My early morning vigil on the television meandered through the galacticos of the game at the Aussie Open. Federer, Safin, Hrbaty, Gaudio, Kuznetsova projected the global image of the game. It was close to midday before Serena Williams, seeded seventh, came on court with Sania Mirza.
Serena's imposing physical presence and crazy trappings of dress towered over the gentle bejewelled girl from Hyderabad. They were oceans apart. Serena had fought her way through the shootouts in the ghettos of Los Angeles to glory and the summit of the tennis world, while Sania was in her first-ever Grand Slam breaking the conservative moorings of rich Hyderabadi culture, looking quiet and dignified. It seemed a total mismatch ' a battle-scarred streetwise alley cat versus a domesticated kitten! Watching on the box I felt intimidated and sorry for Sania.
Serena took some time to take off her white net boots, antagonising the impatient crowd and won the first set in a trice. Sania salvaged a game at 0-5 amidst great applause from the crowd. The masculine power of Serena's shots was finding Sania just a little late in her timing. It looked like Serena would steamroll through the match.
But then to everyone's surprise, and my great joy, Sania found her timing and unleashed her beautiful groundstrokes full of power and depth. There were some breathtaking rallies from the backcourt where Sania outplayed Serena, and led 3-2 in the second set.
At this stage, Serena raised her game a notch, indicated by the decibel counts on her grunts and fist pumping, and raced to a 5-3 lead. But Sania fought back and saved two match points to hold her serve and take the score to 4-5.
I was astonished by the power and quality of two clear ground shot winners Sania hit in the ninth game. They left Serena standing. At 5-4, the American served out the match, closing the chapter with her 12th ace.
It was a spectacular performance deserving of the highest praise, but Sania has a long way to go. She has shown her potential when she had nothing to lose. But she has to learn to produce the blistering ground shots against equally-ranked opponents ' believe me, that is not an easy task.
Also, there are aspects of Sania's game that she needs to work on. Her service action requires looking into. Possibly, if she threw the ball a couple of feet forward she could get more power and variation. She has to learn to volley more and improve her movement on court. All these things cannot and should not be rushed.
Burnout has been the bane of women's tennis. Hingis at 22 has retired. Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters are sidelined and fighting injuries. The Williams sisters, Davenport, Mauresmo have all been patched up. The women's game has more depth than ever before and the fearsome Russians are there. So, for Sania to get to the top 20 or 30 will be as difficult as climbing Everest without oxygen.
What I am most happy about is to see the change in attitude of our women players. The standard of the current crop of youngsters is the highest-ever in Indian tennis history. There is a distinct and laudable change in attitude. Behind the 'Sati Savitri' image, Indian women have the steel of the Ashoka Pillar.
Well done Sania, keep the flag flying.