A giant leap for Sania Mirza

The significance of Sania Mirza's performance, in a way, encompasses more than tennis, it will resonate across the entire spectrum of women's sport. In a cricket nation, she is one more addition to a bevy of cool and charismatic, defiant and disciplined, wilful and wise women, who have carved their own identity, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

THE highest ranked tennis player in India has a forehand of ferocious intent, a service toss high enough to imperil low flying planes and an incurable appetite for food that is distinctly Hyderabadi.

The highest ranked tennis player in India has a confidence more attractive than that second serve, is a player of constant emotion and charming expressiveness, and would need a dose of anti-histamines before approaching the net.

Oh, and one more tiny additional detail. Perhaps for the first time since we became familiar with rankings, the highest ranked tennis player in India wears a nose ring. And no, Leander Paes has yet to go that far.

We can go on about the increased depth in men's tennis, and its enhanced athleticism, and muscularity of shot-making, but the numbers as they stand are fascinating. According to the ATP Singles Entry Rankings, Harsh Mankad is ranked No. 349, Prakash Amritraj 359, Sunil Kumar 367 and Paes 1059.

Koneru Humpy, the chess wizard, the real pride of India.-

According to the WTA Tour rankings, Sania Mirza is world No.166, and with her precocious performance at the Australian Open, is expected to smartly ascend that ladder, perhaps one day even past Nirupama Vaidyanathan's highest number of 134. Whatever, the builder's daughter has constructed a piece of wondrous history.

Mirza does not quite see herself as a path-breaker, for in the midst of a tournament the mind is sharply tuned to the smaller picture of designing immediate victory and not necessarily focused on what its larger significance might be.

Still, her decisive defeat of Petra Mandula in the second round was not merely a small step for Mirza, it was a giant leap for Indian women's tennis, for she is the first to walk on this particular moon. No Indian woman, after all, has ever got to the third round of a Grand Slam.

The significance of Mirza's performance, in a way, encompasses more than tennis, it will resonate across the entire spectrum of women's sport. In a cricket nation, in what is also predominantly a male chauvinistic nation, she is one more addition to a bevy of cool and charismatic, defiant and disciplined, wilful and wise women, who have carved their own identity.

We've seen P.T. Usha and Shiny Wilson run for their lives and ours, we've watched as Karnam Malleswari and Kunjurani lifted up medal tables, we've been moved as Koneru Humpy plotted her way to Grandmaster status, we've looked on as Anju Geroge unveiled her aerial athletic ballet, we've been witness to the unwavering belief of Aparna Popat, we've been staggered by the way Anjali Bhagwat has kept her eye on the prize. None may have won Olympic gold, or reigned as senior world champions, but every one has been a path-breaker of sorts.

Of course, Mirza is scarcely as accomplished as most of these women, yet she is a revolutionary in her own right; she, too, has found the courage to go where her tennis-playing peers have never been, sustained by her dreams and a belief that most things are possible.

Such athletes do not set out to become role models but they inadvertently become one for young girls affixed to their television sets. From their performances is born desire, from their determination arrives the seeds of valour, from their powerful dreams are lit the small fires of hope. It is a moment of some beauty when Mirza admits she gets letters from fans, some of them young girls, whose message is clear: I want to be like you.

Furthermore, by clearing this one barrier and reaching the third round, Mirza has already emboldened the next Indian player who comes along. She will know, Mirza has been there, it can be done.

Anju George, the long jumper, are the real pride of India.-

And it has been done by a girl, only 18, who was turned away by her first coach at six because she was too small. It has been done by a player who played on courts with craters in them when growing up, twisting her ankle 11 times. It has been done by a performer who felt the absence of top class coaches as a child, to the point where her present specialist coach, Bob Brett, told her once that he enjoyed teaching her because so much was wrong with her game. It has been done by a teenager who values Mahatma Gandhi because he "set an example" and in her own miniscule way has set one herself.

Women's tennis in India now has a series of international tournaments, but such was not the case when she was a child, and she articulates the difficulty faced by young players of her generation when she says, "It's hard to know then what level you have to be at 17". It is a bewilderment of sorts echoed when she said of playing Serena Williams, "I'd just to like to see how hard she hits the ball".

Still, Mirza was lucky, one of the fortunate few whose parents took her beyond the confines of her immediate geography to international junior tournaments, so she could recognize where she was and how much further she needed to travel with her game. She has sponsors, she goes to Bob Brett, she has the support of the experienced Mahesh Bhupathi, who manages her.

Her technique is somewhat awry and is being gradually refashioned, but it is her fitness that is her constant challenge. "I love eating", she says with a dazzling girlish smile, but understands that sport's vocabulary does not include the word gourmet. Either you have light lunches or opponents view you as one. She arrived at the Open as a wildcard and was somewhat overcome with trepidation before her first round match. "I am never nervous, even when another player has match point I will go for a winner". But her first Grand Slam match left butterflies dancing in her stomach and as she clattered balls into the net it was evident she was handcuffed by nerves. "I put pressure on myself (that I) have to win a round". But in the second round, she appeared more comfortable with both the court and the moment, and there was a more pleasing abandon to her game as she throttled No. 81 Petra Mandula, 6-2, 6-1.

Against Serena, on a stadium court, she had reason to freeze, but once again, having found her confident feet, produced a performance of impressive maturity, losing 6-1, 6-4. It led the generous Williams to say later: "I think she has a very solid game, especially to be so young; she's only 18. I definitely see a very bright future for her."

For Mirza the match was not about the result, it was more a tutorial, a journey of discovery. Only with Williams across the net could she know what separates her from the top players, how much power she requires, how enhanced her fitness must be, how strong her mind must become. Just the second set itself suggests she is already learning.