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The Lass Got Class
Was it those glasses? We'd seen Sania Mirza on court, the vestigial puppy fat on her face contrasting improbably with the bludgeoned power of her forehand. We knew the critics who in 2000 tipped her to become India's best ever woman tennis player were almost certainly on the ball. Even before she teamed with Russia's Alisa Kleybanova to win the girls' doubles at Wimbledon 2003 and became the first Indian woman to win a tennis Grand Slam title of any sort.
And then she came back from making it to the third round at the Australian Open, pair of black, thick-rimmed spectacles perched on her nose. Somehow they made her look morph instantly from little-girl to chic. Thereafter it made little difference, though. Whether she was usually seen pushing bags around airports, or once, memorably, playing pool. As far as her country was concerned, she was India's sweetheart.
The adulation is wonderful, as is the earning potential. The 18-year-old is already being wooed by marketers who reckon she'll be at least as good a celebrity pitch-person as, say, cricketers Irfan Pathan or Yuvraj Singh. In a cricket-mad country, that's saying something.
Anirban Das, senior vice-president of Globosport, which handles Sania's commercial work, says he spent the last few months "evangelising people, trying to convince them there was something special about this girl". Now he's flooded with offers, because marketers have realised Sania's appeal extends beyond the demographic of tennis-watchers and that she is an icon for all young people, particularly women. "If you want to reach out to young women, there isn't a better person to approach because she has both the achievement and the personality."
Yet just ask Sachin Tendulkar, or for that matter, Yuvraj himself, how hard it is to have all of India rooting for you. No sportsmen anywhere in the world face the sheer weight of expectation created by a billion people who are desperately short of idols they can look up to.
Before this year's Australian Open, Sania's goal was to make it to the top 100 women players. After beating 84th-ranked Petra Mandula of Hungary (a former world no. 30), she revised her target. She was going to crack the top 50. Impressive as that achievement will be if she makes it, it's probably a stroll in the park compared to staying atop the sweetheart stakes.
To do that, she'll have to discover that extra something variously called killer instinct, extreme focus, mental strength and ruthlessness that makes top sportsmen very different from you or me. The loss of which was what made the great Bjorn Borg quit tennis, even though he was still technically good enough to be world no. 1, following his loss to John McEnroe at the 1981 Wimbledon final.
Former Indian men's national tennis champion Narendra Nath, who has coached Sania, reckons she's got what it takes. Her mind is her biggest asset, he says. "She just loves pressure situations. Even when she played as a child, she always knew how to lift her game whenever the situation got tight."
Add that to the sporting genes she's likely to have inherited from her family, and her chances look good. That family includes several Ranji and club-level cricketers, including father Imran. And in November 1956, almost 30 years to the day before she was born, her great-uncle Ghulam Ahmed took 10 wickets for 130 against Australia at the Eden Gardens, then one of the best performances by an Indian bowler. She'll also have to draw on her reputedly laidback relative's ability to put in the hard work when he had to; he once bowled 92.3 overs in an innings, then a world record.
As an international tennis player, Sania's schedule already reflects the hard work she's putting in. Despite being much-travelled, she hardly gets to see any sights because she's always either playing, training or recovering.Partying's out, since she's out running early in the morning. The hard work is likely to get more intense, because like most players at her level (post-Australian Open, she's ranked 129th in the world), an improvement in two aspects of her game can bring a major jump in the rankings—Narendra Nath says her serve and fitness need to improve.
Yet most questions she's been asked ever since she's returned from Melbourne have been on things that are supposed to occupy teenagers. Does she shop a lot? A boyfriend? What about all the money you can now make from ads? It took her a couple of days to work out the best answer: "That's personal."
And inevitably, a line of questioning that no Muslim can duck in this age. What's it like to wear little skirts and slug it out on court? Her reply is of a woman who has thought about the issue and considered the practical implications: "I don't wear a miniskirt on the street." Or, "Prayer does make me calmer and brings the patience of a more mature player."
"What's important is Sania's faith, not what others want her to do. She chooses to say her prayers five times a day and follow the Ramzan fasts as strictly as she can despite her busy tennis schedule," adds her father Imran.
But Sania's also an Eminem-loving teen with a smile and an attitude. On Wednesday, two boys in a Mumbai cafe stared hard at her before pulling out that teen version of a loaded AK-47, a cellphone camera. She walked right up and asked, "D'you want me to smile for your pic?"
She did too, as they squirmed.
It definitely wasn't those glasses. Just look left.
Hari Menon with Saumya Roy in Mumbai and Savitri Choudhury in Hyderabad