Re: **News, articles and Interviews thread**
Neeru Bhatia, Mathew T. George and Lalita Iyer
Sania Mirza is back-leaner, fitter, faster and better than ever before
With apologies to author-philosopher Will Durant: some are born with dreams, some acquire dreams and some have dreams thrust upon them. Until recently, critics thought that Indian tennis ace Sania Mirza belonged to the last category. The story was that Imran Mirza and his wife, Nasima, were watching a Steffi Graf-Conchita Martinez duel when they decided to make their little girl a tennis star. So Sania, who grew up to adore Steffi, would run out of steam as it was not her dream, the critics reasoned.
When Sania made it to the 31st rank in October 2005, some of the detractors fell silent. Very soon she lost the surprise element; opponents studied her and started picking holes in her game. Then came the nosedive to rank 66, followed by a surgery on her right knee.
In March this year, as Sania was wheeled out from Hyderabad's Apollo Hospital after the surgery, the odds were stacked against her. Ranked 46 then, most thought this would be yet another 2006-where early exits and rare wins saw her slip in the Womens Tennis Association rankings.
Three months since her come back in May 2007, Sania-at rank 29 in August-has joined an exclusive club of Indian tennis greats like Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan. In fact, after Krishnan was ranked 23 in June 1987, Sania is the first Indian to break into the top 30.
The official website of the WTA tour ranked her sixth, after the recent East West Bank Classic Championship, in the WTA's newly introduced Power Index. It is designed "to recognise the hardest hitting, most powerful players on the tennis tour." The ratings are based on the total analysis of a player's fastest shots during a match including first and second serves, groundstroke (forehand or backhand), first and second-serve returns and smash. The final score is an average of all six individual statistics.
Sania maintained consistency and featured in the top 10 of the index throughout the four-week stretch of the US Open series. Added to that, top-ranking players described Sania's forehand as one of the biggest on the tour.
The post-rehab Sania is fitter, stronger and smarter on court with her win-loss record at 25-14. Experts are happy not just about the results, but also about her remarkable improvement in fitness and mobility. During Sania's lean times on court, Imran had said that she had the talent to counter the opponent's strategy; all she lacked was the swiftness to reach the ball on time.
But her progress was so fast that Imran-the head of Team Sania-had to change plans of fielding her in Tier III and IV tournaments and pushed her to Tier II and I.
Veterans have been noticing the change as well. According to former Davis Cup player Jaideep Mukherjea, "She's getting behind the ball and taking time to hit it-all that is because she is physically so much more fit."
The major improvements have been in her court coverage and a much powerful cross-court forehand. Much of the initial rawness in her game has disappeared to be replaced by measured and balanced responses. Her volley, which was at times called a cross between a half-hearted jab and a swipe, now packs considerable punch.
Says Mahesh Bhupathi, who recently won his 40th doubles title: "It is all about progression. Last year, at this time, people were wondering whether she would graduate from the top 70 to top 50. Now it is whether she will make it to the top 20 or 15. She is maturing as a player and has got a good four to five years of tennis left to look forward to." His firm Globosport manages Sania.
Sania's time off the court was mostly spent in the gymnasium and swimming pool her father built for her in their Jubilee Hills home in Hyderabad. Intense training and rehab sessions with South African trainer Heath Matthews saw her recover strength and endurance. Matthews has been with her from the Australian Open this year and his brief to her was crisp-shed the fat and improve court-coverage.
Reportedly, Matthews focused on cardio-vascular fitness, which gave power and strength to Sania's sprints on court. Being a power player, fast recovery is the key to her game, especially against resilient opponents who stick to the backcourt.
Another close observer of Sania's game is veteran coach and player Akhtar Ali. He has been Imran's advisor from the start of Sania's career. "I saw her after the surgery and she had just started to practice on clay," he says. "It was amazing to see her facing the ball so well. I wish she had done all this hard work seven to eight years ago. What Maria Sharapova started at nine, Sania started at 19. No wonder Sharapova has a 10-year head start. Sania's strategy has clearly improved, most importantly her first serve percentage has gone up."
Among Sania's supporters are former Indian tennis great Ramanathan Krishnan and Mahesh's father Krishna Bhupathi. Krishnan is dismissive of her poor performance last year. "There are ups and downs and it is there in the career of any sportsperson," he says. "She should play more and more against the top-notch players. It would not be long before she would really catch up with them." Krishna Bhupathi supports her all the way. "Why do you call it Sania's return?" he asks. "Where had she gone? She never went anywhere. Those who wrote her off suffer from amnesia. She first moved into the top-30 ranking by virtue of her tennis and by collecting points. The next year was the year of consolidation when she had to defend those points. So, a fall was automatic. It happens to all players. Sania has come back and sustained. In 2005, she did not belong there; she flew into the first 30 ranks by virtue of results. Now, she belongs in that club. It takes 12 to 18 months to consolidate one's position in the top 30. You have to learn how to beat others for five days in a row, not just one or two days. For that you have to be as agile on the last day as you were on the first. Now, Sania will be facing top players like Venus Williams. In the next round, she may have Sharapova. After that, she will have to be fit enough for a Justine Henin. She needs time to get more fit-physically and mentally."
Another common point of agreement is her grit. "I found her a very relaxed yet intense player," says Mukherjea. Former Davis Cup team captain Naresh Kumar says she can win a WTA tour event any day. "She just needs to string her victories," he says. "On her day, she can easily beat any top 10 player."
Apart from the bonus points earned by getting fit, experts insist that there are other factors that might propel her into the top 20 by the end of the season. She has converted her glaring weaknesses into relative strengths, thanks to her Spanish coach Gabriel Urpi who works with her off and on. Not to forget Imran, who ensures that Urpi's instructions are followed.
Her backhand, considered weak by some, is 'reliable' now. Says Ali: "One weapon makes a good player, two a very good player. She has worked on the backhand and is using it very well. She can serve and play at the net more often now."
According to Kumar, Sania's service is still the weak link. But then, Sania herself has said that the serve has never been her weapon. "It is not as good as it should be," Kumar says. "Service is 50 per cent of the game as it opens the court for you to attack. At the top level, she needs to serve cleverly and with good placement."
It is time for Sania to graduate to playing top-10 tennis from top-20 and to do that successfully, she will need to work on her consistency. Despite losing to Martina Hingis once last year, Sania thrashed the her twice thereafter. But her two encounters with Sharapova saw her being wiped out. "Hingis does not have a big weapon like Sharapova," says Kumar. "Hingis's strength is good all-court game. But Sania was unable to attack Sharapova's service."
Kumar agrees that at this stage it is difficult to change her serve-a point reinforced by Sania's former coaches and veterans Bob Brett and Tony Roche. "I think she can add swing to her serve to get more speed," says Kumar. "This can even prevent injury to her arms since she uses power from them for the ground strokes."
Ali says that Sania's weakness is that she hits only three or four balls while Sharapova can hit 10 in a row. Mukherjea's take is that Sania should use her main weapon-her pounding forehand-selectively. "She has to learn to be a little more patient with top players," he adds.
On the personal front, too, Sania has improved. From an attitude which Vijay Amritraj called "disciplined arrogance," she has become more seasoned and judicious. One of her initial controversies came when a priest issued a fatwa saying her attire did not conform to the to Islamic Hijab. A senior Islamic cleric in Hyderabad endorsed this and Sania was branded a "corrupting influence on the youth". Some radical organisations allegedly threatened to disrupt her matches, following which the Kolkata police tightened security during the Sunfeast Open. Sania's response was that her dress on court was a matter of her choice and no one should comment on that.
Another controversy that buffeted her was her take on south Indian actor Kushbhoo's comment on premarital sex. At a leadership summit in Delhi, Sania was quoted as saying that it did not matter whether sex took place before marriage or after; all that mattered was that it should be safe. Effigy burnings and protests followed. A devout Muslim who reportedly never misses her namaaz, Sania explained that she had been misquoted and that pre-marital sex was a sin God would never forgive. It was widely reported that she had played it safe to prevent offending the radical groups a second time.
Then came her alleged refusal to team with Israeli Shahar Peer. Critics termed it a Muslim's opposition to the existence of Israel. Sania laid the rumours to rest by pairing up with Peer to tote up memorable wins.
The worst attack from her home state came when she asked Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy to allot land for setting up a tennis academy. It was alleged that Sania's mother and a former managing director of the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh were the ones pushing for the allotment. Some even went as far as to say that thegovernment had spoiled her by giving over a crore rupees and a residential plot. The issue died a silent death.
Sania has not only made a huge jump in her rankings, she has also climbed a few peaks in life. "Sania is definitely considered a dangerous player on tour," says Bhupathi. "None of the top players want to see her early on in the draws in tournaments."
Does Sania have a boyfriend? "She is playing matches with women and on the circuit she has no time to socialise," says Surath Narendranath, her coach at the GVK Pro Academy in Hyderabad. "But she is like all other teenagers, bubbly and full of attitude. I really do not know if she has a boyfriend. But where is the time?" True, in a world of smashing volleys and swift backhands, she can be forgiven if her only dream is to make it to sub-20 and beyond.
With N. Bhanutej and Kavitha Muralidharan
Magic formula: work, work and more work
By Neeru Bhatia
Sania Mirza loves playing on hard courts with good reason. Apart from the fact that she likes "medium-fast, not very high bouncing surfaces" to unleash her power-packed ground strokes, the successes she achieved on them this season have boosted her rankings from 38 (in Cincinnati) to 29, the week ending after the East West Bank Classic tournament in Los Angeles. With this, her aim of ending 2007 in the top 20 rankings -looks well within reach.
Currently India's highest-ranked player, Mirza will resume her power-hitting ways after a week's break by featuring in the Pilot Pen tournament in New Haven, Connecticut, as a prelude to her US Open campaign. Returning strongly after a two-month injury break and hungry for more successes at a time when most players are willing their tired bodies to hold on after an exhausting year, it is Advantage Sania. In an interview with THE WEEK, the 20-year-old from Hyderabad talked about her game and the efforts she has put in. Excerpts:
You made a comeback after a tough 2006. Where do you go from here?
I have broken into the top 30. I will continue to work hard, as I have done all through my career.
Were the last four weeks on hard courts satisfying?
Yes, very satisfying.
How would you describe your tennis post-Wimbledon?
I am back to the level I was playing before my knee injury in February.
You spoke recently about the work you put in with your trainer as well as the hours of training in the gym post the knee surgery. What were the changes made in the fitness regime and the training?
Improving one's game is a continuous process and you cannot always pinpoint any single piece of work that churns victories. The only way to succeed in this sport is work, work and more work and there are no short cuts.
How about the training sessions with Gabriel Urpi?
Gabriel identified just a few areas in my game that needed specific work. He is a very seasoned coach and gels well with me and my dad, who has worked on my game throughout my career.
What helps you beat the best?
Work, work and more work is what is required but, still, there are no guarantees to winning titles or beating the best.
You said it was quite exhausting to play week after week against top-ranking players. What do you need to do?
The only magic formula is work and more work and there are no guarantees to success at the highest level in the competitive world of international tennis.
Where is the difference in playing top 20 and top 10 tennis?
You need to hit twice as many winners without making an error to win each point because the ball keeps coming back. At the same time you need to return twice as many potential winners from the top 10 players to hang in at the point.
You spoke about being a complete player now. Can you describe how you went about doing that?
I am an improved player but not a complete one. I have worked hard and that is the only way to go on improving.
Were you ever under pressure after being unable to move a step up last year?
I have always believed in giving my best and leaving the rest to God.
What changes have you brought about while serving in hard court tournaments as compared to the grass court ones?
I have made some changes to my serve and added new dimensions with the help of Tony Roche among others. But my serve on hard courts is not different from that on other surfaces.