The essential SANIA

K. RAMESH BABU

Sania Mirza might have to change a thing or two, in technique, in how she moves, in how she thinks on court, and that is fine. But not much else, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

MAYBE one day she'll change and it will be a shame. Maybe she'll turn retiring, cloak herself in bashfulness, and it'll be a pity. Maybe she'll clamp her mouth shut and walk demurely and stifle her individuality and what a disappointment it would be.

Because the way Sania Mirza is now, it's something we haven't seen, not here, not ever, a head-high, T-shirt blaring ("You can either agree with me or be wrong" one said), adrenalin-surging, power-hitting, scalp-hunting, nose-ringed teenage girl with a dream so big, so wild, so crazy that it's scary and it's beautiful.

Sania Mirza isn't impolite on court, isn't discourteous off it, is thankful for her fans, is grateful for her sponsors, feels blessed for her Indianness, is happy to be an ambassador. It's just that she's also herself, comfortable in her skin, her style so attractive that even in her third round, against Marion Bartoli, a clash of no-namers to be honest, the US Open put her on the second biggest show court, Louis Armstrong Stadium.

So say thank you to her parents, send them a card, drop them a note, because they could have handcuffed her to convention, tied her to tradition (whatever that may be), and then suffocated the warrior inside, extinguished that spark of ambition and belief and defiance that dances within her. But they let her be herself and look what we got. A girl in a salwar kameez, and spectacles, who looks like a teacher but has the soul of a boxer. So some of it is just teenage rebelliousness, but some of it is a player sustained by her competitiveness.

Athletes must answer the call within them, they are best when unshackled, responding to instinct, unleashing the personality of their game, allowing the person and player within them to find their fullest expression. Sania Mirza needs to be free to be her best, just look at her, nostrils twitching, arms swinging, unhesitant, unscared mostly, untamed, her desire to be a better player articulated in every bold shot, who cares if it hits the net or lands in. To hold her back is to tell an artist to paint only in some colours.

At the US Open she was asked about her T-shirts, like even the one she wore at Wimbledon that said "Well behaved women rarely make history", and she laughed, and replied pointedly: "I think I've said this enough, a number of times, but oh, my God, this is the last time I'm going to wear a T-shirt in a press conference that says something. It's no big deal. I'm 18 years old. Give me a break. I'm just trying to have some fun here. I'm bored of the stripes or checks or the lines. It's nothing. I always say if I have to make a statement or say something, I can speak, I don't have to wear it. I can always tell people what I want to."

This girl is not just setting herself free, she's liberating us in a way, not just in what Indian women can do which is everything, but that it's OK to be yourself even at 18, to own a style and not have to be apologetic about it, that Kuzentsova triumphed at the US Open but she's not out of reach, that you can be an Indian kid facing the world's press and not become a stuttering wreck, that you get nervous but not unhinged on court at the mere thought of the world watching a girl from Hyderabad, that fear of failure shouldn't stop us from daring to dream.

In one audacious year she's given us a glimpse of a possibility we did not dare to believe. Hands up all those who believed India's next grand slam fourth round player after Ramesh Krishnan in 1987 would be a girl with hoop earrings from Hyderabad. No one? That sounds about right.

There is a message Sania Mirza carries and it's not on her T-shirt, but mostly it says if you believe, if you want it so bad that it's like an ache that won't pass, you can be, not champion which she isn't, but at least a contender on universal courts, and that is something. That it doesn't matter who you are, how small, how big, which town you come from, whether your practice courts have craters as hers did, playing alongside Serena Williams doesn't have to stay a fantasy.

Somewhere in India, who knows, there is a pre-teen girl with athletic potential trapped inside her waiting to break free, and she is listening to Mirza. Maybe Mirza will never get to the Top 10, or Top 20, but she's already laid the road towards it, set up the signposts for this stranger, this kindred spirit.

Still some of the celebration at her return home was uncomfortable, like a conqueror returning, which she was in a way yet she wasn't, just an athlete who's reached one small destination on a long journey, worthy of applause not yet of coronation. But it's an old tired story: in a land craving for sporting heroes, and few to be found beyond the shooters, chess players especially V. Anand, Anju George, adulation almost appears to be stockpiled, just waiting to be heaped on the next would-be-hopeful.

Mirza must learn to wear the worship (fleeting as she might find it is when she stumbles, and she will, everyone does), but will be wise not to stoke it. When she talks as she recently did of No.1, part of you likes it because she sees no impossibility to it, but part of you cringes and wishes she didn't because it's too far to even really see. She is 18, but then so is Maria Sharapova and the distance between them is apparent, and we can say Indians may not physically mature as quickly, that all journeys to greatness take different routes, and we will not be wrong but eventually, in a few years, age won't matter only accomplishment will.

Sania Mirza set out to be the best tennis player she could be and what that is we don't know and neither does she yet. As a player, she owns the shots but lacks shot selection, she has power but needs to find patience, she has confidence but not yet court-craft, she has no fear of the big occasion but not yet the completeness of game to go with it.

What is vital to this equation is that what she owns is harder to teach than what she has to learn. To be that player she must be, Mirza might have to change a thing or two, in technique, in how she moves, in how she thinks on court, and that is fine. But not much else, not the head held high, not the walk, not the rage, not the defiance, not the dreaming. Sania Mirza is what she is because of who she is.