Ready for the big league

Tara Iyer... can she emulate Sania Mirza at the international level?-RAJEEV BHATT ?

Tara Iyer is a star in the making. Her recent run of success proves that the 19-year-old is well prepared for the challenges on the big stage, writes Kamesh Srinivasan.

She is tall and athletic; she serves big, plays her strokes with intensity and has a burning desire to excel. And more importantly, Tara Iyer has the maturity to handle her career well and realise her potential.

For most of us who are not content with one Sania Mirza putting Indian women’s tennis on the world map, there is hope. Tara, aged 19, is another star in the making.

Tara did very well to emulate Sania by entering the final of the Asian Championship in Tashkent recently. We all know that Sania’s career took a dramatic turn with the wild card she earned for the Australian Open despite finishing runner-up to Na Li of China in the Asian Championship final in 2004.

Tara lost to a far better player, Iroda Tulyaganova of Uzbekistan who had a career-high ranking of No. 16 in 2002, in the Asian Championship final. However, she may not be lucky enough to get a wild card for the Australian Open next year as her Uzbek opponent is not in the top 100 (Tulyaganova is currently ranked 148).

Tara’s father Parameswaran Iyer remembers his daughter’s face-off with Sania Mirza in the final of an ITF junior Grade I tournament in Manila in 2003, where she lost 2-6, 5-7. More than that, he cherishes Tara’s remarkable recovery from 0-6, 0-1 to defeat Jung-Yan Chan of Chinese Taipei 0-6, 6-1, 6-4 in the semifinals.

In 2004, Tara reached the quarterfinals of the $25,000 tournament in Mumbai. In May 2007, she entered the quarterfinals of another $25,000 event in Thiruvananthapuram. Was Tara progressing in fits and starts?

Well, different players take different routes to success. In Tara’s case she suffered a bout of injuries which held her back a bit. However, unlike most players who get bogged down by the lack of desired levels of success, Tara put aside her disappointments and sharpened her game for the tough challenges ahead.

Tara finally tasted success with her maiden ITF title at Montemor-O-Novo in Portugal in June this year. What was remarkable about the victory was that she did not drop a set in the tournament.

Tara then bagged three more singles titles in successive tournaments at Wrexham in the United Kingdom, besides the ones she won at home in Noida and New Delhi in a span of four weeks.

In winning 19 singles matches on the trot in different places and in different conditions, Tara dropped just five sets. More importantly, when it came to the crunch, especially in the finals of the ITF women’s circuit, she came out firing on all cylinders.

Whether it was tackling Ankita Bhambri in the final at Noida or taking on the crafty Korean left-hander Kyung-Yee Chae in Delhi, Tara was adequately prepared.

In Delhi, though, Tara was overcome by fatigue. But she showed good mental strength to soldier on and win the title. “These are just stepping stones. I hope to break into the big tournaments soon. I really need to work on my fitness and gain strength. I serve good, but I need to develop my forehand into a weapon the way Sania has done,” said Tara, putting her success in perspective.

How was the experience of playing Iroda Tulyaganova in the final in Tashkent?

“She was in a different level. She attacked with huge ground strokes on both flanks and big serves. Maybe, she had saved her best for the final,” recalled Tara.

Coach Aditya Sachdeva, who trains Tara along with Ankita and Sanaa Bhambri at the Siri Fort Sports Complex, was quite happy with the quality Tara’s game. Tara, according to him, would be ready for the big league once she improves her strength, which can be achieved with better physical training.

“Tara’s physical fitness has improved a lot in the last six months and that has made the difference. She has also been playing in a lot of matches at different levels in different countries and has gained from the experience though she has not been winning much at the higher level,” said Parameswaran.

Tara would definitely benefit from a stint with either Bob Brett, the coach who guided Sania early in her career when she was making the initial inroads into the big league, or Pat Etcheberry, who had trained a legion of stars such as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis and Justine Henin apart from our own Leander Paes.

“We are looking at the options of high quality training. We hope that Tara’s recent success would help her gain financial support so that our plans could be put into practice,” said Parameswaran.