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The girl who is breaking barriers

Rohit Brijnath: Sania belongs to a bolder generation of Indian athletes

Sania Mirza, the first Indian woman to get to the third round of a tennis grand slam, has a long way to go but her confidence may get her there, says leading Indian sportswriter Rohit Brijnath.

Sania Mirza's serve won't win any awards for design and her toss is so high you can have a cigarette waiting for it to come down. She is a few biryanis (flavoured rice) heavier that an elite athlete can afford to be and her acceleration on court is more Ford than Ferrari.

But no big deal; this you can teach an 18-year-old. What you can't is chutzpah, and toughness, and Sania Mirza has both. Though when I first saw her, it was hard to believe.

For a while at the Australian Open, and only that, Sania Mirza froze.

You could see it in her awkwardness when matches began, as if the enormity of the moment had short-circuited her brain, as if nerves had locked her elbow and anxiety shackled her feet.

So everyone feels suffocated under pressure, everyone chokes. Even Australian Open champion Marat Safin, he said so himself.

Bolder generation

Mirza, who was turned away by her first coach when six, was now playing in the main draw of a grand slam singles for the first time; a teenager out of Hyderabad was rubbing shoulders with a muscular, glittering Serena Williams. Hell, a choke made sense.

When the next Indian girl prepares for her second round tennis match at a grand slam, you know what she'll be thinking: hey, Sania made it through, so can I

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Indian athletes anyway, at least in the past, were known to go a little weak-kneed when confronted by an alien environment.

Raised amid inadequate facilities, poorly travelled, physically out-matched, assisted by inferior coaches, awe followed them on a leash.

But this is a bolder generation, more likely to shrug off the cloak of intimidation, and it is somewhat apparent in Virender Sehwag's audacity, in Irfan Pathan's cool debut in Australia, in Anju George's resolve in the long jump arena.

These athletes, and they are a growing tribe, believe they belong.

It's not something learnt from a coach or found in a textbook, but a self-belief that swirls in an individual athletes' mind. And it is what Mirza has.

Quite simply, Mirza thawed at the Australian Open after the odd hesitant set, she folded her nerves as she does her spectacles, put them aside and embraced the moment.

She let her forehand sing, and her small fist pump, and her mouth grimace; there was a sense she enjoyed this metallic taste of battle and could do with some more.

'Confidence is the key'

Her body language wasn't rude but it was clear: Bring it on.

It is no coincidence that when I asked Mahesh Bhupathi, whose company Globosport manages Mirza, what strikes him most about his charge, he said: "Her confidence is the key and her belief in herself will take her a long way.''

Nirupama Vaidyanathan, once the highest-ranked women's player (No.134) prior to Mirza (now No.131), was his echo: "She believed in herself even before the results arrived. Some people may call it cockiness, but it's very essential in international tennis.''

Sania lost to Serena Williams in the third round

Mirza is going to need that nerve, because even though she's just entered a new world, India expects the world of her.

There has been much celebration of her at home, and while some of it has been overdone, it is also understandable.

Sporting success is not a familiar friend, and praise accumulates and is then heaped on any sudden achievement.

Mirza has done well to replicate quickly what Leander Paes did just once in his grand slam singles career (a third round placing), yet she remains an apprentice.

It was blurted out in India that she has top 10 potential, and irrespective of whether it is an exaggeration, it is an unnecessary burden for a player only finding her tennis feet.

The fact is she hits a powerful ball, but to watch Maria Sharapova's ferocious duel with Serena, and Lindsay Davenport exchange body blows with Alicia Molik, is to be quickly educated on the distance Mirza has yet to go.

We need to keep our perspective, and she hers.

Cosmic lottery

The fact is Mirza has journeyed remarkably from somewhere in the 400s last year to No.131, yet each small journey up the rankings becomes increasingly harder.

As Vaidyanathan says: "No one (in India) has any clue as to the amount of hard work it actually takes to get even to top 100.'' The process will be slow, but expectation will hound Mirza, not only by virtue of her performance, but because of her unique position.

Through the years, more through some cosmic lottery than design, India has found a player of international standing every generation.

From Ramanathan Krishan, to Jaideep Mukerjee and Premjit Lall, to the Amritraj brothers, to Ramesh Krishanan, to Leander Paes, the cycle has continued.

Then, post-Paes, who arrived in the early 1990s, it seemed to stop.

Where was the next player? She was there, except we were looking in the wrong draw.

The highest ranked Indian, male or female, Mirza has sponsors, she has a specialist adviser Bob Brett (once Boris Becker's coach), she has the experience of Bhupathi to lean on.

Once she gets a travelling coach, a priority, the pieces will be in place. Then she will need her chutzpah.

Breaking barriers

But irrespective of where Mirza ends up, she has forged a path.

Vaidyanathan was the first Indian woman to get to the second round of a grand slam. Now Mirza is the first to get to the third.

Both women, in their small, distinctive ways have broken barriers, their wins investing future generations with a certain courage.

After all, when the next Indian girl prepares for her second round match at a grand slam, you know what she'll be thinking: hey, Sania made it through, so can I. Your comments on Rohit Brijnath's article

12,274 Posts
Yeah she's nice :) Good luck Sani :)
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Reactions: skanky~skanketta

23,633 Posts
Great Article!

4,117 Posts
Brilliant article, a good read thanks TheBoiledEgg

13,415 Posts
sania :worship: :yeah: :D
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