Two to Tango

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Double delight Sania Mirza (right) and Cara Black after winning the Portugal Open, Photo: AFP
Double delight Sania Mirza (right) and Cara Black after winning the Portugal Open, Photo: AFP

Ten years ago, it would have been inconceivable to imagine that a female Indian tennis player would win 20 international titles, even if in doubles. That’s what Sania Mirza achieved when she partnered Zimbabwean Cara Black at the recent Portugal Open.

Over the years, as it often happens with doubles specialists, Mirza has played with different partners, but now as she gets into her late 20s — a “peaking time” for a doubles player — she seems to have settled into a nice rhythm with Black, a former world No. 1, and a pedigreed player, whose brothers, Wayne and Byron, have themselves won men’s doubles titles at Grand Slams. Partnering her brother Wayne, Cara, too, has won two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. In all, she has five each of women’s and mixed doubles Grand Slams. Incidentally, Mirza, too, has two mixed doubles Grand Slam wins, both with Mahesh Bhupathi.

Late last year, Mirza and Black, whose attempts to team up before had fallen through for various reasons — Black took time off to have a baby in 2012 and Sania had committed to some other partner — decided to come together as a team. With neither producing the desired results, the pair came together for the Asian swing and they hit it off straight away.

“We have been meaning to, but weren’t able to put it together,” Mirza said later. “Then it so happened that this year (2013), we were struggling with our respective partners. Just before the US Open, we decided we would play the Asian tournaments together as we were both without partners.”

Mirza and Black have committed to playing most of 2014 together and that could end up with a trip in October to the elite Road to Singapore event. The Mirza-Black team’s first outing together brought them instant success. First a win in the premier-level Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo, and the following week, they added the China Open title in Beijing, which they clinched with a straight-sets 6-2, 6-2 win over Vera Dushevina and Arantxa Parra Santonja. Then came the 6-4, 6-3 win against the Czech-Russian duo of Eva Hrdinova and Valeria Solovyeva at the Portugal Open in Oeiras. Finally, last week, the team made it to the quarter-finals of the Madrid Open, which they lost to top seeds Hsieh Su-wei and Shuai Peng by a very narrow margin of 7-5, 1-6, 8-10.

In between, the pair reached the finals at Indian Wells and Stuttgart, and the semi-finals at Miami. Not a bad show at all for a pair that has played just around 10 events together.

This time, the WTA has increased the women’s doubles field from four to eight for the season-ending Road to Singapore Championships in October. The top eight women’s singles players and the top eight women’s doubles pairs at the end of the year will play in the BNP Paribas WTA Championships presented by SC Global at the state-of-the-art $1.3 billion Singapore Sports Hub on 17-26 October. The event will be part of a 10-day sporting extravaganza. After the Madrid Open, the Indo-Zimbabwean pair are seeded second right behind top seeds Italians Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani.

Tennis watchers have labelled Mirza- Black as the ‘breakthrough pair’. At Oeiras, they beat Grand Slam champions and the former world No. 1 team of Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond. Ironically, Sania’s first three women’s doubles titles, albeit at a lower tier-III level, came with Huber back in 2004 and 2006. In the time since, Sania has won with numerous partners — Bethanie Mattek-Sands (4), Huber (3), Elena Vesnina (2), Cara (3) and one each with eight others.

Black, 35, said after the win at Portugal, “It’s a good start for us on clay — the final last week in Stuttgart and a title this week. Hopefully, we can keep going like this and stay consistent through the whole year.” With the clay season in full swing, there will be a lot to play for. It has already started with the Madrid Open and will lead up to the French Open in two weeks’ time.

Mirza, who has never played the year-ending event, which until last year was played in Istanbul, Turkey, was ecstatic about the success and the possibility of finishing in the elite eight for the BNP Paribas WTA Championships. “If you keep your consistency up, then that kind of takes care of itself,” she said. “We are not really trying to focus just on the end result, it’s unnecessary pressure. Of course, the goal is to get there at the end of the year, but it’s more important to just keep improving and playing our best.”

Earlier this year, before the season began, Black turned up in Hyderabad to train with Mirza, who with the Zimbabwean’s help, worked on her serve, her weak spot ever since she made a mark on the international scene.

This year, besides the inclusion of eight teams instead of four, the BNP Paribas WTA Championships is also moving from a round-robin format to elimination rounds. In the singles, where the top eight players qualify for the season-ending event, the rankings are led by world No. 1 Serena Williams. Mirza and Black have replaced Russians Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, another former Mirza partner, as No. 2 in the world rankings.

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