Tuesday 14 July 2015


First Indian to win a ladies Grand slam doubles title. 
There is an air of history and nostalgia when you talk about Wimbledon. More than any other sporting place, this venue values tradition; remembers its past champions and one way or the other welcomes them back into its serene surroundings. Martina Hingis is a name for the tennis historians and irrespective of her retirement at a young age, she was welcomed back to a place where she started winning Grand slam titles. For Hingis, these seventeen years has been a lifetime's wait.

Life has come a full circle for Hingis after the victory in women's doubles. From being the youngest grand slam winner (Wimbledon doubles 1996),  in which she flourished under the guidance of the more experienced Helena Sukova; this time around she was the one who called the shots, guided Sania Mirza and together they played their best tennis in recent times.

Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis have been undoubtedly the best lady players to represent their respective countries, India and Switzerland. They reached the peak very early in their lives, then hit a plateau............ - and now together they are on an adventure to climb yet another peak. There is a lot that's in common between these two; though they have different playing styles. They complete each other's weakness on the court and in tandem, they have been refreshing on the doubles circuit.

In Martina Hingis, Sania Mirza has finally found a doubles partner with whom she can complement her partner's finesse and thought process. When they got together to play doubles, I felt there was something right about this combination and I am more so convinced now after looking at the way they fought back in those final two sets. They are enjoying their tennis.  

A pair destined for many more victories 

Twelve years ago, Sania, a child prodigy won the girls doubles event at Wimbledon. Since the time she turned professional, she has been living a life burdened with expectations. India is a country where people have a lot of hopes, where expectations come from all corners of the land and we all saw a dream, the dream of Sania lifting a Grand slam title.

Playing singles proved to be a tough battle ground; her power play and return was good to finish off few opponents - but her lack of pace to move around the court and her inability to pick the right spots to place the ball did not help her cause when she faced the top ranked players.
In spite of these weaknesses, she did progress consistently beyond first round and her best singles display at a major slam came a decade ago in New York. A fourth round appearance at the US Open facing Maria Sharapova. At that point, she had achieved enough (including a WTA singles title) to rest on her laurels as no other Indian female tennis player had come this far.

In fact, in the open era, there has never been a lady from Indian tennis who has won this consistently in singles - barring Nirupama Sanjeev (previously Vaidyanathan) who was the first Indian woman to win a round in a grand slam event (1998 Australian Open) and Shikha Uberoi who emulated that feat later at the 2004 US Open. The days of celebrating 'round' wins were long gone ever since Sania Mirza turned professional. Within a short span of time, she took the nation's expectations to another level - a place never seen before among Indian women tennis.

Being among the top 30 ranked women happens to be the highlight of Sania's singles career (with highest ranking of  27). However, her success was not just limited to singles; steadily she took part in many of the doubles tournament with some success. After 2007, her play was more consistent on the doubles circuit than on the singles. An athlete is never far away from getting injured and Sania's tryst with injuries started to dictate her choices and since 2008 she withdrew from many tournaments owing to discomfort in her back and right wrist.

Playing singles became more challenging, exasperating and after a string of poor performances, focussing solely on the doubles game seemed practical. Having a partner in a game was less stressful physically and with only half-a-court to cover, it suited her style of play. Since 2011, her success rate in many of the WTA competitions was on the upward trend. In these four years, she took part in 29 finals and won 18 of them - all of this contributed in her being ranked number one doubles player earlier this year.

Why do Indians play better doubles game than singles? Looking at the history of Indian tennis, there has been a strong 'tennis doubles' culture barring few sporadic, spirited individual displays. In the last sixty years, there has been junior players winning the Grand Slam title, but no one went a step further and win the seniors. The best singles performance in the recent past happens to be the bronze medal win of Paes at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Bronze Medal in singles at 1996 Atlanta Olympics 
The first Grand slam title of any kind for India came in 1997 and it was Mahesh Bhupathi-Rika Hiraki pair who won the mixed doubles at the French Open. Since then, there has been a series of Grand Slam titles in doubles category - men's and mixed. Now, with the recent Wimbledon victory, Sania Mirza completed this 'doubles set' by winning the ladies doubles.

Mahesh Bhupathi started the trend of winning Grand Slam titles for India in doubles - French Open 1997 
In a country which is obsessed with end results, Sania Mirza has had to endure a lot of unwanted attention at times to get to a position she is right now. Forget the facilities, forget the funding and forget the support for a moment, what Sania has achieved speaks volumes about her innate qualities; her determination; her grit; motivation and the will of a world-class athlete. To these, add family support, facilities, funding and opportunities; results will definitely follow. This is how winning is done.
First Indian woman to achieve number one ranking in doubles 
What does this victory mean to Sania Mirza and to Indian tennis? Firstly, she is the top-ranked doubles player in the world and if you ain't winning, then you can forget being at the top. Sania, quite rightly expects to win every tournament she takes part in and sadly it isn't the same for other ladies in Indian tennis. While there are talented girls who sweat it out each day, it would help a great deal if they asked a question each day -  why am I sweating it out? In this era of intense connectivity, one can always find a way to secure sponsors, train at better facilities - but why? If that 'why' and 'what' is clear, then 'how' will become clear. Sania Mirza's ascent to the top in spite of the adversities she faced with injuries and personal scrutiny is an example, a template for an Indian female athlete who wishes to achieve big and not just stop at dreaming.

In 1998, the top seeded pair of Martina Hingis and Jana Novotna won the ladies doubles title and seventeen years later, the top seeded pair of Hingis and Mirza won the honours on the same court. In between, Martina Hingis has had a roller coaster ride when it comes to her tennis career and personal life. While it can be said, it is just another step forward in what has been an illustrious career for the Swiss Miss, this Wimbledon victory with Sania Mirza (first for an Indian woman in ladies doubles) is a giant leap for Indian tennis. 

Thursday 9 July 2015


Youngest Grand Slam Winner in the history of tennis, Martina Hingis at 15 years 282 days
Growing up, just like many, I spent most of my time after school hours playing with my friends. Be it cricket, hand tennis, badminton or just about any game - everyday this ordeal was followed without fail. I thank my parents for not getting me the video games or any of the gadgets! 

Coming back from play, I used to switch on the television and straight away select the sports channel and watch many of the sporting contests that were being streamed live or recorded on the two sports channels available on cable network. Life was simple and one didn't need any aid of remote controls to switch channels as I did my homework during the commercial breaks. I just had to ensure my sister was was not around and I was relieved when she was still out playing or talking to her friends. 

This routine was easy in the months of June and July as there were no unit tests, assignments or the pressure to study. Wimbledon was a tournament that coincided with the beginning of a new term at school. While we were adapting to new subjects, teachers, uniforms and lot of other things, Wimbledon remained a very popular topic. 

Life got even better in the year 1996, when a certain teenager won the hearts of many like me - it was the beginning of an era, the era which saw Martina Hingis take giant strides towards stardom. As I watched that year's Wimbledon coverage, she was on the verge of becoming the youngest grand slam winner at the Wimbledon.

In the singles, the progress of Hingis was smooth until the fourth round, where she had to face Steffi Graf, which the German had no difficulty and won comfortably in two sets. 

In tandem with Helena Suková (Czech Republic), Hingis (born in Slovakia) found an able partner - this mixture of raw talent and experience proved to be a lethal combo. The first three rounds went by with ease and the first fierce challenge of their campaign came in the quarter-finals when the eighth seeded duo faced Jana Novotná and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario - the top seeds. 

Novotná and Sánchez true to their billing started off very well, won the first set 6-3 and seemed like they had the match under control. Things began to get close in the second set as the determined Hingis and Suková matched their opponents evenly - the set was to be decided by a tie-breaker. Unlike other games in a set, the tie-breakers require optimum concentration. A slight opening gave Hingis and Suková to make a comeback in the match. They won the second set.

Two crucial breaks in favour of Hingis and Suková and they had beaten the top pair of the tournament. Winning against a top team provided them the much needed impetus as they won both semi-finals and finals in closely fought three sets. 

History was re-created as Martina Hingis claimed her maiden Grand Slam title - the youngest to hold a Grand slam trophy across the eras. She was just 15 years and 282 days - and narrowly nudged the previous record holder, Lottie Dod (singles title at Wimbledon in 1887) by just three days. 

Tuesday 7 July 2015


The end of an era - Pete Sampras just played his final Wimbledon game
Injuries, the single impediment for any athlete's progress comes unexpectedly - disrupting the plans, goals and in some cases one's career. Even with the latest technological aids and medical facilities available, the coping and recovery mechanisms are not formulated to suit everybody. While one recovers and continues to play their sport, others might have to look for alternatives beside sport.

This has been the case with George Bastl, the tall Swiss who emulated the feat of his fellow country man Roger Federer in 2002. Perhaps, the only common thing Federer and Bastl share in tennis happens to be 'Sampras' and defeating the champion on a territory which the American had made his own. If Roger Federer won a closely fought encounter in 2001 (4th round), George Bastl's triumph had the shades comparable to David overcoming Goliath. On a Wednesday, what people thought about being another opponent for Sampras progress - it came as a shock to see him ousted in a second round match to a lucky loser ranked 145 in the world.

Oh yes, the superstitious and the infamous patterns keep coming no matter what. Not very often you find big names play outside of Court No. 1 or the centre court. The second round encounter between the seven-time Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras and the unknown George Bastl was scheduled at Court No.2 - also known as the 'graveyard of the champions'. As it turned out, the second round match was the last time Sampras played at the All England Club.

The crowd could not believe what was happening as Bastl raced to a two-set lead. It appeared as though Sampras was not in his best frame of mind. He was seen reading notes between the games written by his wife Bridgette Wilson - "Remember, you're the greatest player who has ever held a racket in the hand". It did fire him up and the next two sets, he showed his aggressive game as Bastl found it difficult to break his serve or put any pressure on it. The American won 6-4, 6-3 to make it two sets all.

Those words from his wife kept Sampras going - only to a point
Enter fifth set and this is where the mental game of the players came into play as bodies started to worn out. Sampras had seen it all before and importantly he knew how to win from such situations  - whereas Bastl had never won a five-setter before after turning professional. He had nothing to lose and unless he won this encounter, he knew this would be just another match.

The games raced, one by one with each player holding his serve. In the eighth game with Bastl serving, Sampras had two break points while leading 4-3. From 15-40 down, Bastl served his way to level the scores and then remarkably broke the American's serve in the next game. Just when Sampras seemed like getting back to his ominous rhythm, Bastl played four perfect points to break his serve. The match was turned all of a sudden and so did the fortunes. Sampras, unless he had something else to showcase was staring at his worst exit at Wimbledon since 1991. He sat motionless, looked out of sorts and it took time to face the fact - he's out of the tournament.

No matter what one's past records are, it is a challenge to remain at the top of the game consistently with time. If Sampras was outdone by one Swiss in 2001, the next year another Swiss knocked him out. "I have not lost the game, Bastl won it. At the end, he was mentally much stronger than I, and that you have to recognise". The drama, the disappointment and the pain of such a defeat only showed what a great champion Sampras was throughout his career, especially in Wimbledon. At the press conference after the defeat - "I plan on being back. I'm not going to end my time here with that loss. I really felt I could do it here and I feel really bummed out. I feel like I can win one major - I will continue to play."  It wasn't that Sampras played badly or was in poor form. Those 'two words' can be a dampener to give credit where it is due. Bastl played the game of his life and after all, Sampras did went on to win the US Open a few months later.

George Bastl played the game of his life to oust the seven-time champion 

Unlike Roger Federer, George Bastl didn't even make it to the top 70 in his entire life. The win over Pete Sampras remained his only shining glory of his career. Ask any of the tennis fans, they remember Bastl for that reason - and for that alone. His life post that match changed and he was recognised by quite a few people on the circuit. While tennis career never took off, he had to focus on other avenue to sustain his livelihood. He earned a finance degree from a university in California and now works in the same industry. Over the years, any interview with Bastl is incomplete without being asked about 'that' match. Those wonderful memories remain just that - memories. 

Sunday 5 July 2015


Conchita Martinez won the 1994 Wimbledon title defeating nine-time winner Martina Navratilova
The 1994 Wimbledon championships is remembered for a lot of reasons. Who can forget Conchita Martinez and her fairy tale win. Her triumph was against the veteran Martina Navratilova - who previously had won the coveted Wimbledon singles title nine times. If this made a 'headline to remember ' for Conchita Martinez; at the start of the tournament, Steffi Graf made headlines which she would like to forget.

Consider this for a record - before the start of the 1994 Wimbledon, Steffi Graf had entered quarter-finals in all of the Grand Slams since 1985. The German who was the defending champion, had won this title five times and since 1982, no other player apart from the German ace and Martina Navratilova had won the singles title. Then came the unlikely upset - the defending champion Graf knocked out by an unseeded player in the opening round.

Lori McNeill knocked the defending champion Graf in the first round - a feat never witnessed before
In 1992, Lori McNeill playing at the Virginia Slims Tournament (WTA sanctioned event) had achieved a similar feat against Graf. It was rare for a player like Graf to suffer a loss in the opening match of any tournament. Playing in New York at the Madison Square Garden, McNeill on that day played a better game to overhaul the German. If that was at the indoor carpet surface, a year and a half later, on the lush grass courts of Wimbledon, Lori McNeill did it again. Graf's loss to McNeill marked a defending champion lose an opening round match for the first time

Lori McNeill continued her impressive start and went all the way till the final four. She lost a close semi-final clash against Conchita Martinez, with third set decided at 10-8 in favour of the Spaniard. The American emulated her best performance at the grand slams (semi-finalist at the US Open 1987) and Martinez went on to win her first and only title of her career.

After a wait of more than ten years, there was a new name etched on the ladies single's title. Navratilova, as it turned out, played her last singles game at the grand slams (she continued playing doubles) while Steffi Graf won the next two Wimbledon editions before bowing out of the game for good in 1999 after losing to Lindsay Davenport in the title clash at Wimbledon. 

Thursday 2 July 2015


Golf and Land Club, Wannsee, Berlin - place where Mita Kribben lost her life during World War II
Mita Kribben (aka Mita Klima) was born in Austria while the country was still a coalition under the Hungarian-Austrian empire. The exact year of birth is not known and sources, a couple of them point to the years between 1892-1894. Apart from this conundrum, there is no doubt that she took part in the 1907 Wimbledon ladies singles championships along with her elder sister Willy Klima.

Prior to the creation of ATP ranking system in 1973, the tennis world relied on the opinions of the famous British sports journalist and historian, Lance Tingay. His annual World Rankings formed the reference point in identifying the top ten players of the world. In one of his books, 'The Guinness Book of Tennis Facts and Feats' published in 1983, he has few words on the Klima sisters. According to his research, Mita Klima was 13 years of age when she took part in the 1907 Wimbledon championships. He also mentioned Willy, Mita's elder sister to be older by an year.

Going by this reference, Mita Klima holds the record till date to be the youngest ever player to take part in the singles championships at Wimbledon.

Mita Klima played her first round match against Madeline O'Neill and she lost in straight sets 1-6, 2-6. There is nothing more to add to her Grand Slam tally. Mita Klima's record has stood the test of time and only one player came close to emulating her record, Jennifer Capriati. Capriati was three months past 14 years when she made her Wimbledon appearance. Unlike Mita, she reached the fourth round of the championships, continuing her splendid form she displayed at the French Open (semi-finalist) few weeks earlier.

The lack of evidence of the life of Mita Klima apart from Lance Tingay's reference makes a good case for a debate on Mita's exact age at the time of her Wimbledon appearance. Apart from appearing in occasional trivia columns during Wimbledon, there isn't much that's documented on the tennis life of Mita Klima.

Eight years after her Wimbledon appearance, she married a German tennis player Otto Curt Kribben, who also owned a factory. Her life post marriage is not well documented up until 1930's. She worked  as the club secretary at the Golf and Land club at Wannsee district, Berlin. Even when Berlin and entire Germany was at war, the Golf club entertained few celebrity golfers as this remained one of the few golf courses that was open during the war.

As the war intensified, little by little, the golf course started to look more like a military playground. Two airstrikes on the place caused no damage. It is documented that a golf match took place on April 20, 1945  at Wannsee. Towards the end of World War II, the Red Army had their trenches placed and their artillery grenades destroyed building and the cellars underneath the towers of the clubhouse.

Amidst this carnage, Mita Kribben lost her life.