To say that the world number one pair in women's doubles was anxious as they started the clay leg of the tennis tour would be an understatement. Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis didn't relish the red surface in Europe. Add to that their miserable run on the hard courts of the US before that and it doesn't look flattering.
But as Martina said later, "Santina (as their pairing is called) won't be Santina if there weren't pressure and expectations."
The duo took the WTA circuit by storm in 2015 with nine titles including two grand slams and an unbeaten run of 41 matches that stretched till February 2016. Their undefeated streak included winning the Australian Open in January 2016.
But defying their loss of form, they stormed into the final at Stuttgart to kick start the turnaround. From there they made another final at Madrid and lost a tough final to the French pair of Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic, the same team they lost to in Stuttgart as well.
|The Italian Open triumph - the first on clay - has given the pair confidence.|
It was clear they needed to do better if they were to beat pairs like these who have grown up on clay, a surface that negates their strengths. The two back-to-back finals, already a good result for them, were not celebrated. Santina expects to win and nothing short of the title will do.
That title came in Rome. A relatively easy run in the Italian Open took them to their third consecutive final. It brought them face-to-face with Russians Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova, the same pair against whom they played a remarkable Wimbledon final and won. Curiously, it was their first meeting since and in a final again. Slight tension hung in the air just as the ball did in overcast conditions throughout the week in the Italian Open.
And not surprisingly, it was a tense final. The Russians came back from 3-5 down in the second set to level the scores and push it to the tie-breaker. But the world number one pair stamped their authority here winning it 10-3.
Finally a title, that too on clay, their first together. The win was celebrated with some shopping and an elaborate Indian dinner in the Roman City Centre. Confidence was back but it was still too early to dream about the French Open, where they are chasing a "Santina" slam, after winning the last three slams.
"We have been one of the best teams on the tour and are confident of our chances," said Sania after the win. "The pressure has been on us since we came together and the way we started last year. We have been the team to beat and we have continued to be. We get into every tournament trying to win. If we don't win, we try again.
"This title gives us greater hope since we hadn't won as much on clay as everyone expects us to. More positive going into Roland Garros," added Martina, who won her fourth title in Rome.
Both women took a break after their triumph at Rome to regroup and come back refreshed for the big challenge. They will meet stiffer competition in Paris but they now do believe they are playing much better to give others a run for their money, again.
For my interview with Sania and Martina, click here.