Jun 28, 2008

The Nirmal Shekar Column

London: In sport, as in life, everybody wants to be somewhere else, no matter where they happen to be.
But in the unforgiving cauldron of competition, “you must run twice as fast” to get anywhere else, as Alice found out in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.
On Thursday, in the 122nd Wimbledon championships, Sania Mirza sought new vistas in her own heart and soul to steer clear of the hole in which she found herself, running twice as fast.
But it was still not good enough against a Spanish journeywoman — Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez — who was boldly punching way above her weight in a second round match that lasted eight minutes over two hours.Nightmarish start
Playing in only her fifth match after a three-month injury lay-off, Sania overcame a nightmarish start — she lost the first eight games of the match — to come within a point of victory four times in the third set. But the left-handed Martinez Sanchez, one of a handful of women who tend not to mistake the net for a guillotine, backed her own serving and volleying skills to outlast Sania 6-0, 4-6, 9-7 to go through to the third round.
Surely, as much as the No. 32 ranked Indian, Martinez Sanchez, world ranked 101 and tasting success for the first time in the main draw of a Grand Slam event, too desperately wanted to get somewhere else. On Thursday, she did, at Sania’s cost.
The last few months have been a frustrating period for Sania. She believes that she was playing some of the best tennis of her career when the wrist injury forced her out of the game. And her eagerness to regain lost ground is understandable.
Then again, things seldom fall in place quite as easily as a player would want to after the rehabilitation period. More often than not, you have to start from the foothills all over again and the task might appear daunting.
Sania, for her part, offered the hope on Thursday that she might be closer to her customary altitude than her first round match — or the horrendous start she endured in the second round — might have suggested.
From the third game of the second set, until the 15th of the decider when she lost serve — perhaps demoralised by the four matchpoints she had failed to convert — Sania played with the confidence and authority of old.
Martinez Sanchez, aged 25, can be a tricky opponent on grass; well, in fact, she was. A left-hander with a big serve, she uses every inch of the court space, moving on light feet and thriving on subtle changes of pace. Her volleying skills were impressive but what took the breath away were those delightful half volleys she scooped up with a dazzling sleight of hand.Exhilarating tennis
The Spaniard quickly silenced the dozens of Indian supporters on the showcourt No. 11 with a brand of tennis that was exhilarating to watch but withering to face. But once she won her first game of the match, on serve, Sania was on her way.
Obviously, Martinez Sanchez was going to find it difficult to sustain that level of play and when Sania lifted herself and raced through the second set and then opened up a 2-0 lead in the third, few would have backed a player ranked outside the top 100.
Sania had one matchpoint in the 10th game of the decider and three more in the 12th, all of them on the Spanish woman’s serve.
Sania could have blamed herself only on one occasion, for an unforced error. The other three times, Martinez Sanchez went for broke on her serve and her instincts paid off.
A deft drop set up the break for the Spaniard in the 15th game and she confidently served out the match in the next.
Even as Sania was squandering all those matchpoints, a teenager by the name of Ernests Gulbis, tiny Latvia’s best known export, matched Rafael Nadal, the four-time French champion and second seed, shot for shot and then broke the Spaniard’s serve in the 12th game to take the first set.
Of course, for Rafa, panic threshold is not really a threshold; for it does not exist. He moved up a gear and normal service resumed although, once again in the third set, the impressive youngster ran the Spaniard close before Nadal won 5-7, 6-2, 7-6(2), 6-3 in two hours and 56 minutes to take his place in the third round.
If Nadal is aiming for the big prize here — and perhaps the No.1 ranking by the end of the year — then, by comparison, Gulbis’ ambitions are modest.
Yet, it would be a surprise if we don’t find him in the top 10 in a year or two.
Surely, nobody is happy where they are — which, of course, is what makes life and sport interesting.
In gathering darkness, India’s Mahesh Bhupathi and Mark Knowles of the Bahamas, seeded four in the men’s doubles, were beaten 7-5, 6-2, 7-6 by Philipp Petzschner of Germany and Alexander Peya of Austria in a first round match.

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