In the history of Indian tennis, 2005 will be remembered as Sania Mirza’s year. No other Indian, not even the great Ramanathan Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj or Leander Paes, made such a telling impact at the national or international level in one single year. Though Sania’s achievement levels fall far short of what many of our sporting greats have done, she stands alone in Indian sporting history. The perfectly timed fusion of many factors brought about an iconic stature much beyond Sania’s performance. Her image was enhanced by attractive looks and aggressive attitude. The belligerent slogans on her T-shirt, her mini skirts and the press conferences took the West by storm. She was visualised as a pioneer who broke the conservative mould of Eastern women.
Fatwas were issued condemning her skimpy skirts. BBC debates with Mullahs and other relevant respected members of society escalated the issue. Through all this turbulence, Sania tackled the issues with maturity beyond her age and with rare aplomb.
At the same time, there happened to be a vacuum in the female sporting star slot. Here was a new sporting star who could respond intelligently to questions with sparkling eyes and not use the tired old clich's one hears day in and day out from the top stars. The response in an India, hurtling forward on the crest of an economic wave, was unprecedented.
Outriders escorted Sania to meet the Governor. The chief minister allocated money and other goodies, while sponsors dug deep into their pockets to rope her in for endorsements. There was much envy as the crores rolled into Sania coffers.
Another important content in these very extraordinary happenings was the fact that Sania performed at her best in three of the four Grand Slams. Watched worldwide, she traded shots with three women who have been in the world’s top-ten. Though she lost, she was fearless and gave as good as she got, and won respect for her stout fighting qualities.
Sania richly deserves the accolades and rewards. She has projected to the world a new image of Indian women and inspired Indian girls in all walks of life.
Looking at 2006 from the high pedestal she has built for herself, Sania now has a formidable task. She has to find the time to work hard on her weaknesses, improve her physical fitness and strength, and, at the same time, keep her tournament participation at the same level. All this has to be synchronised to perfection and the higher workload achieved without injury. It is like trying to juggle with your feet.
The current organisational structure of the women’s tour has been described as having a ‘damaging short-term prospective’ and ‘extracting maximum gain in a minimum time’, by a Harvard study. In fact, it has devastated the game and it is difficult to find an injury-free player in the top-20 among women.
Staying injury-free should be the most important objective in Sania’s programme. Learning to play the computer and trying to pick up easy points from tournaments with weak entries in remote places is another must.
Years ago, after Leander had won the junior Wimbledon event, I was surprised to see the runner-up Marcos Ondruska with a much higher ranking and getting direct entries to major tournaments while Leander was struggling in the qualifying rounds. Ondruska had collected points by shrewd participation in the weaker tournaments with surfaces which were best for his game.
These are some of the things that Sania needs to do. Many more difficulties have to be tackled. Getting to the top is like trying to walk up an escalator moving down. You cannot stand still or even walk up ' you have to run up.