Stuck at Sania

We are all talented, but unlike Sania we have not had continuous financial support in our growing years. — Ankita Bhambri-SANDEEP SAXENA

The other Indian girls need to address two main issues, lack of aggression and fitness, if they want to follow Sania on the road of excellence. But, more importantly, they need financial backing that will induce fearlessness, writes Nandita Sridhar.

Sania Mirza badly needs her co-stars, currently performing a parallel show on the side-stage, to move alongside her into the spotlight. For most of the other Indian women tennis players, placed on the wrong side of 300 on the WTA rankings, reaching number 200 itself appears a long struggle though. Sania's story is an intriguing chapter in Indian women's tennis. It has inspired millions of wannabe skirt-clad racket wielders to scream, glide and try to smash their way into professional tennis.

However, it has, in its own unwitting way, created frustration, and thrown up its share of intriguing questions, largely centred on financial constraints.

"We are all talented, but unlike Sania we have not had continuous financial support in our growing years," said Ankita Bhambri, still bewildered at why the rupee notes continue avoiding her like plague.

Is money the only reason why Indian women's tennis scene is a one-horse race? Is Sania's phenomenal rise in the rankings, which was lubricated by her rawness, aggression, mystery and attitude, making the others seem lesser than what they are?

Is the rosy picture that people paint of women's tennis in India merely on the basis of one woman's success, a ploy to disguise the innumerable holes? Will `the rest' ever consistently know their WTAs from their ITFs? Do we really care about these things as long as Sania rakes in the moolah, wins the points, awards and fans and raises controversies? Do we really care even if she doesn't do any of these things?

Former national champion Sai Jayalakshmi, 28, doesn't dwell too much on the half-empty glass. "Things are definitely much better now than when I played. We were much more timid and passive. That has changed a lot now," said Sai. "Sania is not a one-off phenomenon. But what really worked for her was the fact that she capitalized on her opportunities. A lot of people get opportunities; very few make use of it. She did it."

I tried everything for sponsorship, but I still haven't succeeded. — Isha Lakhani-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

In contrast, men's tennis has always operated in plurals. Pairs such as Vijay and Anand Amritraj and Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have inspired many. "We did not have anyone to look up to or get inspired by," said Sai. "Nirupama (Vaidyanathan) was the first and it was great for the sport. For this generation, Sania has shown the way."

It takes some effort to dust off centuries of stereotypes and bias and battle against the lack of sporting culture. The path to move ahead has been laid, albeit slowly.

But if the `the rest' have to set foot on the same path and to have even a glimpse of Sania, they need to address two main issues, lack of aggression and fitness.

A mere glance at the oriental flavour that the current ITF menu offers screams out the disparity between theose figuring there and the Indian players in agility and fitness. What the Asians lack in height and muscularity, they make up in movement and precision. Some of the Indian players, meanwhile, will have to part ways with a bit of flesh and befriend raw and naked aggression to counter their Asian counterparts.

More than anything else, the Indians require the financial cushion that will induce a little more of fearlessness. They need a coach who can iron out technical flaws. They also need opportunities to play a few more tournaments abroad, especially in cold and cruel conditions. "I tried everything for sponsorship, but I still haven't succeeded," said a moist-eyed Isha Lakhani after her Bangalore Open exit.

If Indian women's tennis is to go the Chinese way (population and geography make it irresistible to compare the two nations, though Chinese sport is much bigger), the support has to come through.

In March, five Chinese players were in the top-100 of the WTA rankings. India can do better than a solitary striker.

SANIA MIRZA WATCHES IN THE BACKGROUND as Federation Cup teammates Shikha Uberoi (with the microphone) and Rushmi Chakravarthy share the spotlight.-RAJEEV BHATT

The baby-steps have been taken. After Sania, it is easier to leap over the stereotypes. There are more tournaments now than before, more awareness, expectations, visibility and definitely money though it still isn't enough.

"It is an expensive sport, and I also need someone to travel with me when I go abroad," said Ankita.

The Ankitas and Ishas will continue chipping and changing their game, occasionally muttering a silent prayer or two.

The issue here is not whether they can match up with a Sharapova, Mauresmo or Sania.

The issue here is that because of the lack of financial support, we might never know if they can.