Australian Open diary: Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis reaffirm our faith in doubles tennis
For a long time, I've looked at doubles tennis as a bit of a hit-and-giggle exercise that pales in comparison to the real thing, singles. Tennis is an individual spirit, so why must we insist on making it a team event?
There are plenty of reasons, actually, all of which I was blind to in the past. It took sitting in the stands to watch a Grand Slam doubles final, where Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis’ considerable skills were on display, to finally bring me to the light. Doubles deserves its place in the sun for its thrilling, almost mind-bending uniqueness, and I have 'Santina’ to thank for making me (and countless other watchers around the world) realize that.
A lot of things are flipped upside down in doubles; conventional wisdom very rarely applies to the lightning quick points and episodes that unfold. For one thing, the big forehand – of which Mirza hit several today – can sometimes work against you. You’d be laughed off the court if you suggested something similar in singles.
Also, the off-pace loop can work like a charm in doubles – unlike the way it sets up a crushing putaway in singles. Hingis seems to have perfected that shot, and the numerous times she hit her half-lob-half-drive, it had Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka in all sorts of trouble.
Most of all, doubles brings out a fierce conviction, an instinct to dictate rather than react, in the players. That isn't always visible – or necessary – in singles, but it can make all the difference between a businesslike win or loss and a visceral, purely human performance.
Mirza and Hingis have now won three consecutive Grand Slams, as you've probably heard. But this wasn't a straightforward campaign by any means. After coasting through the early rounds they met their match in the final today, and had to pull out every trick from their bag to emerge triumphant.
The serve was their biggest Achilles’ heel, to put it mildly. Neither the Indian nor the Swiss has ever been known for possessing an intimidating serve, and the Czech players pounced all over the ‘Santina’ delivery early on. There were as many as eight breaks in the first set, and Hingis in particular looked livid with herself as she kept failing to hold through a series of double faults and mistimed backhands.
Mirza on her part was being a little tentative with her forehand, partly because Hlavackova kept expertly intercepting it at the net which left Santina with very little time to react. The Indian’s pace of shot was being used against her – and while it made for some spectacular points, it also brought a certain tension in her play that I hadn't seen before in the tournament. The between-point smiles, that have become such a trademark of the Mirza-Hingis partnership, were all but gone.
I was surprised to see that it was actually Mirza who took charge in those moments of self-doubt. Despite being several years younger than Hingis, the Indian seemed to be the de facto leader of the team. She kept trying to keep up Hingis’ spirits, and on occasion even seemed to be asking the five-time singles Major champion to move forward with more urgency.
Of course, Hingis came through when it mattered; the tiebreaker was a one-sided affair, as she unearthed all of her guile and dexterity to coax errors out of the Czechs. And in the second set Mirza started to let her forehand fly, which eased things big time for the Indo-Swiss pair. They were now dictating the play with their offensive mindset and their poaching skills at the net, and there was little the Czechs could do to stop Santina's momentum.
In the post-match press conference Hingis stopped short of calling Mirza’s forehand the best in the world – but only just. “She's one of the hardest-hitting players out there,” Hingis said. “Her forehand is, if not the best in the world – okay maybe Serena can hit it as hard – but yeah, there's not that many people in the world who can match her in the forehand rallies.”
Being compared to Serena Williams – can Mirza ever ask for anything more? This is truly her moment to sparkle.
The big forehand can sometimes work against you in doubles, yes. But when you complement it with some smart net play – which Hingis displayed a lot of today – then you have a winning formula that is hard to beat. Mirza and Hingis are each one half of the perfect doubles team; Mirza has the firepower, and Hingis the court smarts. So it's not entirely shocking they've been on such an irresistible run lately.
But what is even more heartening than their success is the way they've gone about it all. They have motivated each other to get better, and have also nursed each other through the tough times. “She's an amazing champion, but I've got to know her as a person, and she's an amazing person too,” Mirza said simply, at the presentation ceremony.
And Hingis was even more to the point. “Thank you Sania; without you I wouldn't be here,” she said.
And we the observers need to thank you both, Sania and Martina. The show that you've put on these last 12 months – of brilliant tennis, excellent coordination and amazing camaraderie – has brought doubles into the spotlight again. It's not for nothing that you are now considered one vertex of the troika of dominant players ruling the tennis world at the moment; the other two being Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams.
If you had to bet on which one of Djokovic or Santina will complete the non-calendar Grand Slam at the French Open this year, who would you put your money on? That might just be the hardest and most delicious question in tennis right now.