A campaign that started by attracting attention from all over ended with a quiet fade into the night. With their match pushed to an outer court that had no TV coverage, Leander Paes and Sania Mirza lost 7-5, 7-6(5) against top-seeded Belarussian team of Max Mirnyi and Victoria Azarenka to end India’s Olympics tennis campaign.
The match was carried over from yesterday, which had to be suspended with Mirnyi-Azarenka leading 7-5, 3-2 (on serve) because of a sudden downpour of rain. The Indians had done well to stay with their high-ranked opponents deep into the first set, but gave up a crucial break of serve at 5-6 to lose the set. But despite that setback, there was little to separate the two teams, as Paes and Sania were more than holding their own in the rallies.
The Indians kept relentlessly piling on the pressure on the Belarussians’ serve. Their persistence was rewarded when they got the early break in the second, and it seemed like they would start taking control of the match from that moment. But their advantage evaporated almost immediately, as they were broken right back, and the score was tied 2-2. Mirnyi-Azarenka then held comfortably for a 3-2 lead before the heavens opened up and forced the match to be postponed.
When play resumed today, Azarenka had already won a medal, having defeated Maria Kirilenko in the bronze medal playoff earlier in the day. That victory seemed to have given her confidence, as she kept a stead hand right from the word ‘go’. Paes-Sania were forced to serve to stay in the match at 4-5 and 5-6, but they held their nerve and took care of their serve. However, they could have made things much easier for themselves if they had taken all their chances. Serving at 5-5, the Belarussian team went down 15-40, handing the Indians two break points. But Paes-Sania squandered both those opportunities, allowing the set to drift to a tiebreaker.
Once the teams went into the breaker, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind who would have the upper hand. Mirnyi-Azarenka, with their superior serves, were always going to be the favorites in a shootout. The Indians did land the first punch, as they got an early mini-break and then led 2-0, but the Belarussians came storming back, winning 5 of the next 6 points to go up 5-3. That’s when Paes-Sania made their last stand, getting the mini-break back and evening things at 5-5. The resurgence was to be short-lived, though, as Mirnyi-Azarenka got another mini-break and then held serve to take the breaker 7-5, and with it the match.
It was a commendable performance from Paes-Sania, who were undoubtedly the underdogs going into the match against the top seeds. Still, that doesn’t hide the fact that this was a disappointing tennis campaign for India by any standard. Paes-Sania were perhaps the country’s strongest medal hope all along, and they were unfortunate to draw the top seeds so early in the tournament. Now a billion people will just have to wait for the country’s youngsters to mature sufficiently in 4 years’ time, so that India can put up a much stronger challenge at Rio in 2016.