On Sania Mirza's fanged groundstrokes and Leander Paes' vast experience rest India's hopes of a tennis medal on the hard courts of Doha's Khalifa International Complex. The two will be at the vanguard of India's challenge, with the first-aggrieved-then-mollified Mahesh Bhupathi not far behind.
The tennis pie in Doha has been sliced into seven categories — men's and women's singles and doubles, men's and women's team and mixed doubles. India can harbour dreams in the women's singles (courtesy Sania), the men's doubles (courtesy Leander and Mahesh) and the mixed doubles (courtesy Leander and Sania). But players like Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan, China's Na Li, Ji Zheng and Shuai Peng, Japan's Ai Sugiyama and Aiko Nakamura, Korea's Lee Hyung Taik and Pakistan Aisam Qureshi will prove pungent opposition over different categories.
Good thing then that Sania went trainer shopping, signed on Heath Mathew of South Africa, and is killing the kilos in hometown Hyderabad. Those who have seen the 20-year-old recently report that she is looking leaner. Mobility forms the foundation of success in most sports and the lighter the star gets, the faster she will be around the court. She may not transform overnight into the zippy Hyundai Getz she endorses, but she will be better than before.
Sania hasn't had a great year, finishing at world No. 66 compared to last year's proud 31. Five Asians are ranked higher than her. But she will draw oxygen from her run to the semifinals at the Sunfeast Open and her victory over Martina Hingis in Seoul a week later. Besides, the Asian Hopman Cup in Hyderabad, not to mention the training under Mathew, will provide her robust preparation for the Asiad.
Sania's partner at the forefront of the campaign, Paes, enters the Games in contrasting fashion. The 33-year-old legend of Indian sport has enjoyed a good year, winning no less than the US Open title with Martin Damm. Moreover, the man who remains one of the world's best movers and volleyers will carry with him the confidence of having won three Asian Games gold medals. On the flip side he isn't exactly a teenager anymore and hasn't played much with either Mahesh or Sania in recent years. That could affect the compatibility of the teams.
Mahesh isn't coming off a great year. He won a modest two titles — in China and Mumbai — and endured the slight of being partnered not with Sania but the second-placed Shikha Uberoi for the mixed doubles in Doha. The normally, and perhaps deceptively, calm 32-year-old rebelled against the decision, announcing that he would not play again for India. Not even in the Asiad. It took assuaging from the likes of All India Tennis Association boss Anil Khanna for him to change his mind. The incident added tension and controversy to India's run-up to the Games. But Mahesh could erase the unpleasant memories by using them to motivate himself for the men's doubles with Leander as well as the mixed with Shikha.
Like the Asian economy, Asian tennis has grown. India is no longer as strong in the continent as it used to be. Winning medals will be difficult, but not impossible.