Sunday, July 12, 2015

This Week in Indian Tennis

We're taking a brief break from our traditional "This Week in American Tennis" to bring you a special one-off: This Week in Indian Tennis. Because Indian players had an exceptional week at multiple levels, and credit must be paid! So apologies to Serena Williams, Reilly Opelka, and Daniel Nguyen, all of whom normally would have been the subject of rapturous odes to their brilliant, history-making weeks (SW21, Opelka's continuation of American domination in junior tennis, Nguyen's leap into the Top 200). Expect TWiAT to resume its normal schedule next week.

1. Sania Mirza adds to her iconic status. She was already a legendary figure by the time she arrived at Wimbledon a couple of weeks ago. The number one doubles player in the world (first Indian woman to accomplish that), winner of three mixed doubles crowns, 26 WTA doubles titles, and, a decade before, a singles title (the first Indian woman to accomplish that). But what Sania Mirza, partnering Martina Hingis, accomplished on the grass courts this past fortnight was special: they won the women's doubles crown, Hingis' first non-mixed doubles major since 2002, and Mirza's first-ever non-mixed major.

Mirza & Hingis. (c) Wimbledon

Hingis was a great addition to Team Mirza. After Mirza won the WTA Finals with Cara Black last year, they ended their partnership and Mirza connected with one of her Singapore opponents, Hsieh Su-wei to start 2015. But that pair never really gelled (Hsieh feeling uncomfortable on the Ad side) and soon after a poor result at the Australian Open, Mirza was able to secure a dream-team partner in the form of Martina Hingis, who broke her partnership with Flavia Pennetta. Sania and Martina had immediate success, with back-to-back titles at Indian Wells and Miami, both times over Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova in the finals.

On Saturday, they saw those same Russians across the net, and for a while, things were going somewhat poorly. Down a set, they took the second set in a tiebreak; but then in the third, Hingis got broken in her first service game and the top seeds found themselves a game away from the runners up trophies, serving at 2*-5 after Vesnina held from 0-40. This time, though, Hingis got her hold, and a weak Makarova service game got the match back on serve. Another hold by Mirza at 4*-5 and the Centre Court roof closed due to darkness. But not before this shot by the Indian:

The stop in play didn't stop their momentum. Another break, and it was Hingis to serve for the championship. And this time, the woman who was already a multiple slam champion back in the 90s came through. A thrilling win, and deserved one, for both ladies. But it had to be particularly satisfying for Mirza - who gets two more "firsts" - the first woman from her country to get a Wimbledon trophy and the first to win any women's doubles grand slam title.

Having been a fan of Mirza since she arrived in the Top 100, I was thrilled for her.
(And someone perhaps a tad more prominent also got in on the congratulations.)

2. Leander Paes: still a marvel. This man has won at least a challenger doubles title every year for 24 years. This man has played with 100 different men in his incredible career. And now, less than a month after turning 42, Leander Paes logged his 8th mixed doubles slam title - and second of 2015, both with Martina Hingis. (Hingis should get a gold star for the help she provided Indian tennis this week!)

In the final, Paes was his usual creative self, hitting unexpected shots and helping keep Alexander Peya and Timea Babos on their heels for two sets of dominating tennis. 6-1 6-1. It was the most lopsided Wimbledon Mixed Doubles final since Randolph Lycett and Elizabeth Ryan defeated Albertem Prebble and Dorothea Chambers 6-0 6-0 in 1919, the year after World War I.

It was Paes' 4th Wimbledon title, all with a different partner. Leander can be a bit of a pill at times, but he's been an outstanding figure in Indian tennis since his great junior career, and he's likely a shoo-in for the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Great to see him get this title.

3. Somdev Devvarman seals epic deal. It was the longest Challenger final in the history of recorded time (i.e. since 1991), and it had to go indoors after a fifth rain delay demanded it. And in the end, Somdev Devvarman, the best Indian player of his generation, won the Winnetka final 7-5 4-6 7-6(5) over Daniel Nguyen. It was Devvarman's first title - in fact, his first semifinal - since the New Delhi Challenger in February.

Devvarman looked like a man in total control of his game all week. It was a pleasure to watch (and interview) him in person, as his game can be so unique and fun when working. As Ryan Harrison, his semifinal opponent, pointed out, Devvarman loves to bring you to the net and then hit that pass. It could be a running backhand. It could be a forehand slice that just curves in. It might be a lob from either. But boy, he can make you look foolish. In his first round match against highly touted American teen Frances Tiafoe, Devvarman's craft inspired a reporter to write that Tiafoe was in over his head at this level. But by the end of the week, it was clear that Devvarman had a lot to do with that perception.

Any match that goes to a third-set tiebreak is going to be intense. But the Winnetka final was something special. Down a set and 4-0, Nguyen finally clawed his way back into the match. Whatever exhaustion his legs felt from reaching his first career challenger final seemingly disappeared and he started hitting with abandon. To help matters, Devvarman tossed in some errors, and the American won six straight games to take the second set. And then when he went up an early break in the third, the truly remarkable comeback title for the man who clinched two NCAA team titles seemed to be a fait accompli. But Devvarman, the man who won two individual NCAA titles, had other ideas: he broke back, then went up 5*-4, serving for the title.

By this time, the proceedings had moved indoors, so the recording (below) had to stop. But the drama clearly didn't; as you can see from the scoreline, Devvarman didn't close it out ok his first opportunity. And after breaking Nguyen again, he didn't close it out at 6*-5 either.  And then up 5*-1 in the tiebreak, Devvarman was surely mentally measuring the winner's trophy to see if he'd have room in his travel bags. But the man who wouldn't go away, didn't, and Nguyen closed it to 5-5. But Devvarman gathered himself and won the last two points of the match, and an important title as the 30-year-old tries to move back into the Top 100.
4. Sanam Singh wins Wichita Futures.  (Yes, it was last week, but you'll need to just go with it.) A teammate of Devvarman on the top-ranked 2008 University of Virginia men's tennis team (which lost in the NCAA semifinals to the University of Georgia), Sanam Singh won his 8th Futures title (but only second outside of India) by beating 5 Americans, including Tennys Sandgren, Noah Rubin, and, in the final Mitchell Krueger. The 27-year-old Singh also won the doubles title with Darian King - both were his first titles of 2015.

Singh has seen his ranking creep just barely into the Top 300, for a few weeks back in 2013, but with a new ranking of 310 starting tomorrow, and virtually nothing to defend for the rest of the summer, it's looking good that he'll see those heights again soon. After that, the next goal is qualifying for the majors, which will require a ranking of around 240/250.

5. Nagal and Ly make more history. 17-year-old Sumit Nagal on Sunday became the sixth Indian junior to win a grand slam title, by taking the Wimbledon Boys' Doubles final with Vietnam's Ly Hoang Nam 7-6(4) 6-4 over boys' singles champion Reilly Opelka (USA) and Akira Santillan (JPN). Ly, for his part, is the first player ever from Vietnam to lift a grand slam trophy at any level.

Nagal is the sole Indian boy in the Top 100 of the ITF junior rankings; 3 Indian girls are in that range as well. Here's hoping for continued success for the youngster!

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