Performing beyond expectations

NO GOLD, BUT SILVER IS FINE. Saketh Myneni and Sanam Singh (left) on the podium with their silver medals.-PTI NO GOLD, BUT SILVER IS FINE. Saketh Myneni and Sanam Singh (left) on the podium with their silver medals.

Sania Mirza and Saketh Myneni’s gold medal-winning performance capped India’s showing in tennis, as the nation won a gold, a silver and three bronze medals. By Kamesh Srinivasan.

Sania Mirza, who has shot into the top-five in the world in women’s doubles, has delivered eight medals in four Asian Games to keep her fans happy. It was her second mixed doubles gold medal, this time in Incheon, with Saketh Myneni, the big-serving and fluid-stroking lad from Andhra Pradesh.

Earlier, the 27-year-old player from Hyderabad had won her first gold medal with Leander Paes in Doha in 2006 and a silver medal in Guangzhou in 2010 with Vishnu Vardhan. Sania had made her Asian Games debut in Busan in 2002, where she won a bronze medal with Leander.

Sania had also won a silver (2006 Doha) and a bronze (2010 Guangzhou) in the women’s singles. She felt she could have had a shot at the gold had she played in the singles this time.

The 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory against Cheongeul Kim and Nalae Han of Korea in the mixed doubles quarterfinals was crucial for Sania and Saketh, who was playing in his first Asian Games. The Koreans, who had stunned Yen Hsun Lu and Su Wei Hsieh (Chinese Taipei), perhaps the best pair in the fray, 6-2, 4-6, 10-6 in the pre-quarterfinals, were a real threat to the medal aspirations of Sania and Saketh. However, Sania was determined not to return home without a medal. In fact, she brought home two that also included the bronze in the women’s doubles with Prarthana Thombare.

As it panned out, the Korean challenge was the toughest for the Indians in their quest for the gold. But once they got past Cheongeul Kim and Nalae Han, it was a breeze for Sania and Saketh. The Indian duo beat Ze Zhang and Zheng Jie of China 6-3, 6-1 in a match that was shifted indoor owing to rain.

In the final, Sania showed how she had won three mixed doubles titles at the Australian Open, French Open and the U.S. Open, as she stroked with confidence and combined smartly with Saketh, who served well. The Indians defeated Hsien Yin Peng & Hao Ching Chan of Chinese Taipei 6-4, 6-3.

Sania’s performance with Saketh capped India’s showing in tennis, as the nation won a gold, a silver (men’s doubles) and three bronze medals (men’s singles, men’s doubles and women’s doubles).

In the women’s doubles, India should have won a better medal, as Sania and Prarthana had many chances in the first set while leading 5-3 against the second-seeded Chin Wei Chan and Su Wei Hsieh of Chinese Taipei.

“Nobody expected us to win so many medals,” said Sania, summing up India’s performance.

True, with Somdev Devvarman, the man who won the singles and doubles gold at the last edition, opting out in order to focus on the professional circuit along with the doubles stars, Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna, India’s chances looked to have melted quite a bit. However, with Sania returning to the squad, on second thoughts, and the Kazakhs and Uzbeks not competing in the individual events in the men’s section, India’s hopes went up.

As expected of her, Sania played her part brilliantly, but what Saketh, Yuki Bhambri, Sanam Singh and Divij Sharan did was exceptional. The four had to share the load of the six-member team, as two vacant slots could not be filled.

Saketh stood out with his mixed doubles gold and doubles silver (with Sanam). He was going through a low this season, trying to recoup his health. He was even forced to compete only in doubles in a Futures event, which is the basic level on the professional circuit. He was out of the Davis Cup squad in the tie against Serbia, as Leander Paes joined Bopanna to form a strong combination.

In the men’s doubles, Saketh and Sanam could have won the gold but they were unable to take control of the match against the highly motivated Korean pair of Hyeon Chung and Yong-Kyu Lim, in front of the lustily cheering home fans.

Yuki and Sanam were very good in the singles, both in the team and individual competitions. They fought like tigers against the top-seeded Kazakhstan, the eventual champion. Kazakhstan had top-100 players in Alexandre Nedovyesov and Mikhail Kukushkin, while their best player, Andrey Golubev, preserved himself by playing only in the doubles.

In the individual singles, Yuki beat the former Asian Games gold medal winner, Danai Udomchoke (Thailand), comfortably in the quarterfinals to ensure a bronze. In the semifinals against Yoshihito Nishioka (Japan), the eventual champion, Yuki called the shots, as he won the first set 6-3. However, the 19-year-old Japanese, a brilliant left-hander, stepped up his game to scotch the Indian’s hopes. He won the second and third sets 6-2, 6-1.

Sanam also put up a terrific fight against the top-seeded Yen Hsun Lu in the quarterfinals. He had beaten Korea’s Hyeon Chung, the sixth seed, in the pre-quarterfinals 7-5, 6-1 after being two breaks down at 1-4 in the first set on the centre court. It was a superb fare from Sanam, who pounced on everything once he got a foothold in the match.

Ankita Raina, India’s No. 1 singles player, fought hard against Eri Hozumi of Japan, the bronze medallist, in the pre-quarterfinals and lost in three sets. With a little more self-belief and fine tuning of her game — she tends to play more with the hand without putting her bodyweight into her strokes — Ankita can hope to reap better results.

For Indian tennis, it was indeed memorable to finish third in the medals table, behind Chinese Taipei and Kazakhstan, who too had one gold medal each.