One WTA & 14 ITF titles after eight and a half years of turning pro aren’t numbers you would associate with great players, but coming from a country like India (which isn’t reputed for tennis talent) that is a decent achievement. Though Sania Mirza may not stand anyway near the likes of Serena & Venus Williams, she can proudly carry the tag of being India’s only player in those disciplines at the highest level. Plagued by injuries to parts of the body which are key to performance – wrist, back & knee, she is contemplating giving up playing singles altogether. At the same time there is a big news doing rounds from her camp that she might partner Bob Bryan, the World Number One doubles player during the Australian Open of 2013. Certain media reports have confirmed Bob will pair up with Sania. A career illuminated with 12 doubles Grand Slams and seven mixed doubles Grand Slams has a strange void: Bob hasn’t won the Australian Open with a female partner! At 34, he isn’t getting any younger and the number of chances to redeem glory at Melbourne aren’t increasing. On the surface, it might appear that Bob is taking a gamble partnering Sania for a tournament he wants to desperately win, for 2012 has been a forgettable year for Sania. A closer look at Sania’s doubles recent history would suggest otherwise.
In the last four years she has made it to three Grand Slam finals (mixed doubles). Incidentally, two out of the three finals have been at Melbourne! Her doubles profile too has been on the rise in the last couple of years. Though she hasn’t won a doubles Grand Slam, two semi-finals & a final in the last two years is testimony to her rise as a prominent doubles player. She broke through the Top 10 ratings (doubles) earlier this year and is currently ranked 13th. In the last couple of seasons, her rise as a doubles player has coincided with her successful partnership with Mahesh Bhupathi. The drama surrounding the Olympics selection and the subsequent strain in on-field relations meant Sania was left to find a new partner.
This new venture with a ‘good friend’ can help Sania move on and focus on growing her reputation as a doubles player. Technically though, critics have already hinted at adjustments this duo will have to imbibe, as both are primarily deuce players. Though she had a decent run alongside Elena Vesnina earlier in 2012 and finished the season alongside Nuria Llagostera, she hasn’t taken a call on her doubles partner for 2013.In fact apart from her partner for mixed doubles, there appears too much haziness in her mind & speech regarding her plans for the next season. The tennis player in her wants to compete in the singles circuit, but the fragile body is holding those thoughts back. Doubles tennis is like a 400 m relay race, which provides space for individual glory and the total result is a sum of individual efforts, a format ideal for Sania’s state of career. The booming forehand is Sania’s big strength, but her arsenal lacks flexible court coverage, spontaneity and ability to play to the opponent’s weakness. The singles format in a way exploits these weaknesses but the doubles platform provides a cushioning blanket to the grey areas and the space to play to her strengths.
Certain players are better suited for certain formats, and it is the prerogative of the individual to realize and identify it at the right stage of his/her career. Sania Mirza is at the cross-roads of her career after experiencing singles failures, doubles glories, controversies and injuries. They say experience matures a person and that is probably the reason she is hinting at quitting singles. Experts and peers can provide better and technically appropriate directions to her career. The wise fans & followers would probably suggest playing the format which is physically less demanding and the one which could optimize her skills.
To be a good doubles player, you need to be aware of and should be able to complement your partner’s game. Sania has been found wanting in the latter aspect, but it isn’t beyond her to pick that up. Quitting singles would be a huge decision for somebody who begun as primarily a singles player. We don’t know whether Sania’s talent was limited to whatever she has achieved thus far, but a radical decision now could provide the space to portray her inhibited skills and could unclutter her mind about her limited achievements as a singles player. Hopefully her kitty & her hunger still have the space for some big achievements!