Positive attitude is her strength

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

SHE has just celebrated her 16th birthday. But unlike any other teenager, who has a spring in her step and dreams in her eyes, Sania Mirza gave herself a lot more to celebrate as she accomplished the task of winning a professional tournament abroad, on her maiden appearance. Incidentally, that gave Indian women's tennis a lot to celebrate, as well.

Sania Mirza with her parents and younger sister. Sania's parents have provided her with the best possible support to help her realise her potential.-MOHD. YOUSUF

In fact, Sania took everyone's breath away by winning back-to-back singles titles in the two $10,000 ITF women's tournaments in Manila. To think that she was winning her third title in a row, following the one in Hyderabad a few weeks earlier, made one feel that this girl could be the answer to a much-awaited hardcore professional in Indian women's tennis.

Actually, the hard-stroking Hyderabad girl bagged the doubles title as well with Radhika Tulpule, to assert herself as an all-round player. The bronze medal with Leander Paes in the mixed doubles event in the Asian Games seems to have provided the much needed confidence to the young girl to assert her potential as one of the best in Asia.

The last of the lot to excel at the age of 16 was Sunil Kumar, as he won the National hardcourt title. He had taken three years to win his maiden title at the professional level - in the $10,000 tournament recently in Delhi.

It will be unfair to compare women's tennis with that of men, but there is no doubt that Sania is a notch above any other player seen in this country in recent times.

Nirupama Vaidyanathan had to slog for years to push her ranking to a career-high of 134, while the rest like Manisha Malhotra, Sai Jayalakshmy, Rushmi Chakravarti, Radhika Tulpule and Megha Vakharia had their own share of success in winning the titles.

However, none of them has done it with such consistency at such a young age, which once again projects Sania as the player to look up to for the next few years.

''I have achieved this before in the juniors, but this was the first time I was doing it in the pros and it was a good feeling", said Sania, after she returned home from the successful outing in the Philippines, where her father Imran Mirza accompanied her.

Sania's parents have provided her with the best possible support to help her realise her potential. While her father has been instrumental in generating the funds from his business, to ensure that his daughter played in any part of the world, including all the Grand Slams, her mother, Naseema, has been travelling with the girl to most of the tournaments.

It is only in recent times that Sania has been able to get the support from the GVK group and the All India Tennis Association (AITA) which will, of course, go a long way in helping her build a solid base for a successful professional career.

Coming back to the tournaments in Manila, Sania was able to breeze through the initial four rounds in the first event, but had to revive her fortunes from being 2-6, 0-4 in the final while chalking a memorable triumph.

A painful arm troubled Sania, but she fought on gamely to put it past I-Ting Wang of China in the final. The pain continued to trouble her in the second tournament that saw her being stretched to three sets in the first round. Sania prevailed in the third set tie-break against Thassha Vitayaviroj of Thailand and then pressed hard till Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan tested her in the final.

It was another three-setter, but Sania was serving much better and came up with the big first serves whenever she was in trouble in completing a hat-trick of professional singles titles. "I had to play well to beat everybody but the first final was close as I had to fight back from a set down and 0-4 down in the second," said Sania as she recalled the tough triumph.

The young girl had not entertained any expectations while venturing out for her maiden professional tournament abroad. Yes, Sania had competed in the Asian Games and in the Asian Championship earlier, and had given a good account of herself in both, stretching the best in the business before bowing out. But when it came to playing as an individual, rather than for the country, it was a maiden experience for Sania, in Manila.

"I just wanted to play well and hold my own against the seniors. This was my first pro tournament abroad and I really did not expect to win," said Sania. Playing abroad, at times, may be a lot more easy than playing at home, for there is no pressure of expectations. But, Sania seems to have understood the knack of playing well irrespective of the varying degrees of pressure. "In Hyderabad, the expectations from my home crowd were tremendous and obviously there was some pressure on me to win. But the crowd support also inspired me a lot. However, after winning the first tournament in Manila, even the crowds there supported me a lot during the second tournament," she said.

Champions do get support wherever they play. It is a joy to watch a champion at work, and the regional bias gives up sooner than later, when the crowds watch a true champion. Without doubt, Sania has the heart of a champion.

The biggest strength for the girl is her positive attitude, which has been noted by coaches, like Sandeep Kirtane and Sunil Yajaman, who accompanied her for junior tournaments. It is this streak to go for her shots irrespective of the situation in a match that has helped Sania face the odds with equanimity. "I've always played attacking tennis as a junior and I think it is this attacking game that helped me at the senior level. Defensive tennis doesn't work at the professional level," was the mature observation of the young girl, as she analysed the main reason for her unprecedented success.

Sania's efforts could be put in perspective from the fact that four other Indian girls, Sonal Phadke, Radhika Tulpule, Megha Vakharia and Geeta Manohar could win only one round between them in two tournaments put together in Manila. That should give a fair indication of the ability of Sania, as compared to her peers.

It has been a dream year for Sania, as the girl had helped the Indian team to the fifth position in the world championship in the Junior Fed Cup, apart from showing her ability in the ITF junior circuit, which included a quarterfinal entry in the doubles of the US Open with Isha Lakhani.

To have excelled at the under-16, under-18 and the professional circuit was indeed very creditable for someone who first made her mark two years ago in the Adidas Masters in the capital. Adidas was quick to appreciate her talent and promptly gave her a contract for apparel. Sky is the limit for Sania, if she puts her heart and mind on her tennis. She has a big serve and a big forehand. Her consistency and concentration levels are improving with each outing. so is her level of confidence. Yet, the girl is quite realistic about her goals. ''I want to get into the top 300 by the end of next year so that I can be within striking distance of playing in the Grand Slams by 2004," she said.

Sania was also clear in her mind that it would not be judicious to waste time at the junior level any more, as it would be fruitful to attempt scaling the various rungs at the senior level, like the way Angelique Widjaja of Indonesia did by winning the title in a WTA tournament last year when she was only 16.

"I think I've played enough of junior level tennis and I think I can improve only if I get to play the seniors from this stage onwards. I wouldn't want my game to stagnate at this level by not giving myself the opportunity to compete against the professionals," said Sania. Many a good player had got trapped in the vicious circle of junior tennis, which actually does not serve any purpose after a stage. If she has the dream of making it big in the professional world, Sania will be better off by pursuing the women's circuit to the maximum. The age eligibility rule specifies that a player between 16 and 17 years can play a maximum of 10 professional tournaments, plus the Championships, Fed Cup and three non-Tour events. Between 17 and 18, the player will be allowed to compete in 13 professional tournaments. Only after turning 18, will a player be allowed to compete in unlimited number of tournaments.

"Of course, it would be every young tennis player's dream to win a Grand Slam but at the moment that is only a dream! I want to be a top 100 player in the next two years and a top 20 player by the time I'm 20," said Sania. The targets may sound tough to reach, but, make no mistake, they are realistic targets, considering the immense potential of the young girl. Sania is capable of achieving her goals, if she continues to get the support that she has enjoyed so far in her fledgling career. For, many at her age cannot boast of having played in 53 ITF junior tournaments, before turning 16.

For the record, Sania has a 93-45 win-loss career record in singles, and a 59-38 record in doubles in the ITF junior circuit. She has won seven international junior singles titles from 11 finals, and 10 doubles titles from 14 finals. She has had a career-best singles world junior ranking of 27 and enjoys her best junior doubles ranking of 23 at the moment.

She may aspire to become the No.1 in the world in juniors, but Sania may not gain much out of that, and that is one reason she is inclined to try and make a mark at the professional level.

"There are a lot of areas that need to be worked in my game and one has to constantly keep improving. But I would think that I need to work most on my physical fitness and agility," says the girl, who strongly believes that it is not beyond an Indian girl to win a WTA Tour event singles title. For someone to whom Steffi Graf is the ultimate role model in women's tennis, Sania is bound to achieve a certain degree of success at her own level.

The results (Matches featuring Sania Mirza only):

$10,000 ITF women's circuit, Manila:

Second tournament (final): Sania Mirza bt Akgul Amanmuradova (Uzb) 6-0, 4-6, 6-3; Semifinals: Sania bt Chin-Bee Khoo (Mas) 6-4, 6-2; Quarterfinals: Sania bt Diana Julianto (Ina) 6-1, 6-1; Pre-quarterfinals: Sania bt Kim Kilsdonk (Ned) 6-3, 6-2; First round: Sania bt Thassha Vitayaviroj (Tha) 6-0, 2-6, 7-6 (7-4).

Doubles (final): Sania Mirza and Radhika Tulpule bt Yan-Hua Dong and Yao Zhang (Chn) 6-4, 6-3; Semifinals: Sania and Radhika w.o. Kim Kilsdonk (Ned) and Sonal Phadke; Quarterfinals: Sania and Radhika bt Wilawan Choptang (Tha) and Chin-Bee Khoo (Mas) 6-4, 6-3; Pre-quarterfinals: Sania and Radhika bt Maria Edna Char Godoy and Alyssa Ann Labay (Phi) 6-1, 6-0.

First tournament (final): Sania Mirza bt I-Tink Wang (Chn) 2-6, 6-4, 7-5; Semifinals: Sania bt Ivanna Israilova (Uzb) 6-4, 6-2; Quarterfinals: Sania bt Kim Kilsdonk (Ned) 6-3, 6-1; Pre-quarterfinals: Sania bt Diana Julianto (Ina) 6-1, 6-4; First round: Sania bt Sonal Phadke 6-1, 6-3.

Doubles (semifinals): Yan-Hua Dong and Yao Zhang (Chn) bt Sania Mirza and Radhika Tulpule 5-7, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4; Quarterfinals : Sania and Radhika bt Kumiko Iijima and Mari Onoue (Jpn) 6-7 (7-9), 6-4, 6-3; Pre-quarterfinals : Sania and Radhika bt Diana Costa (Por) and Po-Kuen Lam (Hkg) 6-4, 7-6 (8-6).