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.
Rohit Brijnath: Sania belongs to a bolder generation of Indian athletes
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.
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
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.''
Mirza is going to need that nerve, because even though she's just entered a new world, India expects the world of her.
Sania lost to Serena Williams in the third round
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.
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.
Leander Paes (left) is among Indian tennis stars
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.
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.
Way to go Sania. She has not only shown positive results but her way of playing shows definite potential for the future. I hope to see her ranked in the top ten sometime soon.
Sajjad Haider, Pakistan
I think the article is interesting most because tells about a girl who is doing a great job rigth now... I like it! congrats Sania!!! God Bless you and Good Luck!
I wish Sania all the best. However I don't feel she has the tools to trouble the top 25 players in the world. Her greatest achievements could come off the court, as she could inspire the next generation of players. With a proper system in place, it could take another 10-15 years before Indian players in the top 100 are common place.
Let Sania win a major title. Then I will accept her to be genuine. So much of hype (just for facing Serena and losing to her) is only going to weigh her down. Anybody can face Serena in the first round and lose. Let her play. Media please settle down. The hype created by u guys is greater than the hype created for Hingis.
Sanjay Mupparapu, USA
For a country and culture that does not value athletics, Miss Mirza has done extremely well.
Fida Awadia, Canada
As a native Hyderabadi, I'm especially overjoyed by the emergence of a new sports star from my city which has produced two of the most elegant batsmen ever...Md Azharuddin and V V S Laxman. Though what Sania has achieved is tremendous, there is still a lot for the young pro to look forward to and strive for. She seems to have the right temperament but she needs to work on her movement and her serve if she is to break into the elite top 20.
Arobind Velagapudi, San Diego, USA
It requires guts to play at centre court of any grand slam for the first time whether it is an Indian girl or any other country. Though another girl of Indian origin playing in her first grand slam at Flushing Meadows, New York against another Williams sister, Shikha Uberoi in her very first set gave a tough fight to Venus but then ran out of gas in second set. Rohit is right, what Sania needs is to have mental toughness while playing big matches.
Sania Mirza certainly has the natural talent & power for the top 20 - as her second set display against Serena in Australia proved, but her future achievements will largely depend on her ability to handle the expectation of a nation. Not sure about the writers comment about her weight though, she looked pretty good to me. Good luck!
Ben Stevens, UK
Hey, i think that media is spoiling her career. She just made to the third round and she has a long way to go. But the article is wonderful and should encourage the new talent. The parents should also learn from sania's parents and realise that there is also something else called sports not only eduation which will earn you money
anand kumar, United States
It was a real pleasure to watch Serena play Sania, both wore yellow and the fashion designer could take lessons in the simple, clean cut appearance of Sania's outfit. Sania's tennis was enjoyable too!, but congratulations to Serena for winning.
Michael Rowe, Canada
Yes, Sania could do wonders. I wish her all the best!
Rajesh V R , Kerala, India
The story on Sania by Brijnath is very interesting and inspiring story. She is a real hero. Brijnath has covered many factors responsible in the rise of Sania, and also the people who stood by her.
Good to see that in population of over a billion, India is actually coming up with a few who accomplished right to the top in many different sports. Other Asian countries must also realise the need to encourage the upbringing of talents which are concealed by so many off-putting factors and take these young players as an inspiration.
Imran Khan, United Kingdom
A lot has being written about Mirza. She is no doubt talented and has made India proud. But i am afraid the media will now spoil her. Please leave her alone and let her win a title.
Buroshiva Dasgupta, India
This hype about Sania Mirza is just that: hype. For heaven sake, all she did was reach the second round. Plus there is even a bit of political correctness and pseudo secularism displayed by Indian media. After all, she is a Muslim and Indian media celebrating her no end is their way off showing off their 'secular' credentials. She is just a flash in the pan.
Well done, Mr Brijnath! An apt article offering an unbiased point of view.
It is indeed heartening to see India's recognition and success at sports other than cricket.
Sania Mirza has definitely made an impression with her performance at the Australian Open. And like the writer mentions, she has what it takes to get better. My only concern is the publicity and hype that has been generated by the Indian media, and the effect that this might have on the young woman. Not to take anything away from Sania, but all one has to notice is a competitor like Maria Sharapova, and Sania fades in comparison. Sania will do well not to be swept away by all the adulation she is getting back home. This is only the beginning; Sania needs to realise that public memory tends to be short and she will constantly need to raise the bar.
Santosh Kumar, USA
It's good to see an Indian star shine. I feel making it to the semi finals is something that can be praise worthy, not the third round.
Rohit is pretty much on spot.
Mere look of the photo of Sania shaking hands with Serena will show you the difference between a champion and the ones below 100, as Sania herself admitted in her comments. Now look back how was Serena looking like at the age 18. The Q I have is why Sania has not already been trained to take care of her physique, the girth and a proper service style.
The right type of physical fitness has been the bane of Indian athletes, be it in any form of sport. (Look what difference it made to the Indian cricket team with top class professional help).
Hopefully Sania will also improve as Bajinath says. But surely it was a somewhat disappointing to see Sania a bit on plumpier side for her height. Surely the girl possesses immense grit as can be seen from the number of matches she has won in 3 setters and from the brink. She definitely has the potential. Wish her well.
tilak, currently in USA
This is a nice column and it highlights the successes of Sania Mirza who really has done something which can be done by a very few women in Indian subcontinent. Yes it is great to say that the women of south asia are also coming on the top of the world, specially in Tennis which is very not familiar in that region.
Altaf Hussain, Australia
Our hearts swelled with pride to see fellow Indian reach the 3rd round of a grand slam. She will go far.
Basu Srinivasan, USA
I have watched her game when she played against Williams. Sania has got some short swing forehand, but she definitely needs great work on her serve. I am not sure if she can be in top 10, but she should break into top 50 in next 12 months. She (Sania) also has to work on her fitness, movement on court and her physique. She looked a bit chubby, but as writer mentioned she can probably has to work on it and that too quickly. I am a great tennis fan, I would definitely want to see more and more Indians break into international tennis and do respectably well. I do not have high expectations on Sania as I do not want to put pressure; but for now she has to win some matches and reach quarters/semis in some tournaments in circuit. Good luck to her.
Like many countries with only a few professional tennis players, there will be a great weight thrusted on her shoulders in expectation of winning in the future. She seems to have the mental strength and sensible advisors to grow in her game rather than fold under the pressure. It will take a great deal of hard physical and mental work to reach the heights of the game, but she can look upon the likes of Martina Hingis or Justine Henin-Hardenne to show that sheer physical size or huge muscles are not a prerequisite to being No.1.
Best of luck to her.
Dr Amit Arora, London
The article is excellent i think Sania has done the great job for the country and specially for the city Hyderabad where i belong. Its her confidence and hard work which can prove herself and make us proud.
I hope if she play with the same enthusiasm the day is not too far when we can see her playing final at the next grand slam
A wonderfully written article. Let's hope that the media won't derail Mirza or any of the atheletic stars of the new generation with overinflated hype. Let's hope that the people around Mirza give her the balance, perspective and confidence she'll need to go far and achieve her fullest potential. My best wishes to her and to all the new hopefuls.
Jay Antani, USA
A good and timely column. The opening paragraphs have an overdose of some funky metaphors, a little heavy for a dunce like me!
Siddhartha Misra, US