At the time of writing this article, Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis are on a 22-match unbeaten streak. Exactly the same as Novak Djokovic. ‘Santina’, as they are now being referred to, have won 9 titles this year. Just one less than Djokovic, having started playing together only in March. Djokovic, deservingly, is acknowledged as having one of the greatest tennis seasons of all time. You don’t, however, see the newspapers and journalists go gaga over Sania and Hingis' achievements this year or speculating about a ‘Santina Slam’.
Three matches from Sania’s career standout as definitive milestones in this arc- the 4th round match vs Maria Sharapova at the US Open in 2005, one of her early doubles matches at Wimbledon in 2007 and the most recent US Open doubles final.
At the time of her 2005 match, I was living in a hostel in an engineering college. High profile matches on the men’s side would draw a crowd of 20-25, mostly serious fans. Trying to stream any women’s match on the hostel’s sole television set would draw jeers, not crowds. There was however, one exception. It was the match between Maria Sharapova and Sania Mirza. The television room was packed with more than 50 students, even before the match had started.
Not many people cared for the fact that Sania was a fast rising talent at that time or that Maria Sharapova looked like rewriting a lot of records having won Wimbledon, at 17, just a year ago. These were definitely two of the hottest players on the tour at the time (pun intended). If it sounds sexist, it is the sad truth. Tennis does not escape the general affliction which affects women’s sport- looks matter. Ask Sepp Blatter! While men’s tennis is described in gladiatorial terms, the discussions surrounding women’s tennis is the decibel level of the players’ shrieks as they put in that extra effort.
My own biases towards or rather against women’s doubles would become clear during the Wimbledon in 2007.
It was one of those tournaments where the mercurial Safin was ranked low enough to meet Roger Federer in the 3rd round. Even though two-and-a-half years had passed since their legendary Australian Open semi-final, the memories from that match lingered on. It was a match that I had been looking forward to since the draw was made. However, the broadcaster decided that a match featuring one of the country’s own would draw a bigger audience. And therefore, just as Federer and Safin started hitting on the show courts, the channel switched coverage to Sania’s doubles match happening on one of the outside courts.
It was a most infuriating thing to do. As I saw it back then, and still do, it was pure commercial interests which dictated that move. What I wonder though is if the TRPs really justified that move. I would really doubt that. I for one, do not even remember who Sania’s partner for that match was.
Fast forward to 2015. A much grander occasion. The US Open women’s doubles finals. And yet, it felt like an appetizer to the main course – Djokovic vs Federer - that would follow. The stadium was less than half full. And it did not help that Sania and Hingis did not allow time for the crowd to build up, dismantling their opponents in real quick time.
It was then, sitting in the crowd, that I finally began to appreciate Sania’s talent, Martina’s genius and their combined greatness. Any tennis crowd wants a tight contest, except when it comes to Federer where they are just plain happy to see him display the mastery of his craft.
Yet, I realized that day that ‘Santina’ are possibly no less of a phenomenon than Federer. The way they set up their points. The manner in which they covered the court. Their understanding of each other’s strengths. Their instinctive, almost supernatural, ability to read their partner’s play and the opponents. If there was an exhibition of tennis that could convert any skeptic to a believer in the artistry of doubles, this would be right up there. Just a few months earlier, they had played, what many would term as the best final of Wimbledon 2015. It was also perhaps the last time they were forced to compete so hard this year. Such has been their overwhelming dominance.
It took an almost out of the world year of tennis from Serena for the masses to consider giving women’s tennis the respect it deserves. It might take more than that from Mirza and Hingis to put women’s doubles in the spotlight. Men’s doubles was lucky to have had Woodforde-Woodbridge and then the Bryan brothers whose play and records drew the fans and the crowds. Women’s doubles might just be turning the corner and it will have Mirza and Hingis to thank for it. In the meanwhile, it needs all the help and support it can get. Like this tweet for starters.