Sania Mirza: Indian tennis star doubling her rate of success

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Injury forced her to close the door on her singles career but as compensation, Sania Mirza won a WTA-best five doubles titles this season, including back-to-back crowns over the past two weeks at premier events in Tokyo and Beijing, with first-time partner Cara Black.

She plans on playing next season with Black, but before the Indian sensation starts focusing on 2014, she stopped by Abu Dhabi to promote the Country Club Fitness initiative, of which she is an ambassador.

Sport360° caught up with Mirza to find out what life is like on the doubles tour.

You said stepping away from singles was the hardest decision you’ve ever had to make. Looking back, has your sensational season in doubles made up for that a bit?

It’s hard when you’ve played singles and you’ve been top 30 in the world. I loved playing singles and I knew I was very good at it. The only problem was my body didn’t agree with me. I’m a little bit of a control freak and I think it was the hardest decision for me because I couldn’t decide for myself if I wanted to stop or not.

I was forced to decide and that’s something that was not acceptable to me at the time. But now when I look back, do I think it’s the right decision? Yes, because I think if I had continued playing I would have kept getting hurt and not being able to play tennis at all.

And to me winning five tournaments in a year, it’s been an amazing year. I think I’ve won the most number of tournaments on the doubles tour. So I feel very happy. I don’t know if it makes up for it, but I know it was the right decision.

You’ve played five different partners this season, won with three of them. You seem to be the common factor.

I have a lot of friends on tour and I usually play with people I get along with. Obviously we try and choose each other – who complements each others’ game. I don’t know if I’m versatile or not, but I’m easy to get along with on the court and I think that does play a role a little bit. I’m quite chilled out, I’m not hectic at all.

How has your routine changed now that you’re just focused on doubles?

You have a little bit more time now. When I was playing singles and doubles I was playing eight matches a week, and when you play so much there’s really no time to do anything, you don’t have a single day off.

Now when you’re playing just one event you have time to yourself. You can take some time off. You can go and see the city a little bit, where I’ve been going for 10 years and never stepped out. Now, I do have that kind of time but I still train like a singles player.

What’s one thing you’ve done this season that you’ve never been able to do before?

I went to the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Summer Palace, which I hadn’t done in any of the years that I was going.

How would you describe each of the five players you’ve partnered this season? Let’s start with Cara Black…

Cara is one of the most mature players I’ve played with. She’s been there, done that. Won Grand Slams, has been No1 in the world, that’s as good as it gets. To me it’s an honour to play with her.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands…

She’s my best friend. It was a very hard decision for us to split. It’s just her body not letting us play together. Playing a full season was impossible. But we do miss each other, miss playing with each other. She’s crazy but she’s my best friend.

Jie Zheng…

She’s a very nice girl. We’ve had some great singles battles during the Asian Games and all kinds of things. I’ve known her for a very long time. Very nice girl, extremely friendly and extremely polite. I think Asians are generally more polite, down to earth, she’s an extremely nice girl.

Liezel Huber…

Liezel was my first partner who I won a tournament with in 2004. So it was great to come back and play with her again. It’s funny how you grow up and your views change and so many things change. But it was still fun. We’re great friends. She was my mentor when I came on tour when I was 16 years old, so it was funny to play with her.

And Flavia Pennetta…

We just played for one week together. She’s one of my closer friends on tour. It’s hard when you play just one week with someone you can’t really make a partnership out of it. But we’re great friends and had lots of fun.

Who would be your dream mixed doubles partner and which Slam would you like to partner him at?

Roger Federer, I definitely think he’ll be my dream partner. I don’t care, any Slam, but Wimbledon if I get to pick (laughs).

What would be a personal highlight from this season?

Definitely winning the last two tournaments were a big highlight. I mean we won the first tournament of the year in Brisbane, but the last two weeks have been great because I think to finish on such a high, winning the two biggest tournaments of the year (behind the Slams). I’m looking forward to next year.

How much tennis do you watch when you’re not playing?

I actually don’t watch too much tennis when I’m not playing because I try to take some time off and just relax.

What about cricket?

Yeah I’m kind of forced to aren’t I? (laughs) Sometimes, but not a crazy amount. I like to switch off from sport when I have time off.

Every tennis player I talk to is hooked on a bunch of TV shows. What are you currently watching?

I’m on Game of Thrones, Grey’s Anatomy just started again and Criminal Minds too. So I’m addicted to those three.

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Azarenka weathers storm to book last 16 spot in Qatar

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Victoria Azarenka withstood the swirling winds of Doha and an early attack from Romina Oprandi to book a place in the last 16 of the Qatar Total Open.

The defending champion of the $2.37 million (Dh8.7m) event went down 0-2 in the first set as strong winds swept through Centre Court at the Khalifa International Tennis & Squash Complex.

But she fought back to secure a 6-2, 6-3 win over Oprandi, who originally played for Italy but switched allegiance to Switzerland a year ago.

“It wasn’t easy, for sure, but you never want to take the wind as an excuse because it’s the same for both players,” said the 23-year-old Azarenka.

“I think Romina is a very tricky opponent, especially in those conditions. When you haven’t played a match, it can be a little bit tricky as well.

“I’m glad I could turn it around. I felt like it was a little bit of a slow start for me. I started to go too much for my shots at the beginning. Then I started to be more patient, work more for the points.”

The world No1, who spent her pre-season training at the same venue in Doha before she went on to defend her Australian Open crown in Melbourne, will play Christina McHale in the last 16 after the young American disposed of Czech Republic’s Lucie Safarova 6-4, 6-2 earlier in the day.

“I don’t think I played against Christina in a real match before. We played an exhibition or something once,” explained Azarenka. “I think she’s a very talented girl. She has a great game, a good serve, good forehand. It’s going to be a tough battle.”

Meanwhile, last year’s semi-finalist and world No4 Agnieszka Radwanska used her smart shot-selection skills to ease past Australian qualifier Anastasia Rodionova 6-3, 6-2 in 75 minutes.

The Polish No4 seed, who saved all three break points she faced during the match, next takes on Serbia’s Ana Ivanovic, who booked her last-16 spot after her opponent Simona Halep retired with a lower back injury.

Radwanska made her first Grand Slam final last season at Wimbledon, where she fell to Serena Williams in three sets, and she later rose to No2 in the world. She admits things have changed since then.

“Well, it’s always a little bit of pressure (trying to maintain that level), but I think this is the dream for everyone to be in the final of a Grand Slam and of course to be number one in the world,” said Radwanska.

“I hope I can have some more opportunity to win the major final.” Radwanska’s sister Urszula also made it through after she beat Italy’s Roberta Vinci 6-2, 5-7, 6-0.

Other winners include two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who upset No9 seed Marion Bartoli 6-4, 6-4, and next plays former US Open champion Sam Stosur, who overcame tricky Romanian Monica Niculescu in a two-hour 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 clash. 

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