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. 

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