Hobart International 2020: Even after spending two years off the court, Sania Mirza’s forehand has lost none of its sting

  • Sania Mirza had been out of action for over two years after childbirth, having played her last competitive tennis match in 2017

  • Sania and her partner Nadia Kichenok from Ukraine beat the pair of Oksana Kalashnikova and Miyu Kato 2-6, 7-6, 10-3 in a match that lasted for an hour and 41 minutes

  • The Indo-Ukrainian pair will face Vania King and Christina McHale in the quarter-finals on Wednesday

When you saw Sania Mirza arrive for any of her matches, the first thing that struck you was how unthreatening she looked. Shorter and stockier than most of her peers, with a trademark visor pulled low over her forehead, Sania was almost invariably the most diminutive player on the court. She was the antithesis of the Maria Sharapovas and Serena Williamses of the world, at least in terms of appearance.

As she took the court for her comeback match at the Hobart International today, that feeling came flooding back. She was partnering Nadiia Kichenok for a first-round match against Miyu Kato and Oksana Kalashnikova and compared to her imposing opponents, she looked like a kid.

But the feeling vanished the moment she unleashed the power of Thor on one of her forehands.

That’s how it has always been with Sania. No matter how much she may struggle with her fitness, or her serve, or her movement, she can make up for everything with the sheer pace on her groundstrokes. That hasn’t changed even after she’s given birth. Despite spending two years away from the court and going through tremendous physical upheaval, today she looked just as dominant in the baseline exchanges as she has ever been.

This was Sania’s first competitive match since the China Open back in 2017. She entered the Hobart event using a protected ranking, and the draw gods were kind enough to pit her and Kichenok against the unseeded – and unheralded – pair of Kato and Kalashnikova.

But in the first set, nothing seemed to go the way of Sania-Kichenok. Although both of them were fairly solid from the back of the court, Kichenok missed a few tough volleys under pressure while Sania looked hesitant to make interceptions at the net. It didn’t help that the pair got unlucky net-chords on both the breakpoints they surrendered.

Kato-Kalashnikova on their part were absolutely unyielding in the big moments; they saved all seven break points in the set and pocketed it 6-2. When they broke in the opening game of the second, it looked like Sania’s comeback party was going to be short-lived.

It wasn’t that Sania and Kichenok were doing anything horribly wrong. They just didn’t seem to know the best way to approach the match – whether to try and outmuscle their opponents, or outlast them – and the indecisiveness was showing in their play.

At 2-6, 0-1, it was desperate times. And that’s when Sania’s time-tested instincts kicked in.

She and Kichenok decided to take a step back and let Sania’s forehand dictate the points. Kichenok stopped making as many interceptions as she was in the first set; that allowed Sania to patrol the baseline with her wicked angles and depth, and elicit weak replies from Kato and Kalashnikova.

Her confidence slowly returning, Sania also started poaching more often at the net – which in turn prevented the less-consistent Kichenok from getting stuck into too many rallies. The switch was all that was needed to not just get themselves back into the match but also start bossing it. Sania and Kichenok soon went up 5-2 in the second set, and a deciding super-tiebreak looked all but guaranteed.

They did get broken while serving for the set at 5-3, but by then Sania was fully dialled in. Her movement was still a little sluggish, but she made up for that by throwing up a few moonballs when pushed wide. In the tiebreaker, she and Kichenok were helped considerably by a few routine volley errors from Kalashnikova, but there was no mistaking the superior pair among the two.

The match tiebreaker was more or less a formality, as Sania and Kichenok were all over their opponents from the backcourt as well as the forecourt. That, aided by some solid serving, meant they conceded just three points before wrapping up a win that was a little more authoritative than the scoreline suggests.

So how does Sania’s game compare to its pre-pregnancy version? She was understandably rusty in the beginning, especially with her volleys, but as the match progressed she became a lot more proactive at the net. And while she did seem to be serving within herself throughout, the positive trade-off was that she got a lot of first serves in and made just one double fault.

Most importantly, her forehand looked just as venomous as it did before her hiatus. She had little trouble dominating the proceedings from the back of the court and was totally comfortable sliding her feet into her shots. The only real issue seemed to be her ability to track down drop shots – she was nowhere close to a couple of them – but that’s something that will likely improve as she plays more matches.

Sania and Kichenok will next play the accomplished pair of Christina McHale and Vania King, and in that match, it would be unlikely for Sania to get into a baseline groove as easily as she did against Kato-Kalashnikova. But the signs are good for the 33-year-old right now, and if she takes it one match at a time, there’s no reason why she can’t get back to her best by the middle of the year.

Not that she has any such lofty aims herself. “I don’t really have any expectations,” she had said in November when announcing her comeback plans. “Anything I achieve after this is really a bonus in my life. Because if I look back on my career, after everything I have achieved, I can easily just say that it’s been a great career.”

That kind of sentiment has been echoed by a lot of new mothers returning to the professional circuit – the likes of Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Kim Clijsters, and even Sania’s one-time partner Cara Black. But as all these women discovered eventually, the thrill of competing on the court is too addictive to let go.

You don’t stop being a champion after you give birth. If anything, some (like Clijsters) start playing with more freedom, because they know there are more important things to worry about than losing a tennis match.

“I feel I still have some competitive tennis left in me, which is why I’m here,” Sania had added back in November. She certainly does have a lot of fierce forehands left in her, if today’s match is any indication.

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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2020 17:08:38 IST