TIME FOR ACT II

While Sania will look to slowly recover from the post-honeymoon hangover, the real solidity of her marriage with top-class tennis will be tested this year, writes NANDITA SRIDHAR.

One of these days, when Sania Mirza walks up to serve, tossing the ball, giving it a panoramic view of the court, before its brief innings with the turf, she might find time to mutter a few words of gratitude to the person above. A little thank you, for making her quest for greatness lie almost solely on one name — Sania Mirza.

And this very name, carrying all the fame, and the accessories will look to climb Mount WTA, with no mind-cluttering thoughts of official elections, no hair greying matters like playing on pancakes or valleys, no glorious history to live up to and no immediate future tapping her shoulders (unless Shikha Uberoi has exceedingly long arms — ranked 153, she has some way to go.)

BUT THEN , now is when it all begins. She soared and roared in the first real phase of her professional career with surprising ease, creating her own brand of mathematical progression, rankings wise, which can be safely titled, the Sania progression. Her year-end rankings since 2001 read 987, 837, 399, 206 and 34, not to forget, her act of blowing away a few seeds with a storm of forehands.

But that was when she was Sania who? A mystery that had just glided out of a snake charmer's basket. The others thought her replies would include deft touches and clever drops, characteristic of Indians. But her tennis repertoire didn't and doesn't include a repartee. Her racket spoke a rude and clear language. But, now, in 2006, she suddenly finds numbers attached to her name, numbers that can act as stepping stones or slippery foundations. The tennis turf, which earlier resembled a bed of roses, seemed to spring up a thorny surprise or two.

She has a bunch of a billion ready to pledge their vocal chords to hear what her racket has to speak, a coach who knows a thing or two about talent, and parents who have sacrificed plenty and are ready to do more, but she will be aware that fulfilling her potential is something only she can do, only she can accomplish. "This is why our sport (tennis) is so great. You don't have a team to rely on, nor are there substitutes to replace you. It is just you, alone," said Vijay Amritraj after the David Nalbandian and Marcos Baghdatis Australian Open semifinal epic. Hard to argue with that. But tennis is a sport that embraces the talented and the tough with equal passion.

TALENTED , she sure is, and tough? December 2006 will reveal a thing or two. For starters, she needs to pull out a few more shots out of her hat. Going for the kill with a racket and opponent threatening forehand will invariably put a lot of pressure on the body, increasing chances of injuries. "I don't play drop-shots," she said. She might have to drop that idea.

True, it was this game that took her to dizzying heights in the rankings, but if she is sorted out soon, the drop down could be even more dizzying. Michella Krajicek, her Australian Open conqueror, received a few tips from brother Richard, who "knew a few things about her (Sania)." She is being noticed, whether she likes it or not. This year, her second serious year in the professional circuit, will not be easy. She is not experienced enough to consistently beat the best, nor is she new enough to create a shocking flutter or two.

But the signs of the direction in which she is heading are encouraging. "He (Tony Roche) worked on my overall game with a special emphasis on the serve and volley," she said. The net might soon welcome a brand new visitor, but we must give her time. Gaining the points will become tougher, with the bonus points having bid their final goodbye. Though not Davenportian of yesteryear, her footwork is far from opponent wearying. With a sharp rise in neck-cracking six-foot somethings in the WTA Tour, her five-foot seven-inch frame might not make her serve a weapon of opponent destruction, but it should make her on-court movement simpler.

While Sania will look to slowly recover from the post-honeymoon hangover, the real solidity of her marriage with top-class tennis will be tested this year. She will be more than aware of her flaws, and with a brilliant coach like Tony Roche and a bit of warming up with Roger Federer, who knows a thing or two about climbing up, her first step has finished on the right note, but it will take time for the racket strings to fully soak-in the lessons learnt.

SOME EAGER pens and mikes have already embarked on the task of dismissing the Sania phenomenon as a one-year wonder, one just hopes that she makes-do with a bit of chipping and a dash of smoothening, instead of sculpting a totally new game. She should continue going for those winners, which are as delightfully outrageous as her statements on winning a Grand Slam. She should continue making those statements in press conferences that take eyebrows up sky kissing distance. ("If you put ifs and buts together my aunt would have been my uncle. There's nothing you can do. It's a match and I just have to put it behind me," is one such example. Wonder what Navjot Sidhu will make of this.) She should continue believing that being aggressive and going for the winners are her best shots at winning, but should understand that volleys, drop shots and the like would only help her cause. Most importantly, no amount of battering or learning should take away the raw aggression and sheer audacity that has characterised Sania Mirza.

The first Grand Slam and the first month of the tennis calendar is history. Inside every tennis fan, lies a thirst, which only Sania's racket can quench. If the jump from the 900s to the 30s was massive, then aiming at the top-20 or top-10 is simply mammoth. But for someone who has made it a habit of becoming the first Indian woman in almost every aspect of women's tennis, she could well become the first Indian woman to survive the post-honeymoon blues and come out forming a whole new bond with her game.

Already a Padma Shri SANIA MIRZA recently became the youngest person to be honoured with the Padma Shri. She will endorse six products in a year and strictly only 30 days have been set aside for the same.

POST HONEY MOON BLUES

A FEW OTHER CURRENT PLAYERS IN SEARCH OF THOSE HEADY DAYS:

MARIA SHARAPOVA:

After claiming a Wimbledon crown at the age of 17, in 2004, only another Grand Slam would have satisfied Sharapova in 2005. But a chest injury and the sudden resurgence of the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport, Mary Pierce and Belgians Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, resulted in her failing to make any of the Grand Slam finals. She did have a brief stint as No.1. Small consolation.

JELENA DOKIC:

After reaching a heady fourth spot in the rankings in 2002, Dokic almost disappeared from the scene, owing to injuries, nationality switches and personal turmoil, which resulted in her separating from her father Damir Dokic. She lost in the first round of the 2006 Australian Open, but not before her father threatened to kidnap her and nuke Australia.

ANDY RODDICK:

He served his way to a US Open win in 2003, but that was before the Roger Federer cyclone hit men's tennis. Federer had no trouble sorting out Roddick's game, which desperately requires more dimension, besides the deadly serve and forehand. To his credit, he reached the 2004 and 2005 Wimbledon finals, but otherwise, nothing to hit home about.