Take a bow, ladies

2015 was a great year for India's women athletes, as they vaulted and ran into uncharted territories, secured Olympic qualifications, and raked in the trophies

While it was a stupendous year for Sania Mirza, one in which she won a stellar nine titles with Martina Hingis, including two Grand Slams, and reached the top of the doubles world rankings, there were other Indian women too who made 2015 a year to remember. In their respective disciplines, these athletes broke new ground, took the world by surprise, and gave us something to look forward to in 2016, the year of the Olympics.

Photo: Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times
Photo: Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times

Sania Mirza

Sania Mirza completed her historic journey from cow-dung courts in Hyderabad to champion on Wimbledon’s grass. The 29-year-old became the first Indian woman to win a title at the All England Lawn Tennis Club when she won the women’s doubles with Hingis. They followed it up with a US Open victory, an overwhelming sweep of the season-ending Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) finals in Singapore, and six tour titles. “Santina" started the year with a 15-match winning streak, ending the season with 22 wins in a row. 2015 saw Mirza rise to the top of the world, and dominate it. “Even 50 years from now, I’ll go down as the former World No.1, and that’s something very, very special for me," she said after clinching the No.1 spot in women’s doubles in April.

Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP
Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP

Lalita Babar

Lalita Babar is usually shy and reticent, but ask her to share her experiences of being at a world championship final, and she can go on for a while. “The entire walk from the warm-up arena, getting to the packed arena, and lining up against the world’s best steeplechasers was something I will remember all my life," she recalls. The 26-year-old from Maharashtra’s Satara district has funded most of her training herself, with the money she’s earned by winning a hat-trick of Mumbai marathons. The daughter of a farmer, Babar broke the national steeplechase record thrice this year. The icing on the cake was, of course, becoming the first Indian to qualify for the final of a track event at the World Championships. For the Rio Olympics starting in August, Babar has not one, but two, tickets—for the steeplechase and marathon.

Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images
Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Hockey team

In July, when Rani Rampal scored a goal in the 13th minute of India’s match against Japan in the Hockey World League semi-finals in Belgium, little did she know that it would turn out to be the most important goal of her life. India finished fifth in the tournament and, a couple of months later, were officially confirmed as participants for the 2016 Rio Olympics. For the Indian women’s hockey team, which has played at the Olympics only once before this, in 1980, on invitation, this is a watershed moment. Full of girls from India’s small towns who are more often than not overshadowed by the more fancied men’s team and whose popularity seems restricted to Shah Rukh Khan’s 2007 film ‘Chak De! India’, this is a telling goal scored just in time.

Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Dipika Pallikal

She attracted the most headlines for tying the knot with cricketer Dinesh Karthik in August. But the 24-year-old squash star seems to be clawing her way back into the top 10.

Pallikal began the year brightly, winning the Winnipeg Winter Club Open in February, but hit plenty of roadblocks midway through the season. Having failed to get past the first round in the three previous events, Pallikal surged into the quarter-final of the prestigious US Open in October with a hard-fought victory over world No.5 Alison Waters.

Pallikal also spoke openly about gender bias and refused to participate in the National Games since the prize money for male and female winners wasn’t the same.

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

PV Sindhu

P.V. Sindhu did not have a huge haul of silverware to show for her efforts, but the long-legged Indian showed why she remains a threat to the high and mighty in world badminton. She had a strong finish, winning the Macau Open, considering that a foot injury in February had kept her out of the game for more than six weeks. It was at the Denmark Open, when she used every inch of her 5ft, 10 inches frame to beat fire-spitting world No.1 Carolina Marin, that Sindhu proved she belonged with the best. The win took her to her first Superseries Premier final, and it took the Olympic champion Li Xuerui to stop her blazing run.

Photo: Satish Bate/Hindustan Times
Photo: Satish Bate/Hindustan Times

Deepika Kumari

Deepika Kumari went into the London Olympics in 2012 as the world No. 1. She made a first-round exit, her hopes drowned in tears. That followed a two-year-long lean patch that took a toll on her mind. “Archery was my life. And I felt like giving it up," she says. “Archery is all about mind games. When an arrow leaves the bow, you have to feel 100% sure that it’s going to hit the target. And not being able to do so was not letting me eat or sleep." Deepika worked on her fitness, physical and mental, overcame the shadow of failure, and led the women’s recurve team to a silver at the World Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark, booking them a ticket for Rio.

Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Apurvi Chandela

Part of the generation that was inspired by Abhinav Bindra’s gold at Beijing 2008, Apurvi Chandela has her sights set on the ultimate prize. She took the first step towards it by bagging bronze at the Changwon World Cup in April and qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics in the 10m air rifle event. The 22-year-old from Jaipur, who burst on to the stage last year when she claimed the Commonwealth gold, is thus the only shooter, besides Jitu Rai, to have booked a berth. Despite that, Chandela did not lose focus. She shot an impressive 206.9 to win silver at the Munich World Cup in September.

Photo: Andrew Winning/Reuters
Photo: Andrew Winning/Reuters

Dipa Karmakar

Let’s just say Dipa Karmakar is still a newbie in world gymnastics, but when her name was announced at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro, the venue of this year’s World Championships, there was a loud cheer reserved for her. Glasgow remembered her: The girl from India, who had attempted the dangerous Produnova a year back, at the Commonwealth Games at the same venue, and won a bronze. “I think the crowd was just excited for me because I had made it to the final," recollects the girl from Tripura. “Nobody expected it. Not even any of the Romanians had made it to the final." This year, Karmakar achieved the massive feat of becoming the first Indian to make it to the final of an event at the World Gymnastic Championships. She finished fifth in the final of the vault event, which means her chances of getting a wild card to compete in the Rio Olympics are pretty high.

Photo: Marwan Naamani/AFP
Photo: Marwan Naamani/AFP

Saina Nehwal

During this time last year, Saina Nehwal had become the first non-Chinese player to win the China Open SuperSeries. The risk she took, Nehwal said, had paid off. And what a risk it was: parting ways with her coach and mentor of decades, Pullela Gopi Chand, to train under Vimal Kumar. 2015 saw the sting back in Nehwal’s game as she became the world’s No. 1 singles player, an astonishing feat in a sport dominated by the Chinese. Though Nehwal had a few significant firsts to her name—like a world championship and an All England medal—the big titles eluded her. “It will come. The titles, the medals, everything," she says. “After my quarter-final loss at the Beijing Olympics, many thought I was done. But that was just a start. And four years later, I won a bronze."

From Saina Nehwal 2.0, fans will want more than that in 2016.

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