Now, an icon

What's truly amazing about Sania Mirza, so far, is that she has managed to adjust perfectly to the load on the shoulders; in fact she seems to play better under pressure, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.

THE night Sania Mirza made the final of the Hyderabad WTA Open some 50 men stood in a loose semi-circle around a Mercedes Benz parked outside the VIP exit, waiting patiently to catch a glimpse of the home grown tennis player. As time wore on, the arc gradually broke up into discrete huddles. Conversation drifted towards cricket, local politics and the price of a beer. The clock struck eleven; the crowd reluctantly dispersed only after it was patently obvious that Elvis had left the building.

The next morning — the day of the final — a crowd again gathered; only this time it was the size of a private army and, more distressingly, in the mood for a brawl. Thousands had arrived before 11 a.m. in the hope of reserving the best seat in the stands. A riot inevitably broke out an hour later, with the crowd tearing down the barricades and storming into the stadium. Five hours before the entertainment was scheduled to begin, the arena was crammed to the roof; it was as if Jerry Garcia lived again. More likely, Boyzone were having a reunion show — but you get the picture.

That evening, as Sania became the first Indian to win a WTA Tour title she cast aside forever the anonymity that is the fate of the mediocre; under our gaze she was transformed into a bona fide star. She now has, what might frivolously be described as, a fan-following. The country has rushed to embrace a sport, which, until now, had existed on the fringes of its consciousness. Almost unimaginably, in a matter of weeks tennis has snowballed into something of a mass sport — this, in a nation of a billion where you are taught to take words like `mass' at face value.

PRO tennis hasn't quite lent itself to the concept of a crowd sport anywhere in the world primarily because it takes itself so seriously. Spectators are expected to remain silent as a point is being played; the audience at Wimbledon, for example, is as high brow as any crowd could ever get. The obsession with upholding tradition has strengthened the common perception of tennis as an elitist hobby.

But that hasn't interfered in the least with the marketing of tennis as a television sport. It's been packaged as shrewdly as the next product, and there has always been a ready audience simply because it's interesting to follow the activity both on and off the court. Consequently tennis has come to encourage the cult of personality. As an extreme case, John McEnroe's tantrums occasionally received more attention during his playing days; we sometimes forgot he was an incredibly gifted serve and volleyer. But by and large the men are rated solely according to merit, which is how gifted players like Pete Sampras and Roger Federer have always got by even if they weren't as charismatic as the talented Agassis or the Safins of this world.

Women's tennis is promoted a little differently. Whether it lacks the depth of the men's game is debatable, but mostly irrelevant: the focus at any rate is not merely on the talent. There is a bold emphasis on image building and promoting the idea of the pin-up. Maria Sharapova is often held up as the ideal combination of talent and beauty — as if, the fact that she owns the most powerful groundstrokes in the women's game weren't enough in itself.

And already, there are indications Sania will be presented to the world with plenty of sub-clauses and conditions attached. That she is beyond doubt the most talented Indian tennis player from her generation, it appears, isn't sufficient; instead we seek to attach a personality to her nose-ring. (Perhaps, she could call it Hobbes and pretend to have abstruse conversations with it.)

It helps, yes, that Sania is charismatic and attractive. Nevertheless she has risen rapidly in the hierarchy not on account of her looks, and is now ranked just inside the top 100. And even more commendably, for a while now — to be precise, since her encounter with Serena Williams in January — the teenager has played with the self-assurance of a top 50 player. The match against the former world number one, more than anything else, has altered her personality dramatically.

WHEN Sania stepped out to play Serena that evening in Melbourne Park she seemed out of place; as lost as Jean Claude Van Damme in an art movie. She was understandably dazzled; and when she finally managed to hold serve in the first set it came as an anti-climax. Her quivering lips risked arrest on charges of mutiny; in the manner of a child that has just engineered in masterly fashion the theft of a sugar biscuit from the cookie jar, she looked pleased in a guilty sort of way. Sania had the grace to look embarrassed.

The 18 year-old certainly had her moments in the second set, though. Sania didn't have much to lose at that stage — except, well, the match itself. But nobody had entertained the remotest possibility of Sania actually putting up a fight, which made each subsequent pass down the flanks appear all the more precious, that much more electrifying.

Once she got rid of the nerves and got that nuclear weapon of a forehand going, Sania was fine. She's the kind of player that prefers to dictate terms from the back court; her movement is limited. Her forehand is, of course, her chief strength. Sania also employs a steady two-fisted backhand to deposit the ball deep, preferably near the lines. She could introduce more variety there, work on the slice and over time develop an effective drop-shot.

What she really needs to work on, though, is her service. For someone who relies primarily on aggression, Sania surprisingly has a weak second serve — in fact, it's positively anaemic. Bob Brett, who travelled with Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic in the nineties, reportedly pointed out flaws in her technique: the main problem appears to stem from her elbow, which remains low during the service action. It could be argued that Elena Dementieva has managed to get away with a disaster of a serve, but the Russian is supremely consistent with groundstrokes and moves superbly, which is more than adequate compensation. Sania's performance against Serena was impressive, yes, but hardly spectacular. The outcome was never in question; consequently Sania could afford to wear the calm detachment of a kamikaze pilot executing a couple of brilliant manoeuvres before the final approach. Any suggestion that Sania is only a step behind Serena is unreasonable, to the point of being absurd.

SANIA's sudden rise to prominence is a little startling because her achievements, while not insignificant, aren't world-class yet. Making the third round of the Australian Open is wonderful by Indian standards, but Sania is talented enough to discard that handicap and move on to greater things. Winning a Tier IV WTA tournament is, again, creditable; but her triumph needs to be placed in the proper perspective — there really is no need to go overboard and take the rations along, so to speak.

Besides, it really isn't as though the country is starved of great sportsmen in disciplines other than cricket.

VINO JOHN

Chess Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand is ranked number two in the world for crying out loud; Prakash Padukone and P. Gopi Chand are, without a sliver of doubt, champions of the highest calibre. And ironically, six months after Rajyavardhan Rathore won a silver medal in Athens he's all but vanished from our telescopic sights.

Clearly, different yardsticks have been applied; but the reason is easy enough to fathom: by no stretch of the imagination do chess, badminton or double trap shooting qualify, as mass sports.

Then again, in some ways, Sania's emergence as a youth icon, alongside Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, is a wonderful thing.

In this country few women have the opportunity to participate at any level in sport, and while P.T. Usha was perceived as something of a major sporting figure, she was more the exception than the rule.

What's truly amazing about Sania, so far, is that she has managed to adjust perfectly to the load on the shoulders; in fact she seems to play better under pressure.

Sania plays up to the gallery unabashedly; it's as if she's improvising live, each time she's out on court. She is currently riding the crest on the wave of crowd support, and just now she possibly believes nobody outside the top 20 stands a chance against that forehand.

But it is important to remember, one swallow does not a summer make. How consistently Sania manages to play, week after week, from now on will determine her eventual standing in women's tennis.

We've witnessed the birth of a new star; now it is important to step back and allow Sania to grow. For, in a sense, history begins with her.