The new Indian woman

AP

The climb from top 30 to top 10 is bound to be arduous and Sania Mirza will be faced with a few vexing puzzles, but, increasingly, it does look like India’s top tennis player is ready for the big challenges ahead of her, writes Nirmal Shekar.

Unabashedly awash in nostalgia, we were fondly recalling the past when the present intruded upon us with a 1000-mega watt smile, habitually tossing her luxurious brown hair over her shoulders with one hand and giving us an exciting demonstration of high-speed texting with the other.

In a dimly lit corridor outside one of the small post-match interview rooms near the media facility at the All England Lawn Tennis Club last June, Leander Paes and this writer were playing a memory game that is often the first choice of men and women who have spent a good part of their lives doing the same things.

Leander: Remember the court where you watched me play my first match at Wimbledon in 1989?

This writer: Remember who was the first to step in and hug you after you beat Marcos Ondruska to win the junior title here in 1990?

Enter Sania Mirza.

“Are you waiting for your interview?” she queried Paes after craning her neck to find out that the room was still occupied.

“No lady,” said Paes. “We are waiting for your interview. You are the star.”

Said very much in jest, those words from Paes might well have been a subtle subconscious acknowledgement of a significant re-arrangement of the galaxy of Indian tennis.

Sania Mirza signs autographs after defeating Laura Granville of the United States at the US Open.-AP

Sania Mirza

If the Who’s Who of Indian tennis was dominated by males for over five decades, then, through a scorching summer’s week in Melbourne two years ago, the first bold attempt to strike some sort of gender balance was made.

In the context of Indian tennis, Sania ushered in a new era in January 2005 when she made the third round of the Australian Open as a wild card before losing to Serena Williams.

Then again, it was obvious that dank afternoon at Wimbledon three months ago that this was a new era in a much larger context too.

Later that afternoon, facing over half a dozen members of the media, Sania displayed admirable poise, a sharp, analytical mind and a not entirely inappropriate bumptiousness and impatience in the face of the trite and the provocative.

Enter the New Indian Woman.

Young, ambitious, resourceful, willing to put in the hard yards, supremely self-confident, unfettered by the past and boldly making her moves and asserting her identity in what is still very much a man’s world, the New Indian Woman — still largely a middle class creature — surely wants to live life on her own terms. She is as proactive as her male counterpart. The only difference is, she is rather more passionately committed to achieving her goals because of all the injustices of the past.

In the incubator for far too long in a traditional society wary of letting go of the delusional sense of security provided by obscurantist practices, the New Indian Woman was finally midwived into the world by those identical twins, Liberalisation and Globalisation — this, not a minute too soon.

Now, you see her everywhere in India — and abroad. At the malls, at restaurants, in corporate board rooms, on television anchoring programmes, busily texting — thereby celebrating our growing interconnectedness — at airport check-in queues, and, of course, on tennis courts. And, in quick time, she has done a lot to feed the robust optimism of a surging middle class in this country.

Sania’s is the most visible face of the New Indian Woman in sport.

Like the best of her breed, the 20-year-old from Hyderabad firmly believes that the world is hers to conquer.

She knows exactly what she wants and is unafraid to go after it.

But, then, it is one thing to lead a quiet revolution in the relative obscurity of corporate offices; quite another to do so while growing up in public shouldering the burden of a nation’s expectations as a pioneering athlete in a hugely popular glamour sport.

When you make the cover of Time magazine before you get to blow 20 candles on your birthday cake, life is hardly going to be a cakewalk.

Yet, given the heady mix that goes to make the Sania phenomenon, all the attention focused on her — for many different reasons — should not come as a major surprise. After all, sport is only one part sport. This is especially true of women’s tennis, a sport that long ago adopted many of the values that under-grid the global entertainment industry.

In the event, Sania’s success in handling her own celebrity is as admirable as her desire to become the best tennis player she can be. And a lot of the credit for this should go to her father Imran and mother Naseema who have managed to instil strong middle-class values in their talented daughter.

Now, the question is, how talented is this talented daughter of the Mirzas? How far can Sania go?

“We don’t have any unrealistic goals. Right now what is important is for her to play as many matches as she can,” Imran told me two days before the 2007 Wimbledon Championships as we watched the young one practise on court No. 3.

That was a time when Sania had not played too many matches since recovering from a knee surgery that she underwent last March and the heavy defeat she suffered in the second round against Nadia Petrova of Russia was not entirely unexpected.

But even then it was clear to me that the player we were watching was not the Sania of old. Strikingly trimmer, quicker to the ball and intensely focussed during practice, she seemed more thoroughly professional — and eager to meet challenges head on — than ever before in her career.

Not surprisingly, the rewards have come quickly. When she was confined to a wheelchair for a few weeks six months ago, Sania would not have even dreamed of the sort of run she’s had during the U.S. hardcourt season.

In three weeks, Sania beat five top 20 players to make the top 30 in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings and earn herself a seeding in the year’s last Grand Slam event.

Can she make the Top Ten? Can she become the first Indian — male of female — to climb to the pedestal of the elite since computer rankings began? (Ramanathan Krishnan was ranked in the top five in 1959, 1960 and 1961, before computer rankings began).

Vijay Amritraj, who made the top 20, believes she can, and so do a lot of others who know what they are talking about.

Of course, there will be plenty of hurdles along the way. The climb from top 30 to top 10 is bound to be arduous and Sania will be faced with a few vexing puzzles of the Chakvetadze kind — she lost the third round of the U.S. Open to Anna Chakvetadze and it was Sania’s third loss to the young Russian in two months — but, increasingly, it does look like India’s top tennis player is ready for the big challenges ahead of her.