September 08, 2005

Sania has the potential to be among the elite, but…

H Natarajan

2005 Australian Open: “My first Australian Open, my first Grand Slam in the seniors and I won the round. I'm very happy about it. It's huge for me because I've come a long way. I was lucky to get a game here."

2005 US Open: “I just came here thinking I wanted to win one round and won three. I'm very happy about it.”

Sania Mirza’s above comments at the two Grand Slams took my mind back to the tête-à-tête I had with Nandu Natekar many years ago. Natekar, for the uninitiated, is one of the legends of Indian sports who won the National Badminton singles titles six times. He was also a fine tennis player, who lost to the great Ramanathan Krishnan in the National Junior Tennis final.

“The problem with Indian sportspersons,” Natekar opined, “is that they get satisfied very easily.” How wonderful it would be if they believed in their own abilities and pushed themselves.
What Sania has achieved is commendable, but what she is capable of achieving is far more exciting. That can happen only if she believes in herself and her abilities in the truest sense, something that does not come through from the above comments.

Sania could seek inspiration from two champs: Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon at 17 on just her second attempt. And John McEnroe was 18 - the same age Sania is now - when he came through the qualification rounds and powered all the way into the semis, before losing to Jimmy Connors in four sets.

A player has to firstly win matches in his/her mind to make it happen on the court. A true champion has insatiable hunger; nothing but being the best can give him/her the satisfaction. This is a breed that believes finishing second means losing the gold than winning the silver.

There are a few other commonalities I noted in some of Sania’s post-match comments. After she lost 3-6, 2-6 to Venus Williams in the second round of the Stanford Classic, a little over a month ago, she said that she made “too many mistakes” and missed chances that came her way. She also said that the match was lot closer than the scores suggested. “In the second set, I would hit a winner the first point and she would hit three aces. I guess that's why she won Wimbledon, because she plays better on the important points."

Against Serena Williams, earlier in the year at the Australian Open, Sania had three break points in the fourth game of the second set, all of which the American saved with good serves to level scores at 2-2. That time, too, Sania said: “That is the difference between girls in the top 10 and the rest of us. She played the big points better."

A good serve helps in extricating a player out of trouble, as Sania found out for herself from her losses against Serena, Venus and Sharapova. And to get among the elite top 10 players, Sania has to develop a strong and consistent serve, if not a killer one.

The Indian’s serve has been her Achilles heel – something that was glaring against Sharapova in the fourth round of the US Open. She got a break back in the third and had Sharapova down 15-40 in the 5th game of the opening set to raise hope of securing successive break-backs. But she frittered away the opportunities and from there on the Russia took control of the match.

Top players like Sharapova, Serena and Venus will not give too many opportunities, so when the chances come they must be grabbed with both hands. Sania said after losing to Sharapova that the match was lot closer than the scores suggested, a line she had parroted after losing to Venus.

Unless she find consistency, she cannot hope to overcome that “lot closer than it seems” feeling. You need to convert the break points into breaks. And only multiple breaks fetch victories. A few ballistic rallies will win applause, but not necessarily the point; it’s only consistent and productive play, match after match, week after week that can make the difference between a potential top 10 player and a player who makes the top 10.

Sharapova’s break points conversion percentage was 38 while Sania’s was almost half of that at 20%. The Russian won 62% of her second serves compared to Sania’s 21% - that’s pressing the self-destruct button. Any surprise Sania held serve only once in each set?

Vijay Amritraj, in his heydays, was one of the biggest servers on the ATP circuit. He is still very much part of the tennis scene as a TV commentator during the Grand Slams and am sure Team Sania can seek his help. And having been a serve and volleyer, Vijay can also help her forecourt play. As of now, it seems the only time Sania goes to the net is to shake hands with her rival. Doubles play will help not only net play but improve foot speed as well. And given her proximity to Mahesh Bhupathi, one of the leading doubles players in the world, she has quality support to iron out the wrinkles in her game.

Sania beat Svetlana Kuznetsova when the Russian was the reigning US Open champion and extended her again at Wimbledon this year. Sania also recorded a convincing 6-2, 6-1 victory over top tenner Nadia Petrova (Russia), the French Open semi-finalist who this year who beat Mary Pierce and extended Sharapova at the US Open, Serena at the Australian Open besides going the distance against Kim Clijsters, Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin-Hardenne.

There are compelling reasons to believe that Sania has got what it takes to be up there among the elite – most noticeably big match temperament and bazooka ground strokes that can destroy the best.

There will always be people who will give consolation yarn about how unlucky Sania was. Like the one her coach John Farrington trotted out about a dubious line call in the first set, when Sharapova, up 4-2, was serving 0-40. Sania still had two break points to break Sharapova. And even if she had broken, she would still have had to hold serve to level. Farrington made it seem as if the line call was made when victory within Sania’s grasp. Poor line calls are part and parcel of the game. Champions never allow these things to upset them or seek that as an excuse for defeats.

So let’s not talk about bad luck. As the great Gary Player said: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” Sania needs to work very hard on a few critical areas of her game. And once those areas are taken care of, there is no doubt that greatness beckons the brightest star in the Indian sports firmament.