Cross Court

Sania vs Saina

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Hate comparisons as much as you like but they are hard to resist. All the more so when it is about India’s two top lady racquet wielders.

Sania and Saina could be songs: one a sizzling remix, the other a sober original. They could be twins in cinema: one sexy, the other simple. Or they could be Veronica and Betty, possessing shades of each other.

Though not related, though being opposites in many ways, Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal have uncanny similarities. Their names could be a ‘Spot the Difference’ puzzle. They play racquet sports. Both call Hyderabad their home. Movement on the court is a challenge for both because of a certain physical heaviness. And if Sania was a reluctant volleyer, Saina is not the best tapper at the net. The parallels in the stories of Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal are very interesting for followers of Indian sport. And weighing their careers against each other has become a popular pastime for them. “Comparisons are odious,” celebrities righteously say in interviews. But they are a fact of life. Read between the lines, and you will find the same celebrity comparing himself with his rival. Office folk compare themselves with each other. As do siblings. Parents compare their kids. Grandparents compare granddaughters-in-law. Life’s bare necessities, one would believe, are roti, kapda aur comparison.

So please do not try to stop the Saina-Sania debates. For one, the fire has spread wide, to even Facebook and comedy shows on TV. Two, the fire is crackling now, thanks to the Commonwealth Games. The event was a rare occasion that the two stars performed on the same platform in India. Sania won the tennis silver and Saina took the badminton gold to contribute to India’s 101-medal haul. Indian sport, therefore, did not have to wait till Dussehra for its jewellery gift.

At 24, Sania is four years older than Saina. Sania’s best is now a memory, not a prospect. It is five long years since the highs of 2005. She has entered matrimony, insuring herself not just against crazed male fans but also criticism. Expectations from her are not that high now. When she does well, it seems a bonus. That is what happened in Delhi.

Sania did not play well. But she fought. In the semis, after she lost the first set 6-1 to Australia’s Olivia Rogowska, fans in the queue at ticket booths were prodding attendants with, “Hurry up, the match will get over.” But Sania turned it around, using experience and sense. “Aur bhagaa usse, beta (Make her run more, sonny),” a characteristically uninhibited Delhi spectator, in his 40s, said in approval after Sania ran Rogowska all around the court to win a point. The man was not beyond technical tips either. “Siloo drop,” was his advice at one juncture, as if there is such a thing as a fast drop in tennis.

But by mentioning the drop shot, the Brad Gilbert of Delhi reminded you there’d been none. Of course, nor were there that many volleys. Sania battled with a limited, somewhat blunt arsenal. A weak serve, passable groundstrokes and factors like crowd support. By now, Indians fans are no longer under the illusion that Sania can cause the damage she did in 2005. Spectators in Delhi were frank about the level of her game. But they cheered for her. She remains a star.

“Sania is more glamorous than Saina, tennis is more glamorous than badminton,” says Piyush Hasija, a hotel management student, outside the Siri Fort Sports Complex, where the badminton matches were played.

That is one of the ways Indians see Sania. The hotter one playing a bigger sport. They also see her as the snooty one, somewhat spoilt by money and fame. They see her as someone who got it early. Some have a title for Sania: ‘the world’s wealthiest pre-quarterfinalist’. More charitable fans, however, point out that more countries play tennis than badminton. That reaching a fourth round in a Grand Slam is an achievement. And that Sania, whatever her faults, inspired millions of Indian girls to believe.

(There are in excess of 1,120 ranked women tennis players. The number of ranked women badminton players is about 540. Saina fans concede that the tennis fray is bigger, but feel the sport of badminton is equally difficult to master. They also say that by achieving a much higher ranking—No 2—than Sania, whose best was No 27, Saina has balanced out whatever advantages she may have had in terms of less competition.)

Those who prefer sincerity over style give their vote to Saina. At the spectacular Siri Fort badminton courts, there was a typical rich Delhi kid in the packed stands, sporting thick black Versace spectacles, the kind Amitabh Bachchan wears. He was not a sports enthusiast. But his friend, who he had accompanied, was. “Is she hot?” Versace Glasses asked his friend about Saina before she walked on court, one hand holding a racquet, the other waving to the crowds.

“No, but she’s pleasant looking.”

“What’s the point?” Versace Glasses scoffed.

The point is her results. Saina has now been winning big titles since 2006. She is No 3 in the world, but was No 2 not long ago. Now, at Siri Fort, where Alauddin Khilji once fought off Mongol invaders, Saina saw off the challenge of Scots and Malaysians. Yes, the Chinese were not there. But the pressure of expectation, as intimidating as a Chinese Changdao sword, hung overhead. The home crowd, which also included Rahul Gandhi and Gursharan Kaur, did not hold back when it came to cheering for her. Some of their roars felt like a jet plane flying by the ear. But the same audience, she knew, would have conveyed its disappointment had she lost. So, when match-point down in the final against Malaysia’s Wong Mew Choo, she summoned her best and saved the day. Understandably, her reaction after winning was as much of relief as joy.

Fans and experts believe Saina’s consistent victories make her a bigger achiever than Sania. Prakash Padukone, usually not known for making provocative statements, placed Saina above Sania last year. Sania, he had suggested, achieved a high ranking by cleverly playing lower-tier events.

“I don’t go by the rankings, which can be achieved by picking and choosing the tournaments one wants to play. But Saina has beaten more top-rated players than Sania, and I would rate her performance higher,” Padukone had said.

Secondly, even allowing for Saina’s increasing savvy and self-promotion, she seems more approachable to fans than the sometimes arrogant Sania.

But it is performance, really, that clinches it for Saina.

Harshada Udayashankar, a student in Delhi, says, “Fans should go by performance, not personality. I have no problems with Sania’s personality traits. But Saina has given more results.”

Sanjay, a driver, pays Saina the ultimate compliment. “Sania got involved with other things. Saina is focused on her game. She is like Rahul Dravid.”