Proving her worth

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

IT has been a fabulous race for Sania Mirza on the WTA Tour. In a memorable season, in which there is still plenty at stake, Sania has been feeling at home in the higher echelons of the game, competing with the best in the business and asserting her prowess.

In cruising into the top-50, months ahead of her estimated target, the 18-year-old Hyderabad lass has made it all look as easy as playing a computer game.

"I am happy with the progress. What more could I have asked for. It has been a great tour so far," said Sania as she viewed her quick climb from No. 169 with satisfaction.

In three weeks of action in the U.S., Sania did what many could not achieve in a lifetime. From No. 70 in the world, Sania moved to 64 after Cincinnati, then moved to 59 after Stanford and then to No. 48 after winning two rounds at San Diego where she had to negotiate a couple of rounds in the qualifying event as well.

Quite remarkably, Sania kept improving tournament after tournament, as she won two matches in the first, three in the second and four in the third — quality efforts that also helped her cross the $200,000 mark in career prize money earnings.

Indian women's tennis has never had it so good. The best Indian girl before Sania, Nirupama Sanjeev (nee Vaidyanathan) had reached a career best 134 in 1998 in a path-breaking exercise as she hardly got any support and had to struggle all her way through.

There was the disappointment of aggravating an abdominal muscle pull that saw Sania lose in three sets to the 51st ranked Iveta Benesova of the Czech Republic in the fourth tournament at Los Angeles, but the former Wimbledon junior doubles champion opted to view it as a welcome ticket to a fortnight of rest.

"More than being disappointed, I look at it as a blessing in disguise. I have been playing a lot of matches and the rest would do a lot of good for me," said Sania as she looked ahead with optimism about being at her energetic best at the U.S. Open after the period of rest.

Though the experts feel that Sania has it in her to be among the top-10, it is difficult to put a definite figure at this stage, as she is still evolving and tuning her game. For sure, there is tremendous potential, as was evident from the manner in which the girl tackled Serena Williams at the Australian Open and the way she teased the U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia in a three-set thriller at Wimbledon while keeping the capacity Centre Court audience spell-bound.

Quite significantly, the presence of travelling coach John Farrington of the Bahamas has added the much-needed thrust to Sania's campaign.

"She listens well and works hard. The goal is to get to the top-10. Our attempt is to prepare well for each match," said Farrington, quite pleased about the talent on hand.

What reinforced one's faith in Sania who has been moving ahead purposefully ever since she won the under-14 and under-16 titles in a National level tournament as a 12-year-old in Delhi in 1999 that promptly fetched her a contract with adidas, was the manner in which she dismissed the challenge from the world No. 9 Nadia Petrova of Russia 6-2, 6-1 in the second round of the $1.3 million Acura Classic tournament in San Diego.

It was the second time that Sania was ripping apart a top-10 player after her stunning 6-4, 6-2 performance against the then world No. 7 Kuznetsova in Dubai. It was the best in her 22-14 record for the season as Sania was a point away from being reduced to 0-5 in that match in which she hurt her ankle and was in tears.

Playing Wimbledon champion Venus Williams in the second round at Stanford was an experience in itself, though it was of the humbling kind for the young Indian. "She was fresh from Wimbledon. I can't say that I ran her close, but there were a few close games in the second set," said Sania after being beaten 6-2, 6-3. Sania had capitalised on her chance as a lucky-loser in winning the first round in that tournament that fetched her a top-10 opponent as a reward.

Being a quick learner and one who is unfazed by the reputation of her opponents, Sania has been able to grasp the vital lessons — lessons that would help grow into a strong player.

"The top-10 play the important points much better than others. Venus and Serena come up with big serves on the important points. They know how to play well at the crunch because of their vast experience in winning so many Grand Slams. I am still learning," said Sania.

Though she has respect for the top players, Sania does not feel anyway inferior to any of them. "It doesn't excite me that much to be playing the top players. As I get on court, I do feel that I am as good as them. There is no question of being overwhelmed by anybody's reputation. Each match is a challenge, no matter whether you are playing a top-10 or a top 500," said Sania, as she expressed her supreme self-belief.

Many may feel that her immediate target should be to stay put in the top-50. Yet, considering the fact that she needs to defend about 130 points for the rest of the season, there is no reason to doubt Sania's ability to march far ahead and reach the top-30 before the season runs out.

The U.S. Open would offer her the best chance, and if she recovers fully from the stomach strain and hits the ball as well as she can, Sania would be a handful for quite a few at the Flushing Meadows.

From being labelled as a dynamic young girl who makes fashion statements with everything she wears, including that unflinching confident attitude, Sania would now be increasingly viewed as a professional who has joined the Japanese and Chinese in projecting a positive image of Asian women's tennis.

For sure, there is still plenty of action left for the season, and Sania Mirza will have ample chances to prove that she belongs to the elite league in international women's tennis.