Phenomenal run

Just before the US Open, the WTA released the top movers in the world rankings, and Sania topped that list by moving 284 places from No. 326, around the same time last year, to No. 42.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

Sania Mirza exults after scoring a point against Mashona Washington of the US. The Indian star won in three sets.-AP

HER first full season on the WTA Tour turned out to be a memorable one. In reaching the fourth round of the US Open, the best performance by an Indian, in singles, in many years, Sania Mirza has confirmed to tennis fans that she would continue to entertain them for many more seasons to come.

In sticking to her game, and going for broke, Sania showed that she would not play it safe even on the biggest stage. There were many anxious moments in the first two matches, when she beat Mashona Washington of the US and Maria-Elena Camerin of Italy. Both the matches went into three sets. But she was close to her best in the third round against Marion Bartoli of France, scoring 45 winners and firing five aces in two sets.

The best thing about Sania is that she grabs the chances with both hands. She made the most of wild card in the Australian Open to reach the third round. As Mahesh Bhupathi put it aptly, she did not need another wild card for the rest of the season.

At Wimbledon, she capitalised on the chances to be on the centre-court against the US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova.

At the US Open, Sania overcame her aches and pains and made most of a reasonably good draw at the Flushing Meadows. This was her best run in a Grand Slam. Another quality player from Asia, Iroda Tulyaganova of Uzbekistan reached a career high of No.16 but has not crossed the third round of a Grand Slam.

Except in the French Open, the Indian ace has lost only to top-notch players. Grand Slam champions Serena Williams, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova were the ones to stop Sania. In fact, she has a 2-4 record against top-10 players, having beaten Kuznetsova 6-4, 6-2 in Dubai and Nadia Petrova 6-2, 6-1 in San Diego.

Just before the US Open, the WTA released the top movers in the world rankings, and Sania topped that list by moving 284 places from No. 326, around the same time last year, to No.42.

Her performance in the second set against Serena in Melbourne, where Sania went for winners while facing matchpoints, was quite commendable. Later she won the WTA title in Hyderabad and it was only her fifth main draw event in the WTA circuit.

The US circuit has been fruitful, as she kept improving her rankings on the WTA computer, week after week, getting just about ready for the last Grand Slam of the season, by reaching the final at Forest Hills, the erstwhile home of the US Open.

She has compiled a 28-16 record for the season so far. The whole of last year, she was playing in the $10,000 events apart from a few Challengers towards the end of the season, to finish at 166. Sania's year-end ranking of 206 for 2004 was compiled in November, and she went on to compete in the Challengers to push her rankings up when the last list for the year was out at the end of December.

For sure, Sania has come through the ranks, graduating at every level, albeit at her own pace.

Last year she had a 50-8 record to show, winning six tournaments from nine finals around the world. She also had a 25-9 record in doubles, winning four titles. It was a year when she could have continued with her junior Grand Slams, in which she has not won a second round in singles. Having won the doubles title in 2003 at Wimbledon, Sania had put a stop to her junior career after the US Open.

By becoming the youngest Indian, male or female, to win a Tour title, when she captured the doubles crown at the $140,000 WTA event in Hyderabad, Sania proved it was the right choice to focus on the women's tour in 2004. The pair that she and Leizel Huber of South Africa beat in the final, Ting Li and Tian Tian Sun of China, went on to capture the women's doubles gold medal at the Olympic Games in Athens.

Reaching the final of the Asian Championship in Tashkent, an effort that eventually fetched her a wild card for the Australian Open, after the champion Na Li of China got a direct entry, and sweeping the gold medals in the Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad pale in comparison.

The best thing about Sania was how she handled the transition from the juniors to the women's circuit. In her first tournament in Chandigarh, Sania reached the pre-quarterfinals in April 2001, she made the quarterfinals the following week in Pune and the semifinals of her third tournament in Delhi in September.

She captured her first international women's title in only her sixth tournament in Hyderabad in Setpember 2002. Quite impressively, her next 11 singles titles in the ITF women's circuit came abroad.

Two of those titles came in her first two tournaments abroad, in Manila. In the first final against I-Ting Wang of Chinese Taipei, Sania was down 2-6, 0-4 before she turned the match around. She has always been a game fighter.

Sania, 16 then, said that she would like to break into the top-100 in the next two years and be in the top-20 by the time she was 20!

Well, she is now on course.

For Sania, being good at home is not good enough. So it is no surprise that she has not won the national championship singles title, though she did win the honour in the National Games.

In fact, in the national championship in 2000 in New Delhi, the focus was on Sania, hoping that she would follow in the footsteps of Sunil Kumar who had won the men's title as a 16-year-old the previous year. Sania had to be given a special entry in that national, as she was not eligible to compete among the women since she was below 14 years of age. She managed to win only one match while participating in three events including the juniors then.

Actually, it has been a splendid run for Sania ever since she made that first mark by winning the under-14 and under-16 titles as a 12-year-old in the Adidas junior tournament in New Delhi. If you have a collection of the back issues of The Sportstar, look at the one dated July 17, 1999.

By November that year, she started on her international junior career, competing in an ITF tournament in Pakistan, and losing to the talented local girl Nida Waseem in straight sets in the final. Sania did not drop a game in the first match, that happened to be the quarterfinal, and lost only one game in the second, in an understandably depleted field. Not many ventured to Pakistan then to play tennis.

Her first title in ITF junior tournaments came in September 2000, in Mumbai, when she beat another talented girl, Megha Vakharia, in the final. In October, Sania went to Pakistan to bag her second singles title, losing one game in the whole tournament in which she had to play only three rounds. Thereafter, she won titles in Philippines, Botswana, Pretoria, Egypt, Bangladesh apart from the ones at home in New Delhi, Calcutta and Chandigarh.

Winning the Asian junior championship in New Delhi in 2002 was important because no other Indian girl had accomplished that till then. That was the year when Leander Paes opted to play mixed doubles with Sania in the Busan Asian Games and the duo won the bronze medal. She also took India to the fifth place in the Junior Fed Cup under-16 competition along with Ankita Bhambri. This event features over 80 countries. She has done very well in Fed Cup as well, pulling India out of Asia-Oceania group `II' and projecting a positive image of the country's prowess in women's tennis.

Though she started competing in the women's circuit early, Sania has had a solid foundation of 294 international matches in singles and doubles at the junior level. She was ranked No.10 in singles and No.1 in doubles in the ITF junior world lists. She has played another 242 matches in singles and doubles in the women's circuit so far.

With the GVK group supporting her from the early days, it has been possible for Sania to travel around the world, mostly with her mother Naseema Mirza. She has done it all with diligence and purpose.

Nearly a dozen coaches have been honing her skills over the years. In fact her dad Imran Mirza has analytical tennis brain and this has helped Sania's progress. The latest coach, John Farrington of the Bahamas, has further sharpened her game. The Hyderabad girl has had useful stints with Bob Brett at San Remo in Italy.

There is so much scope for improvement in Sania's game even now, especially the serve. There is no end to learning and there is no limitation to Sania's growth.

Last year, a couple of weeks before her 18th birthday, Sania Mirza, with all humility, talked about competing in the $10,000 events as a possible option for 2005 and expressed the hope of regularly figuring in the qualifying events of the Grand Slams. Today she has fulfilled more than that promise.

Today, she is an international tennis star... and the joy of the nation.