Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Is Sania Mirza all hype?

Instant fame beckoned her in a sports hungry (other than Cricket, of course) nation. But Sania Mirza has failed to live up to the hype.

There is no doubt that Sania Mirza is one of the most talented tennis players India has ever produced. She made her Women’s Tour Association (WTA) debut in 2005 and soon became the first Indian women’s tennis player to reach the third round - and later in the year the fourth round - of a grand slam. That was her breakthrough year where she won became the first Indian women’s tennis player to win a WTA tour title. From a ranking of below 200 at the start of that year, she cracked the top 50 by the end of 2005, becoming the first Indian women’s tennis player to be ranked in the top 50.

Good start…
Small wonder then, that the ever-hungry-on-quality-sportsperson Indian media went ga-ga over her and many of them proclaimed her to be the next No. 1! Don’t laugh; I am serious, I used to watch T.V. in 2005 also. Instant fame and instant recognisiton came her way. In 2006, the government of India gave the Padma Shri award – the fourth highest civilian award in India after Bharat Ratna, Padma Vibushan and Parma Bhushan - to Mirza. There was no looking as far as Indians were concerned where Mirza stood. She was all over TV, newspapers, magazines and was giving out as many interviews as, say, Serena Williams would probably in USA.

But was that all worth it?

….gone wrong
2008 is Mirza’s fourth year on the WTA tour. In the past three years, she has not won a single singles titles after her 2005 Hyderabad triumph. That lone title, too, came in her hometown in front of her home crowd that would obviously vociferously support her. But it takes real guts to win a title on foreign shores - playing against an opponent who belongs to that same country and therefore also – in front of a partisan crowd. Her best grand slam result so far remains a sole fourth round appearance.

What’s wrong with her?
Let’s get the facts straight. The problem is that Sania Mirza is not dedicated enough. It’s easy for a player to jump from 200 to 50 or at best 25-20 in the world’s rankings. But to crack the top 20 is another matter altogether. I am not even getting to the top 10. You need to be consistent. Your body needs to be great shape for most part of the year and it also requires constant exercising and also conditioning. Plus, you have train like a thorough professional and have access to all the facilities.

Sania Mirza has done nothing of the above. She is injury-prone; in 2007 and just her third year as a professional tennis player, she had knee and wrist injuries, apart from a surgery. That cut short her 2007 tour abruptly in September.

Mirza also has an incomplete game. She has only one weapon – her forehand. Her serve – especially second serve - is her weakest weapon in her repertoire. In tournaments after tournaments, her opponents have ripped apart her weak serves. Lack of proper toning and conditioning has also limited her mobility; her movement on-court is lethargic. She has no net game either and she isn't a very cunning player on court also.

Wrong guidance
The biggest problem with Mirza is her entourage. Obviously, she is not getting right guidance. She does not even have a proper coach. In the past three years, she has changed six coaches. (Presently, her father is coaching her.) Typically, it takes around 4-6 months for a player to get adjusted to his/her new coach and results to show. But half the time, Mirza has been adjusting to her coaches and before things start to get a little bright, out goes the coach and in comes yet a replacement. Either the choice of coaches is wrong or her approach towards coaching is faulty.

The other problem is her place of residence. With infrastructure being a problem in India, especially a crowded city like Hyderabad, does she have access to all kinds of courts and surfaces for her to practice on? I don’t know how she prepares for the clay and grass court season, but India certainly lacks quality clay and grass courts – the ones required for the European clay and grass court season. You cannot land up at the event after a 12-hour long flight and then start practicing for the event, merely 5 hours before your first match. You need to practice in your backyard and then go to countries to participate in the tournaments.

Avoidable media glare
Last, but not the least, all the unwanted attention. Media has a knack of playing up under-achievers to the hilt – there are a gazillion examples in Cricket, sometimes the entire cricket team – and putting them on a pedestal. The fact is that no Indian athlete has won an Olympics gold medal in the last 50 years. With just one title - that too in her own hometown- and no singles grand slam titles, not even a quarter-final appearance in any of them, Sania Mirza is already a Padma Sri. GOD knows what will happen, if she ever were to win a grand slam. Of course, as per current standards, a open-air, double-decker bus ride from the airport to the Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium, Hyderabad her home town, where she will be felicitated by the who’s who of the State’s political machinery. The point is so much media attention and adulation also goes to a player's head. He/she starts to believe at some level that they have done enough already instead of the reality that the game has just begun.

As per current standards, Sania Mirza looks, at best, a player who might reach a career-high ranking of 20 and nothing more. Pity, this was a lot opportunity.

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