wimbledon title is big enough an achievement to give a youngster with potential a lot of confidence," said Mahesh, who had lost in the junior Wimbledon doubles final in the company of Nitin Kirtane, about a decade earlier.

Mahesh's father, C.G.K. Bhupathi, one of the shrewdest tennis brains in the country, has been working with Sania in recent months.

"He was very happy with my hitting and volleying. He kept telling me what to do, what not to do, and was a constant source of encouragement," Sania said.

The senior Bhupathi, who had predicted in 1994 that Mahesh would become a top 10 doubles players in the world, said that Sania was surely a top 100 or even a top 50 material. Mahesh also echoed similar sentiments.

While the Bhupathis have been helping Sania out with her tennis, it was Leander Paes who had first placed faith on Sania's talent as he partnered her for the mixed doubles bronze in the Asian Games in Busan.

"It was a great experience, playing with Leander, whom I had watched so much on TV. To be playing on the same side as him, was indeed something," said Sania.

With her new status, it should not be that difficult for Sania to gain more support for funding her career, especially in terms of having a professional travelling coach. At least that is what Mahesh would like to believe.

"We will have a few people watching Sania at the U.S. Open. We will make our programme for her there. Till then it is all hush hush," said Mahesh.

There have been a whole lot of coaches who have helped Sania get better over the years, but a professional coach, travelling with her may make a big difference to the speed of progress.

Sania Mirza has many areas to work on, though she says that she has the confidence to match the top-10 players with her groundstrokes.

Sania herself concedes that she has been playing good three setters against quality players and with better training, should be able to win those matches in the future.