Sania Mirza will use her champion's attitude to bring a medal at the Tokyo Olympics - Vishnu Vardhan
Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, Sania Mirza's former partner Vishnu Vardhan pitches her chances at the upcoming Games and talks about the current scenario of Indian tennis and how it can improve.
It is spelling good times for Indian tennis once again with veteran players making a return on the Grand Slam circuit. Led by Sania Mirza, a 6-time Grand Slam champion and a former World No. 1 in women's doubles – Indian tennis has once again come into the spotlight with Mirza's thunderous return to the grass courts of Wimbledon where she had tasted her career's first Major title success in 2003.
Heading into the Tokyo Olympics, the recent trends in Indian tennis look bright and promising and The Bridge got in touch with ace Olympian tennis player Vishnu Vardhan for a freewheeling chat to analyse the same and look ahead into the scopes of improvement for tennis in India.
Back on the courts training once again, Vishnu Vardhan recently recovered from COVID-19 and is excitedly looking forward to contesting in upcoming tournaments. The grass-court loving player who roots for Novak Djokovic among the Big Three discussed the highs and the minor lows that Indian tennis has been seeing of late and suggested ways to overcome these hurdles to pivot India higher up the ladder of success.
Sania Mirza's 'champion attitude' will help her at the Tokyo Olympics
Exhibiting a fierce form, a 34-year-old Sania Mirza barely looked like she has been absent from regular tennis action for a long gap of 3 years as she steamrolled into the second round of both the Wimbledon Women's Doubles as well as the Wimbledon Women's Mixed Doubles. Although Mirza's women's doubles campaign came to an end shortly after in the second round, the Mirza-Bopanna pair are still very much in the league for a maiden title on the Wimbledon turf.
In fact, the Mixed Doubles clash in the first round was pretty historic as it saw an all-Indian spar-off for the first time in Wimbledon history. Soon-to-be partners at the Tokyo Olympics, Sania Mirza squared off against Ankita Raina in the mixed doubles encounter with Rohan Bopanna as her partner while Raina teamed up with Ramkumar Ramanathan.
Vardhan, a former World No. 92 player in men's doubles excitedly relayed, "It's amazing actually - it's really great for Indian tennis right now as it (the all-Indian clash) went viral in a certain way. That's what tennis has needed for a very long time in India, I feel," the Secunderabad-resident gushed. "Especially with Sania coming back on the tour so bombastically - I feel that Indian tennis is back on the limelight after her wonderful performance in her opening round matches at the Wimbledon, " Vardhan stressed emphatically.
Sania, who went off the tour in 2018 to give birth to her son, Izhaan with her Pakistani cricketer husband Shoaib Malik is now back on the tennis circuit and is notching fantastic wins at her first Wimbledon championships as a mother.
"Me and Sania go way back, as we hail from the same city. I have had the opportunity to train and practise with Sania and she has always had a champion's attitude from the beginning, if I may say so, " Vishnu Vardhan nostalgically recalls.
In India, when it comes to tennis, Sania Mirza is the one name apart from Leander Paes who have been-there-and-done-it-all. Vishnu Vardhan, who has had the privilege to play with both – partnering them at prestigious tournaments, is full of praise.
With Sania, Vardhan went on to win a silver medal at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games and over the years, through their many associations on and off the court, Vardhan has imbibed quite a lot of knowledge from the 6-time Grand Slam champion.
"The biggest lesson I learned from the 2010 Asian Games when I played with her was how to handle pressure - I owe a lot of the success to her and she helped me get the mindset to stay positive especially when things are not going your way in the match," Vishnu Vardhan candidly stated, his voice hinting a deep sense of gratitude.
The 33-year-old Vardhan who became a father recently as well expressed his deepest respect for Sania – who is quite the supermom and is doing an incredible job managing both her life as a tennis pro as well as the mother of Izhaan.
"I'm feeling very proud to see Sania back on the tour and making a comeback. Last year when we trained together in Hyderabad, Sania gave me a lot of tricks and tips for parenting as I'm also having a 3-year-old at home. Like Sania, even I wanted to give time to my kid and at the same time balance my career and she is doing such an incredible job at juggling both - and taught me a lot about the right parenting approaches," Vardhan exclaims with a chuckle.
Later in July, Sania Mirza will also be going for her fourth-straight Olympics at Tokyo and she will be partnering with Ankita Raina, the current India No. 1. Missing out on a medal by a whisker at the 2016 Rio Olympics where Mirza and Bopanna made it till the semi-finals of the mixed doubles, Sania's decorated trophy cabinet lacks the Olympic medal.
Vardhan, who played at the 2012 London Olympics himself along with Leander Paes, mentioned, "Sania was very close to getting a medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. That's just one more feather in the cap that is missing from Sania - a medal at the Olympics," he said. "She is making sure for India that she is scripting her comeback right on time for the Olympics, " Vardhan convincingly added.
Having also watched Ahmedabad's Ankita Raina grow in leaps and bounds on the professional tour, Vishnu Vardhan observed, "Ankita is also playing really well and is at a good point in her career - she is the India No. 1 in women's singles and doubles. They have a good chance to medal if only Ankita can handle the pressure because it's going to be a whole different stage and it will her debut outing. If they have a good draw and manage a good start, they have the potential to go the distance and win a medal," Vardhan mentions, his suggestions stemming from once being in the same nervous shoes like that of Ankita's when he partnered the legend, Leander Paes, at the 2012 London Olympics.
Is it the decline in doubles or just poor luck?
The coronavirus induced pandemic has played spoilsport to practically every aspect of life and the Indian tennis fraternity wasn't spared the horror of the same. Owing to the pandemic, a number of tournaments got slashed and the Wimbledon 2020 was also called off - reducing the chances greatly of players looking to maintain their rankings on the tour.
Given the circumstances, India's No. 1 men's doubles pair of Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan, have so far, failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Missing the mark, India will not have representation in the men's doubles for the first time since the 1992 Barcelona Games when a young Leander Paes had teamed up with Ramesh Krishnan. With Rohan Bopanna not making the cut, this further dims India's chances for a medal in the Mixed Doubles as there won't be anybody to participate alongside Sania Mirza.
Reflecting on this development, Vishnu says, "Any other year, Rohan and Divij would have been very close to qualifying with their combined ranking. Rohan has had the opportunity to play in Grand Slams and maintain a top-40 ranking. But it has been a difficult year for Sharan as he dropped by 10-15 spots in the ranking. Unfortunately, this could have been due to COVID as Asians couldn't travel as easily as the Europeans and Americans for tournaments," he comprehensively puts.
In men's doubles, India has always had a great legacy due to legends like Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi who re-defined doubles tennis for Indians at the grandest of stages, bagging a lot of laurels during their heydays. Few have been able to reach the heights that the duo reached and Vishnu Vardhan candidly states, "We aren't lacking as such but it is very tough to fill the shoes of players like Leander and Mahesh. They have been constantly at the top and has consistently represented tricolour at the highest level. They have shown that even in their 40's they can play and still win, which is incredible - they have been absolute flagbearers of the sport in India."
Going on, Vardhan continues, "We have always had a good depth in doubles. A lot of Indian players are present within the top 100-150. I would say this year it was really unfortunate but then again, withdrawals are still taking place so luck might shine on Bopanna and Divij," the 33-year-old tennis ace states, a tinge of hope in his expectant voice.
Invest in potential, performance will automatically come - Vishnu Vardhan
The need for seeing every sport individually is important and Vishnu Vardhan can't emphasise more on that fact. In India, sports has been seen in a tri-partite division for the longest time; while football and cricket enjoy a mass frenzy, all other sports get grouped together under one broad umbrella struggling to shelter all of them equally.
"For example, badminton and tennis were looked at with the same eyes. Suppose, in tennis somebody has cracked inside the top 200 in the rankings while someone else, a badminton player, has been ranked well within the top 100 or 50 on BWF rankings, then the funds are automatically put in favour of the badminton player. You see, earlier this would happen a lot. People failed to understand that the rules and conditions vary for every sport - being in the top 200 in the tennis rankings is also as big a deal as is breaking into the top 100 in badminton, given that in tennis the list is done with 2500 players - the competition is much more intense," the Hyderabad native thoroughly explained.
While the government has been taking active steps to improve the condition of tennis and its infrastructure in India, there is still a long way to go. Vishnu, who was taken under the Commonwealth Games Scheme and supported as he was once India's most shining prospects in tennis, remarked how for the proper growth to take place a correct distribution of the funds need to take place.
"I've said this many times and I do believe that one should invest in potential and the performance will automatically come. Identifying potential is of primary importance and thereby, nurturing it. What happens here is only when you win an Asian Games or an Olympic medal, you get the recognition and more funds come in for you - which shouldn't be the case, ideally," the 2010 Asian Games bronze medallist relays.
A change in mindset is, however, taking place steadily and the tennis of the last decade is not the same as it is now. More opportunities have opened up and sports is being seen as a career option as well - which was hardly the case a few years ago even when education ruled the roost in the country. Just like Rome wasn't built in a day, so isn't it easy to make changes overnight in a nation as orthodox-minded as India but there are big positive markers to watch out for going ahead, Vishnu Vardhan believes that this change is what will propel the country to greater heights in tennis - with the likes of Sumit Nagal and Karman Kaur Thandi being its next set of torchbearers.