Natural guts, raw and taut

Anna Chakvetadze confessed to being sick of having to play Sania Mirza often but it is the Indian who is scratching her head in search of a route past the Russian. Her straight set loss in the third round of the US Open in New York – her fourth defeat in as many meetings with Chakvetadze this year – stopped Sania Mania from erupting as it did when she made it to the fourth round two years ago. With growing maturity, Sania is not thinking of the New York tournament as the end of the year in which she has done enough to climb to a career-high ranking of 27. She realises now more than ever that can not only break into the top 20 but also enjoy a lengthy stay. Aware that there are areas that she can turn in some work, the 20-year-old Hyderabadi is looking to stay fit and get better.
Sania and her father Imran Mirza believe that she would have broken into the top 30 at least four months earlier had it not been for the knee injury in March. “Any good fitness trainer could have helped her and [South African] Heath Matthews is a good trainer. But the big effort had to come from Sania and it’s remarkable that she was able to put in that focussed effort,” Imran says. “Fitness is definitely very important in helping Sania reach this new level. She has always been like that. Once she decides she wants something, she is willing to work her heart out to achieve that goal.” Sania reaped dividends in the hardcourt season for embracing a tough fitness regimen when recovering from the knee surgery.
Sania is also adding to her mental strength, especially when faced with tough situations. She turned the corner as it were with a victory over Akiko Morgiami in Stanford where she was down a set and a break down to be 1-4 and 3-5. “I am mentally tougher now than I ever was,” she says. “ I do not wait for my opponents to give me points by making errors. I would rather take them myself,” she says. The Hyderabadi also remembers taking on Israeli Shahar Peer in the opening round at San Diego last month. She took the court riding on confidence from her appearance in the final at Stanford the previous week. “She was a top 20 player but I didn’t believe I was going to lose, even after losing the second set,” recalls Sania, promising to continue her aggressive apporach.
There is no doubt that doubles play has contributed to the improvement in her singles game as well. It has definitely helped her improve her volleys, given her confidence and try out things that she has been working on. She has obviously enhanced the backhand and overhead strokes that were perceived as weaknesses before. Those have helped her get a measure of top 20 players in as many as four of the five matches this year but she has not been able to win any of her six meetings with top 10 players. Imran Mirza, doubling up as her coach, believes Sania needs to overcome some more weaknesses in her game before she is ready to mount a stiffer challenge against the top 10 players. “A lot of effort has to be put in,” he says when asked if some attention is being paid to ensure a more consistent first service. “Of course, work continues on the serve but there is improvement on that front as well. But the serve is always the most difficult to correct after the player has crossed age 16.”
There are a number a people who suggest that Sania will develop her game further if she has a travelling coach to help her. The Mirzas have tried partnerships with coaches as diverse as John Farrington, Australian legend Tony Roche. But those relationships have all been short-lived since Sania tends to rely on her father. “He (her father) has always been around since I was a kid and I think he obviously understands me on a personal level. We get along great and he’s very easy going. That helps because he is very relaxed before and after a match. He takes tennis only as a sport and I think that’s important. I always say ‘Never fix what’s not broken’. If and when I have a bad patch, maybe we can work on getting a coach.”
Of course, Spaniard Gabriel Urpi now coaches her but only on a part-time basis. He took up the consultant-coach’s role before the French Open this year and has spent enough time to be able to assess her game well. “I think Sania is someone who can improve a lot,” Urpi said. “When you look at some players, you you think ‘Okay I don’t know how much better she can get’. But, if you look at Sania’s game and age too, you realise that the margin to improve is very big. I think she has a great potential, quick acceleration and natural game is pretty good. She can improve in consistency, have better footwork and can do with a little more planning so that she can use her big weapons at the right time. Of course all this comes with hard work, and you are lucky with injuries and all other stuff. But working hard, is what makes you become a better player. And, above all, having fun is the best way to learn.”
Talking of learning, Sania has picked up lessons from the roller-coaster experience that saw her slip from being 31 in 2005 and rise this year to be ranked No. 27 now. “Ranking is only an indication of where you stand and is not foolproof data,” Imran says. “When she was 31 in 2005, I think she was lucky to be there, thanks to a couple of good runs and some luck of the draw. She was, in my opinion, playing top 70 tennis then. Today, she is playing top 30 tennis and is showing that she belongs there. However, tennis is a very competitive sport and if one follows all the top 100 players, one will realise that almost everyone – barring the top five – have ups and downs as far as ranking are concerned.”
The Chakvetadze conundrum may have left Sania scratching her head in search of an answer to getting past the Russian but the 20-year-old has her feet firmly planted on ground this time around. And, combined with her growing maturity, that will go a long way in ensuring that she enjoys her tennis over a longer stretch.

1 comment for “Natural guts, raw and taut

  1. Amit Bajaj
    September 10, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    Thanks for reaffirming my faith in Sania. While we follow every twist and turn on the cricket field and even after a consistent run of failures by a Sehwag, we know that he has the ability to spring back, my lack of grasp over non-cricket sports often leads me to overreact. After the Chakvetadze match, I thought that was it. Sania was only mean to go that far and no more. Hopefully that may not be the case!!

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