Kirilenko — A Compact Version Of Sharapova

12 Feb


Kirilenko — a compact version of Sharapova

By Vijay Parthasarathy


RUSSIAN LEGACY: Maria Kirilenko not only shares her first name with Sharapova but there is also a lot in common in their style of play. — Photo: P.V. Sivakumar

HYDERABAD,

FEB. 11

. This is possibly what J.R.R. Tolkien might have written about were he an Indian, and a tennis fan — and, well, a lot more imaginative. Granted, that’s one conjunction too many; but hobbits seem more real in comparison to what’s happening at the moment.

Women’s tennis in India is at the moment brazenly living out its wildest fantasy. Almost impossibly — and in the process unashamedly countering any attempt to downplay the hype surrounding her — Sania Mirza has become the first Indian to enter the final of a WTA tournament anywhere in the world.

That she managed the feat in her hometown does her no discredit. Her opponent in Friday’s semifinal was no pushover. Maria Kirilenko is, admittedly, a lesser-known member of that superhuman tribe of athletes mainly found to inhabit tennis courts in Russia (and the occasional one in Florida); but at number 82 she is ranked 50 places above the Indian, and was a finalist in Hyderabad last year.

Ordinarily, these details would have conspired against any local favourite and the pressure would have caused the player in question to disintegrate like apple crumble. Yet, Sania won in straight sets.

This was Sania’s first win against a Russian ranked in the top 100, and while she has a long way to go before making the top rungs you suspect over the next few months she’s going to bump into a few more players matching that description.

Overwhelming presence

You could compare the overwhelming Russian presence in women’s tennis to something like a sleek TGV rake with tiny gaps between bogies. Elena Dementieva made two Grand Slam finals as three of the last four were won by Russians — that’s if you don’t get Australian Open men’s champion Marat Safin into the picture. Eight of them are in the top 20 and seven more rank inside the top 100.

At the head of this train is Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova, who is at once tennis engine and teenage diva; she is followed by her fellow Grand Slam winners, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anastasia Myskina, and as you move down the only name missing is ironically Anna Kournikova, who it could be argued started the Russian wave in the first place. Kirilenko stands right at the end of the line, the 15th and last bogie as it were.

On-court, the lowest-ranked Russian in the top 100 looks like a compact version of Sharapova, the highest-ranked one. There’s not much of a facial resemblance; but the 18-year-old is lanky and, like the world number three, wears her hair in a pony-tail that falls out of the back of her cap. Kirilenko has also picked up Sharapova’s more infectious mannerisms: she touches the bridge of her nose just before serving, and the serve action itself is as graceful; she fiddles with the racquet with her back towards her opponent, between points. To complete the mapping Kirilenko even grunts — though less often and more self-consciously.

She’s got a decent two-handed backhand, and a dropshot that is so wicked it would put Cinderella’s stepmother to shame. What she lacks are Sharapova’s height and power. Kirilenko’s groundstrokes aren’t weak by any stretch; but she rarely finds the pass and needs to back her returns with better angles. The 5 feet 9 inches tall Kirilenko has a relatively weak overhead, which limits her efficiency at the net: her opponent merely needs to lift the ball and deposit it a foot ahead of the baseline.

Good friends

The 17 year-old, Florida-based Sharapova is clearly a huge inspiration for some of these Russians. Kirilenko is, incidentally, good friends with Sharapova, and they won the doubles title together at Birmingham last season.

Sania cannot match most of the Russian crowd, at least not yet; and next to their mean-machine she must feel like she is riding a dumpy goods train. But just now the Indian teenager is playing with the confidence of a con-artiste, and clearly she’s tricked her own mind into believing she’s already a top 50 player. The match against Serena has helped her mature as a player and, as a person, made her more impudent. There is no question of reputations preceding anyone and, to borrow that glib cricketing clich
, she now plays the ball purely on its merit.

To be honest, cat-calls here have interfered with her opponents’ concentration as they served; but Sania is dismissive on that account. “Although the crowd is on my side, the noise distracts me too; I don’t think I’m hard of hearing,” Sania said at her post-match press conference.

Still, it will be interesting to see if the Indian can maintain her consistency abroad. Of course, that’s not as exciting as finding out Tolkien’s ghost is, in fact, dying to apply for an Indian passport.


Hindu On Net

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