The problem of crowd MANAGEMENT

What we have, here in Hyderabad, is a cricket stadium doing a clever impersonation of a tennis arena.

VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova having a word with the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy, during the inauguration of the tournament.-

FEBRUARY 7: What we have, here in Hyderabad, is a cricket stadium doing a clever impersonation of a tennis arena. Thousands of people have turned up on a sunny Monday afternoon to watch the opening ceremony of the Hyderabad WTA Open; to be more specific, thousands of people are dying to see Sania Mirza in action. The curiosity level is simply unbelievable. Centre Court looks a little cramped as such; now, on top of this, the organisers must deal with the entirely unfamiliar problem of a crowd.

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Martina Navratilova looks a little bemused when Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy makes an appearance. She seems unsure of the identity of this gentleman clad in a crisp white dhoti and making a speech; over the roar behind her, Sania whispers something into Navratilova's ear. The politician formally declares the tournament open, then politely passes up the opportunity to hit a few balls with the tennis legend.

Navratilova, who is visiting India for the first time, is playing doubles alongside Anna Lena Groenefeld. The Czech-American is undoubtedly one of the greatest women tennis players of all time, and understandably the media is quick to pounce on every syllable she utters.

But in the stands only a few clued-in tennis fans are aware they are in the presence of tennis royalty. It isn't often that the tennis legend is forced to play second fiddle — that too, to someone practically one-third her age; but she's mighty gracious about the whole thing. In fact, she even made some flattering comments about the local lass at a press conference. "Sania will definitely make the top 50," the owner of 58 Grand Slam trophies had said, although later she admits she hasn't seen Sania play yet.

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Feb. 8: Sania plays her first singles match today. People are tripping over each other, trying to catch a glimpse of her. She's actually got a fan following, which is a great thing for the future of tennis in this country.

The crowd was at its roaring best, at times noisy and sometimes enthusiastic.-

In the Media Centre journalists can't stop marvelling at the emergence of the country's latest sporting phenomenon. "I've seen her from the time she was this small," says one senior journalist, indicating with his palm the level of his knee. "Two years ago she wasn't this good; now, is that a forehand or some illegal weapon?"

Not to be outdone, another journalist turns towards me and loudly remarks that he has known Sania's father for more than 20 years. "I know Irfan very well, he's not changed a bit. He'll ensure Sania remains focussed." Isn't his name Imran, I ask.

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Spectators are moving about in the stands without paying the slightest heed to the chair umpire's request asking them to settle down. Jelena Dokic hasn't bothered to make a ruckus about it, though; she seems pre-occupied elsewhere. Midway through the second set the 21 year-old seems to have given up; she loses yet another first round match today. Those heady days when she was ranked number four in the world have passed, and you wonder if she's going the Capriati way. Dokic shares a troubled relationship with her father, and it's hard to gauge the impact of her personal woes on her tennis.

Jelena Dokic, who shares a troubled relationship with her father, made first round exit. Perhaps it was an impact of personal woes.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

"It's mad, the way some fathers beat their daughters if they lose a game of tennis. They have completely lost any sense of perspective; they are absolutely crazy," says Navratilova, commenting on the detrimental influence some tennis-parents have on their wards.

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Feb. 9: Sania plays well to upset the tournament's fourth seed, Jie Zheng; she now enters the singles quarterfinal. Doubles star Mahesh Bhupathi is upbeat about her prospects. "The guys are struggling obviously because of the depth in men's tennis," he says, the pessimism in his voice apparent. "I think Sania, and also the Uberoi sisters (Shikha and Neha), are the best prospects for Indian tennis in the near future."

The former top-ranked player in doubles disagrees Sania might have benefited from a perceived lack of depth in women's tennis. "I think the women's Tour is extremely competitive. But Sania is a great talent," says Bhupathi, whose company Globosport incidentally manages Sania and the Uberoi sisters.

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Australian chair-umpire John Blom says a lot of players are upset with the behaviour of the crowds here. "The players get annoyed especially when someone in the crowd makes a noise especially on the second serve," he says. "But they try not to show it. I tell them India is a little different, expect a little noise."

"The situation's been improving as the tournament progressed. The crowds aren't nasty here, just enthusiastic I guess. And obviously Sania is playing, so they'd want her to win."

Bhupathi says spectators are now allowed to move in the first tier, as long as they do not come in the direct line of the action. "It worked fine at the U. S. Open, and nobody has complained here," he says. Except, you suspect the average spectator is blisfully unaware of any such modification to the rule — that is, if he knew of the rule in the first place.

Feb. 10: Five months before Sania played Serena in Melbourne, Shikha Uberoi managed to give Venus Williams a fright in the second round of the U.S. Open. She squandered an early 4-1 lead over the American and eventually lost in straight sets, but the 21 year-old Indian-American had by then proved she was no pushover.

Shikha had already indicated she wanted to represent India, but surprisingly any hype was muted. There was no celebration, no attempt to bask in the reflected glory. That she was Vivek Oberoi's cousin barely received mention. There were no bright ideas of an ad with the Bollywood star, nothing.

The home grown Sania Mirza obliges her local admirers by endorsing a catchy poster hung from one of the stands. Though the crowd was on her side she denies having got an unfair advantage from them while she was playing.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

Her decision to switch loyalties has been hotly debated. As a top-ranked player in India, Shikha can obviously cut far more lucrative sponsorship deals, and people have cynically suggested she wants to move because there's no way she can compete with the Williams sisters or Lindsay Davenport.

"Sponsorships were never an issue with me," says Shikha. "I would have been hankering after endorsements and ads, and that's definitely not the case. Besides, in the U. S. I had tons of private sponsors approaching me.

"More importantly, here I can play in the Fed Cup, the Asian Games and represent India at the Olympics".

While Shikha agrees issues like patriotism matter more to the audience than tennis players themselves, she maintains her primary motivation is to represent the country.

"Females here don't play enough sport. The idea is to be an inspiration to young girls," she says.

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Feb. 11: Sania becomes the first Indian to enter the singles final of a WTA event, after beating Maria Kirilenko of Russia. That forehand is arguably world-class; she's definitely got the talent to make the top 50 at the very least. Now if Sania can improve her serve, work on her movement and introduce more variety in that two-fisted backhand, there's no telling what she could achieve.

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Shikha Uberoi maintains that her primary motivation is to represent India in events like the Asian Games and the Olympics.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

Sania rubbishes the view that crowds here lend her any unfair advantage over her opponents. "Although the crowd is on my side, the noise distracts me too; I don't think I'm hard of hearing," she says with admirable self-restraint; anyone else, of course, would have resorted to sarcasm.

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Feb. 12. Sania Mirza beats Alyona Bondarenko in a scrappy three-setter and becomes the first Indian to win a WTA Tour event. It's quite an achievement and she will break into the top 100, which is again a first for an Indian.

The crowd has behaved unbelievably badly today, and Bondarenko could be forgiven for thinking she was one against some 5000. Earlier in the day the crowds nearly broke into a riot, destroying barricades and pushing their way into the stadium. The decision to allow free entry has pretty much backfired. In hindsight, the organisers could have handled things a lot better.