Holding all the aces
- Our Correspondent
Sania Mirza is used to winning and used to reporters coming up to ask her questions even though she is only 16 years old. In the dressing room of the Fateh Maidan tennis stadium in Hyderabad during the National Games last December-long before she became the first Indian woman to win a Wimbledon title with her doubles triumph with Alisa Kleybanova in the juniors event-she resisted, out of sheer politeness, from yawning. Instead, she stared fixedly at the opposite wall and answered in a monotone.
You couldn't blame her. Many reporters had already asked the same questions after her singles title win over Manisha Malhotra, a 6-0,6-0 demolition job. But she knew or was tutored that any publicity was oxygen for her career, in terms of sponsorship coming in, and bore the boredom stoically.
Once again, Sania is perhaps enduring the same repetitive questions after her latest triumph that has catapulted her to centre-stage in a country whose sporting cupboard is so bare, that a junior victory in Wimbledon-probably meriting a small item in newspapers in other countries-is hailed with banner headlines.
The Sania success story began one evening in Hyderabad when businessman Imran Mirza and wife Nasima were watching a telecast of a Grand Slam semifinal between Steffi Graf and Conchita Martinez. After Graf demolished Martinez in straight sets, Imran reportedly turned to his wife and said, "How would you like your daughter to play in a Grand Slam event?" Nasima replied that she would give her life to get a chance like that.
Thereafter, Imran gave a tennis racket to Sania, who was around six at that time. And thus began her march to the international arena.
It helped that she has impeccable sporting genes. Ghulam Ahmed, a former Indian cricket captain and state-level tennis player, was her father's uncle. Imran, himself, has played cricket for Mumbai and Hyderabad, and his father played for Middlesex. Asif Iqbal, former Pakistan captain, is a relative. So, it was no surprise that Sania was a natural. She made waves in the Asian circuit, winning 10 International Tennis Federation singles titles and 11 doubles titles. She became the youngest Indian to win an Asian Games bronze medal for the mixed doubles, partnering Leander Paes, in Busan last year. She is also the first Indian girl to win the Asian junior crown.
Watch her play and you sense the confidence, the poise and the agility around the court. She has superb groundstrokes but now and then, she seems to be out of breath. "Physical fitness is my weakness," she tells The Week. "I also need to improve the quality of my serves."
Says Imran: "Sania has a problem with the positioning of her feet. This is a problem with most Indian players, whereas European players have problems with the grip."
Her success has come from sustained application. "I practise six to eight hours a day," she says. "I also do weight training for one and a half hours under the guidance of my coach and the gym trainer."
I feel bad about the sacrifices made by my family.
For the past eleven years it has been hard, says Sania.
Sania is an indigenously produced player, according to her father, because she has been trained only by Indian coaches, especially C.G.K. Bhupathi, father of tennis star Mahesh Bhupathi. She has been training at Bhupathi's tennis academy in Bangalore since January last year.
"She has also learnt by playing with better players," says Imran. "As parents we have educated ourselves about the game. We watch all the games and if you ask foreign coaches politely, they always tell us what is wrong with Sania's game."
Sania is lucky that her family is fully behind her career, which is uncommon in the Indian set-up, with its emphasis on academic exce-llence.
"Our family has sacrificed a lot," says Imran. "Since she is travelling a lot, either my wife or I accompany her. She is comfortable with either of us."
But it is clear that Sania feels that the price is high: "I feel bad about the sacrifices my family has made. For the past 11 years, it has been hard. There is no family life and we miss that. I also do not lead the normal life of a 16-year-old. Little things like this matter a lot. I will try at least to finish my graduation." She passed her tenth class in first class and is now doing her plus two.
It is not easy to be a tennis player. Apart from missing the ordinary pleasures of life, the cost of travelling and participating in competitions is prohibitive. Sania says she needs Rs 40 lakh annually.
"Without sponsorship, there is no way you can have a career in tennis," she says. "I have been very lucky." She has been sponsored by the GVK Group of Industries for the past few years. Following her Wimbledon triumph, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu has allotted her a piece of land for a house and announced a cash award of Rs 10 lakh.
Her winning partnership was formed quite by chance. She casually asked Kleybanova a few days before the tournament whether they could pair up. The Russian said yes and they began playing together.
Unseeded, they defeated seeded players in the early rounds and in the final beat Katerina Bohmova of the Czech Republic and Michaela Krajicek of the Netherlands in three sets. It was sweet revenge for Sania who, along with compatriot Sanaa Bhambri, had lost to the pair in the French Open semifinals last month.
After her win, Sania said that she would be concentrating on the singles. But clearly, it is not going to be an easy task.
Most women players, especially from Europe and America, are tall and very strongly built. They have booming serves and powerful groundstrokes. Sania looks fragile in comparison. When asked whether she could match the power play of Venus and Serena Williams, she says, "I am not awestruck. Undoubtedly, we Indians have a distinct disadvantage in that we are not built that way. I will have to work harder to win against them."
Only time will tell whether Sania will one day triumph over Serena. It will be a stunning moment if it happens.