For a country with a population exceeding one billion, India has been, to put it charitably, underrepresented in women's tennis. Until last month no Indian woman had so much as cracked the top 100 in the world rankings. How marginal was the country's tennis profile? In 2001 Sania Mirza played in the Wimbledon juniors for the first time. In keeping with tradition at the event, the All England Club flew the national flag of every player in the draw. When Mirza looked at the display, she didn't see the Tiranga of India. When her father, Imran, complained, a club official apologized, responding sheepishly, "I can't recall a girl ever coming from there."
Two years later Mirza partnered with Alisa Kleybanova of Russia to win the Wimbledon junior doubles title--"They had the Indian flag by then," Mirza notes--and when tennis's seminal tournament rolls around this summer, Mirza, 18, should be a star attraction in the women's main draw. Starting the year ranked No. 206, she reached the third round of January's Australian Open before losing to eventual champ Serena Williams 6-1, 6-4. "I'm still riding this wave of confidence from that second set," Mirza says. "I could hang right in there with Serena Williams!" Notoriously stinting in her praise of other players, Williams exhorted Mirza during the postmatch handshake: "You're doing great things, so keep fighting."
She is, and she has. Three weeks later Mirza prevailed in her hometown tournament, the Hyderabad Open, becoming the first Indian woman to win a WTA singles title. The tournament might be one of the lesser whistle stops on the circuit, but as Mirza took her star turn, it came to resemble a Grand Slam crossed with a queen's jubilee. The stadium was packed to capacity, and Mirza's progress through the draw was front-page national news. After the final, as fireworks reverberated throughout Hyderabad, Mirza took congratulatory calls from all manner of Indian dignitaries. The dimension of her celebrity was such that the regional government provided her with a security detail. Martina Navratilova, in Hyderabad to compete in the doubles draw, proclaimed it "the wildest tennis atmosphere" she'd ever seen.
Saniamania quickly spread beyond India. By the time Mirza played the Dubai Open last month, her matches were as well attended as those of Serena. Surely the most popular 77th-ranked player in women's tennis history, Mirza did her growing fan base proud, reaching the quarterfinals and along the way beating defending U.S. Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova. "The attention doesn't bother me," says Mirza, who moonlights as the equivalent of a freshman at Hyderabad's St. Mary's College. "It shows me how ready people are to accept a successful woman."
Weaned on sandy clay courts, the 5'7 1/2", 130-pound Mirza plays a game suited to both slow and fast surfaces. And while she's not blessed with voguish Big Babe power, she plays a cerebral, risk-taking style that refracts her off-court personality. Indian marketing types suspect that, apart from her successful results, Mirza has become a full-bore celebrity because she is the embodiment of the secularized, modernized New India. Ask Mirza, for instance, why, unlike their male counterparts, Indian women have gone largely unaccounted for in tennis, and she shows off her return game. "For one, money: Sponsors didn't think they'd get anything out of a girl," she says. "Some Indian girls went to school, thinking they had played enough. Also, Indian girls get married really early, and after marriage girls aren't comfortable playing tennis. You know, 'You need to take care of your house and family.' But times have changed, and girls stand up for themselves."
At the same time Mirza is an observant Muslim, praying five times daily. With some ambivalence she wears conventional tennis skirts, but she most assuredly will not be appearing in the WTA swimsuit calendar, her surging popularity notwithstanding. More traditional Indians--Muslim and Hindu--have approached Mirza's parents to express displeasure with their daughter's career choice. Mirza is not bothered by it all. "I know my culture, I know my background," she says. "I'm comfortable and satisfied with who I am. I'd like to be the same person in my next life. If, you know, there exists such a thing." ‚ñ†
Widening the Net
Five stars from nontraditional tennis nations
Fabiola Zuluaga (right), Colombia
Reached a career-high No. 16 earlier this year
Na Li, China
The best of three Chinese women in the top 100
Marcos Baghdatis, Cyprus
Already the top tennis player in his country's history
Irakli Labadze, Georgia
The flashy lefthander is capable of beating anyone
Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, Pakistan
Beat Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan in Davis Cup shocker in March
SEAN GARNSWORTHY/GETTY IMAGES
The 18-year-old Mirza has won fans for her cerebral play and for her embodiment of the New India.
SEBASTIAN D'SOUZA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (INSET)
[See caption above]
ULI DECK/EPA (ZULUAGA)