Indian star's goal: Be a player, not a symbol
With Muslims at home alternately idolizing and attacking her, Sania Mirza tries to have fun and improve her game.
By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
Published April 12, 2006
Sania Mirza has drawn attention for her dress, not always favorable: Her tennis attire provoked a Muslim group to declare a fatwa.
KEY BISCAYNE - The Newcomer of the Year in women's tennis - her long black hair bobbing from the back of a visor and a diamond-studded nose ring sparkling - is busy blasting forehands on a remote practice court beneath the hot South Florida sun.
She is virtually hidden from view, rare for someone with a fan club of half a billion.
Gradually, a handful of spectators roaming the jammed Tennis Center grounds at Crandon Park, home of the recent Nasdaq-100 Open, wander over.
They recognize the 19-year-old with the bionic groundstrokes and exotic good looks.
"That's the girl from India; she's so cute," whispers an older woman to her friends.
It's hardly the kind of reception Sania Mirza receives back home, where she no longer even attempts to take a walk in public. Mobs of adoring fans have made that impossible, clamoring for the autograph of the athlete whose posters are said to be as popular as any of India's marquee Bollywood stars.
In some ways, she's a typical teenage girl with an eye for fashion and - at least until she grew weary of answering questions about them last year - a penchant for those trendy attitude T-shirts with the bold, sometimes in-your-face sayings.
Yet while countless kids her age move in a world of MySpace, her space requires 24-hour bodyguard protection in India as a precaution.
Many female teens have to deal with a parent's disapproval over what they wear, not a fatwa from a fringe Muslim group.
The religious order was issued against Mirza by a cleric from her hometown of Hyderabad in southeastern India. The edict deemed her tennis miniskirts and attire too revealing and "un-Islamic" and demanded that Mirza, a devout Muslim, cover up.
Still, the vast majority of India is swept up in the phenomenon dubbed "Sania Mania." Indian women hail her as a pioneer for pushing gender barriers. Young girls flock to tennis courts to follow in her footsteps. And the Indian media, with more than 100 newspapers and dozens of 24-hour news channels, provide endless coverage of her.
She is a young woman caught between being a symbol of modern India and an object of ire from less progressive segments of the society; the best Indian female tennis player ever in a balancing act as a national treasure and a teen.
Somehow Mirza, who answers questions confidently and often bluntly, maintains her concentration with an entire nation hanging on her every move.
"Expectations and pressure are always going to be there," she says. "It increases by the day, and you need to learn to cope with it."
In 2005, she coped quite well indeed.
Mirza became the first Indian to win a Women's Tennis Association singles title, accomplished in her hometown at the Hyderabad Open with Congress president Sonia Gandhi in attendance.
With an aggressive, go-for-broke style, Mirza raced up the rankings from the obscurity of No. 163 (No. 326 in '04) to a career-best 31 last season. And she was featured on the cover of Time magazine's Asian edition in a story titled "Asia's Heroes."
But 2006 has taken a different turn. Mirza has struggled, dropping to 37. Maybe it's a nagging elbow and wrist injury that requires a cumbersome brace on her forearm, hampering her power game. It could be opponents are starting to figure out how to play her.
Or perhaps it's the weight of carrying a country's hopes and dreams each time she steps onto a court.
"I'm just here to play tennis," she insists. "I'll do whatever I can to do the best I can. I just have to focus on my game and block out as much as possible."
One measure of how big Mirza has gotten in India is that she rivals the country's vaunted male cricket players in popularity and endorsements.
In a recent national poll rating the country's young icons, Mirza finished second only to cricket superstar Sachin Tendulkar. Earning one of India's most prestigious sports awards in 2005 made headlines there, but being named the WTA's Newcomer of the Year on March 21 created a media frenzy.
"That's really big news for India, because Indians are not very prominent on the international circuit, particularly women," veteran Indian sports journalist and author Gulu Ezekiel says by phone from New Delhi. "Her photo was splashed all over the papers. She's been on TV. Even with her disappointing start this season, she is still very big."
Yet in the United States, Mirza can walk through the bustling Nasdaq grounds and, except for stopping to pose for a snapshot with an excited Indian woman, barely draw a glance.
As she heads for the locker room, her father, Imran Mirza, a former club cricket player who serves as her coach, lingers briefly to talk.
He is proud of his daughter, but he worries about the pressure and expectations.
"Yeah, it is beginning to get to her, because it's not like a million people are rooting for her; it's like a half-billion people are," he says. "Everybody is following her so closely. So it is getting to her."
Imran, a builder, and Naseema, who runs a printing press, raised their two daughters in a Westernized Muslim household. But he has grown concerned about the attire worn by players on the WTA tour and reactions from more conservative Muslims.
It is a conflict not entirely resolved.
"The thing is, she's never tried to justify what she's doing from the Islamic point of view," he says. "Because she's as much a Muslim as any other Muslim as far as the beliefs go. And we never tried to justify what she's doing.
"In Islam, the best thing that you have is that there's forgiveness for everything. Sania has never said, "I'm doing the right thing.' She says, "I'm doing it and God will forgive me for it.' So that's the attitude we have, and then we have to face what comes."
For what it's worth, Mirza has not been playing in miniskirts this season. She has switched to shorts.
For all the unwanted attention over her attire, Mirza aimed the spotlight directly at her T-shirts last year and wound up with another distraction.
At a postmatch Wimbledon news conference, she wore a shirt bearing a slogan that has made the rounds on bumper stickers: "Well-behaved women rarely make history."
She wore a playful one that read: "I'm old enough to know better but still too young to care," and an edgy one with the words, "Don't Get in My Way."
In August at the U.S. Open, where she became the first Indian woman to reach the tournament's fourth round, she wore this one to a news conference: "You can either agree with me, or be wrong."
But she turned some heads in another Open news conference a few days later wearing a T-shirt with the message, "I'm Cute? No s---."
Some, like veteran tennis writer and NBC analyst Bud Collins, have been turned off by the displays.
"I've only met her once and she seems like a very good kid," he says. "Obviously, she's lively and under a lot of pressure. But I think she could help herself. She wears atrocious clothing sometimes. T-shirts that are profane sometimes. That's starting behind. She's charming enough. She's a good player. She has a big forehand, huge at times. So I don't think she needs to do that. But she's growing."
Mirza, meanwhile, has grown exasperated by all the questions about her T-shirts.
"I think I've said this enough, a number of times," she said with a laugh to a reporter's question at the U.S. Open, "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 lines."
In fact, other WTA players talk highly of her.
"She's a very relaxed girl and a great player," says Kim Clijsters, one of the tour's top players who competed with Mirza in an exhibition. "I'm sure she'll let her tennis do the talking. I like that she keeps going for her shots. She's gutsy. I see her around the courts; she's professional, and a nice girl, too."
One other tour star can relate to the glare of publicity faced by Mirza. Maria Sharapova, who won Wimbledon in 2004 at 17 and has become an international celebrity, defeated Mirza in straight sets in the U.S. Open quarterfinals but was impressed.
"I don't know her personally too well, but she's a great young talent and there's a lot of potential," she says. "I still think she needs experience, just like I did and still do. She has pressure on her. But in a way, I think it's wonderful to have a whole country supporting you. It's an honor."
Oh, yes. She hasn't worn any messages in months.
A long rain delay has pushed Mirza's showcased Stadium Court match with little-known Anna Tatishvili to past 10 p.m. But the crowd has remained.
Loud applause greets the announcer's booming introduction - "SANIAAA, MIRZAAA" to the blaring soundtrack of K.C. and the Sunshine Band's That's the Way I Like It.
Mirza sports a white hat, white shorts, a pink shirt, her trademark black socks and the brace on her right arm and wrist.
High up in the stands, two women watch intently. Belinda Padmini and Dsoula Harigopal, 35-year-olds from India and now Miami residents, have been waiting for a chance to watch Mirza play.
"She's from my hometown in India and it's a big thing that she has done so well," Harigopal says.
"And for a Muslim woman," Padmini adds. "But it shouldn't matter what she is. I'm Catholic and she (Harigopal) is Hindu. We're just proud she's Indian."
Mirza has beaten two top-10 players, but she loses a tense, three-set match this night with an array of unforced errors. It's clear she still has a way to go to join the WTA's elite.
But she has come far, much further than India's first female tennis player of note, Nirupama Vaidyanathan, whose top rank was No. 134 in 1997.
Though Mirza's main sport as a young child was swimming, her mother began taking her to local tennis courts on the way to swim lessons. Mirza enjoyed herself. So her parents thought she might like to give the sport a try, signing her up for lessons at age 6 with no particular expectations.
The instructor at first declined to coach the little girl, insisting she was too small. Within a month, however, she had changed his mind, displaying a natural ability and determination. By 7, she was playing tournaments and progressing rapidly on the pock-marked clay courts, later joking that "I twisted my ankle about a dozen times a day."
Today, the 5-7, 130-pound sensation has numerous Internet fan sites in India, where her off-court dress includes the traditional salwar kameez (loose pants and long tunic) and black-rimmed glasses.
She rides in cars with dark-tinted windows back home to protect her privacy. She has also had to change her cell phone number because of endless calls from Indian reporters.
And the clash of cultures continues to be part of her life. When Indian actor Khushboo spoke out to promote safe sex and condom use, she sparked a fierce backlash among some conservative groups. Mirza came out in support of Khushboo's message and was harshly criticized. Mobs burned both women in effigy, and they eventually issued apologies.
Mirza and Israel's top female player, Shahara Peer, drew protests from some Muslim and Jewish groups when they partnered in doubles in October at Bangkok. Despite the flap, they have stated they intend to join forces again.
Meanwhile, Mirza has to keep her mind on the game. Tony Roche, coach of top-ranked Roger Federer, has been working with her on serves, and she's hoping to get healthy and back on track. In her free time, she tries to relax. "I'm not a party person," she says. "I'm a stay-at-home person. If I have a day off, I probably wake up at 12 and have some friends over."
She would love one day to become No. 1. But another reward sustains her.
"It feels nice that people are inspired by you," she says. "Just the fact that there are so many girls picking up tennis rackets now is amazing in India. Hopefully I can keep up with their expectations."