Sania Mirza back on court in skirt

For most of her compatriots, she is an idol. She was the first Indian woman to break into the top 50 of the WTA Tour rankings. By David Ornstein.

Sania Mirza would have found life remarkably more straightforward had she been born in an era when women players wore nothing less than an ankle-length dress, bustle, tie, hat and gloves.

But when the Indian goes on court in a thigh-length skirt -- hardly unusual amid a generation of scantily clad players -- it can be construed as a message of defiance.

In September 2005 a group of Muslim clerics issued a fatwa demanding that Mirza, a devout Muslim, cover up during matches, and soon after that the then 18-year-old bowed to the pressure and swapped her skirt for shorts. Haseeb-ul-Hasan Siddiqui of the Sunni Ulema Board said her outfits left ''nothing to the imagination,'' and that ''for an entire nation of young Muslim girls she will be a corrupting influence''.

He claimed that her skirts and T-shirts -- ''Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History'' reads one, ''I'm Cute, No Shit'' another and ''You Can Either Agree With Me Or Be Wrong'' a third -- were ''un-Islamic''.

But at this year's French Open Mirza started wearing a skirt again. ''How I dress is a very personal thing, so give me a break. I'm just trying to have some fun. If I have something to say I can speak, can't I? I don't have to speak through what I wear.''

For most of her compatriots, Mirza is an idol. She was the first Indian woman to break into the top 50 of the WTA Tour rankings, the first to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam, the US Open in 2005, and the first to win a tour title, in her home city of Hyderabad, which according to some reports caused a mini-stampede.

Such is the interest in Mirza's life that she says she often used to find intruders in her house and was forced to employ two guards to man it day and night. The world No. 44's image adorns billboards all over India and her endorsement fees match those of the cricketer Rahul Dravid.

''Sania mania'' peaked in August 2005 when she destroyed Nadia Petrova 6-2, 6-1 in the third round in San Diego. That year Petrova had already reached the French Open semifinals and the Wimbledon quarters and attained a career-high ranking of world No. 3.

In 2003 she won the junior doubles title in Wimbledon with Alisa Kleybanova to become the youngest Indian -- and first Indian woman -- to win a junior Grand Slam. At that point hardcourts were her favourite surface but after taking the then reigning US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova to three sets on Centre Court in 2005 she realised that her game was best suited to grass.

''This is a very special tournament for me, a great place to come back to,'' said Mirza, after beating Yaroslava Shvedova 6-0, 6-3 in the first round. ''There are a lot of Indian people here and a lot of support.''

@ Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007