New Delhi: Sania Mirza, fresh from her US Open mixed doubles success, will have to inspire a relatively young Indian tennis team to win medals in the 2014 Asian Games starting Friday in the South Korean city of Incheon.
Sania along with Leander Paes and Rohan Boppana had earlier decided to skip the Asian Games to improve their rankings in the professional circuit and make the cut for the year-ending tour finals. Somdev, who with Sanam Singh had won the singles and the doubles gold medal in the 2010 Asian Games, came under some flak for missing the event in his bid to come back among the top-100.
The fact that Sania and her Zimbabwean partner Cara Black have virtually qualified for the year-ending tour finals prompted the Hyderabadi to change her mind and switch her allegiance to her country. It will now take a lot from Sania and former junior World No.1 Yuki Bhambri to inspire India to an impressive performance in the Asian Games.
Sania is no stranger to the Asian Games. She has six medals, including one gold and three silvers, from the Games. Her gold came in the mixed doubles event in the 2006 Doha Asian Games while in 2010 she won the mixed doubles silver with Vishnu Vardhan and settled for the singles bronze.
India's medal hopes are from mixed doubles and the men's doubles. Coach Zeeshan Ali feels Sania could be paired with either Divij Sharan, who was a reserve, or Saket Myneni while the men's doubles team would be Bhambri-Sharan and Myneni-Sanam. Myneni is the new face in doubles tennis. He has a powerful serve and can move swiftly on the court.
Bhambri will be leading India's men's singles challenge in the absence of Somdev. The 22-year-old Bhambri's immediate form, having lost both his singles rubbers in the Davis Cup World Group playoff against Serbia, doesn't inspire much confidence.
But Bhambri will hope to bounce back quickly from that disappointment and use the experience gained in Davis Cup to improve his performance significantly in the Asian Games.
In the women's section, after Sania, Ankita Raina is the top player with a world ranking of 293 while the others in the squad are Prarthana Thombare (337), Natasha Palha (509), Rishika Sunkara (594) and Shweta Rana (617).
In the absence of the big guns, the youngsters have the perfect opportunity to showcase their credentials and emerge out of the looming shadows of proven stars.
But the biggest hurdle will come in the team event as India are not seeded among the top four teams. Japan, Chinese Taipei, South Korea and Uzbekistan are the seeded teams and India will have to play one of these four sides to be in contention for at least the bronze medal.