3 years


First Round Flameout

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Why Li Na made it and Sania Mirza didn’t

The primal howls and grunts of tennis players call to mind creatures of the wild, and there have been times when the two have come face to face. A few years ago, organisers of the Sony Ericsson Open tennis tournament in Miami scheduled a photo-op with players and animals from the city’s Jungle Island zoo. A candid photo of Sania Mirza and three other players was clicked at one such shoot. Wearing a dark track suit, Sania has a primate astride her shoulders. In another image, the monkey has hopped on to the arm of another player, while a giant blue African parrot is perched on Sania’s head. The Indian seems to be having a good time.

On court, however, there has been little cheer for Sania. She is still doing well in doubles but her singles career is all but over. One feels especially sorry about this seeing the leaps Li Na of China has made as a player in the last few years. Li Na was always a better player than Sania. But there was a phase when the gap between the two was narrow. At the end of 2005, the year Sania made a spunky debut on the circuit, the Indian was ranked No. 31. Li Na was No. 57. Both reached the third round at the Australian Open that year. At the US Open, Sania did much better. She reached the fourth round while Li Na crashed out in the first. In the 2006 Doha Asian Games, one of the highlights of Sania’s career where she won three medals (one gold, two silver), she and Li Na met in the singles semifinals. The result was a resounding straight sets win for Sania. Vociferous encouragement from Indians at the venue did play a role, but it was a convincing win nevertheless. Till 2007, Sania was in the hunt. Li Na finished the year ranked 29. Sania was just three spots behind.

Then Li Na defied gravity and moved to a higher plane, while Sania slid down the rankings, quit singles and now earns her wages as a doubles player. Such has been Li Na’s rise that it is hard to imagine she and Sania were once in the same bracket. In 2011, Li Na did something that for long was unthinkable for an Asian player. She won a singles Grand Slam (the French Open). Last week, she reached the final of the Australian Open for a second time. She is now ranked No. 5 in singles. At nearly 31, and given her history of mental battles, more deep runs in Grand Slams may be difficult for Li Na. The 26-year-old Sania, on the other hand, has a few years left in the game. But there is no way she can even come close to matching Li Na’s achievements.

Why did two players who were somewhat on par have such different career arcs? The reasons have to do with the individuals as well as their circumstances.

The main difference between Li Na and Sania is fitness. Li Na was always a more athletic, more hardworking player than Sania, even factoring in Sania’s injuries. Li Na attributed her run to the Australian Open final this year to a boot camp in Beijing. On the other hand, movement was never Sania’s strong suit, even before she had the excuse of injury. Her serve was shaky too. Sania’s game relied heavily on her cannonball groundstrokes. But to make it big, you have to serve well. If not that, you have to be a tireless retriever. An ability to run an entire season of ‘CID’ is what makes legends in modern tennis. Sania has some noteworthy achievements. But she could have done more had she been in better shape. Asked if her fitness limitations can be blamed on her injuries, a person who has followed Sania’s career closely says, “No. I just don’t think she got serious about it early enough. When she did, it was late.”

A former tennis player and coach says, “Let’s not forget that what Sania did initially was creditable. Indian players don’t have much of a system and for her to make the fourth round of a Grand Slam and beat some big players on the circuit (like Martina Hingis and Svetlana Kuz- netsova) was remarkable. But being an aggressive player and not the fittest, her body started breaking down. Her lack of fitness made her prone to injury.”

There is also the matter of distraction. Early in her career, Sania got disproportionate rewards for the smallest of victories. Part of the blame lay with the media and her sponsors. But the Mirzas were also guilty of lapping it up. Perhaps it was human. Making a tennis player, especially in India, means spending money and energy. When the rewards come, it’s tempting to cash in. But a line should have been drawn somewhere. For example, Sania should not have allowed an ad campaign (it was for a bicycle or scooter) to refer to her as ‘Wimbledon champion’ when all she had won at the time was the junior doubles title at Wimbledon. The title ‘Wimbledon champion’ has some prestige, and it wasn’t hers by right.

She could claim it if she had won the women’s singles or junior singles title. Mixed doubles or junior doubles don’t count. Sachin Tendulkar famously got a Pepsi ad reworked when it made him look bigger than the game. That same sense of propriety could have been invoked by Team Sania.

A well-travelled tennis administrator with a particular interest in the grassroots level of the game says, “In China, no one gave a damn about Li Na till she won something significant. She was just one among many promising tennis players. And tennis was just one among many sports in which China had goals. But in India, with its dearth of top sportsmen, Sania very quickly became a big deal. That certainly wasn’t healthy for her in the long term.”

Infrastructure and guidance are also a reason. Serena and Venus Williams became champions practising on a rough public court in a violent California neighbourhood. They were coached by a loony father, but then they are the Williams siblings. Lesser mortals need a support system. Li Na was a trainee in the controversial but respected state-sponsored sports programme in China, and therefore had continuous access to the best facilities and advice. Even though she opted out of the programme later on, most of her formative years were spent there. Sania, however, had to depend on private sponsors, which brings its own pressures and uncertainties. And while you may have a sponsor, you also need world-class physical trainers and tournaments with quality opposition.

Li Na’s win at the French Open and her appearance in Grand Slam finals reminds you of Steve Jobs’ famous words to John Sculley. Sculley was with Pepsi. Jobs wanted him to join Apple. He asked him, “Do you really want to sell sugar water, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” Li Na made history. She changed the world for Asian players. By comparison, Sania sold sugar water.