By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Thursday, February 24, 2005
Who is Sania Mirza? If you put that question to Indians living abroad, you’ll get a frown because they’ll think you should know all about her. Ask an Indian in India, and after the eyes stop rolling, you’ll be handed just about any newspaper or magazine that’s handy. And there she is, peeking out of every publication and every TV screen as writers and anchors gush “This Lass Has Got Class” or “She’s the Belle of the Ball.” It’s called “Sania Mania,” and advertising agencies are working overtime to cash in on it.
Well, to the answer then. Sania Mirza is an 18-year-old Muslim girl from Hyderabad, India, who has caught the attention of the world of tennis since Feb. 12 when she became the first Indian to win a Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) title — and the $140,000 prize that went with it. She was given a wild card for the Hyderabad Open event, which she won by beating ninth seed Alyona Bondarenko of the Ukraine. That victory came after her amazing exploits in the Australian Open last month where she became the first Indian to reach the third round of a Grand Slam event. Sania lost to Serena Williams. By her superb display she jumped from a 400 ranking last year into the Top 100 this year. She is on No. 99 in the latest world rankings.
Those are cold statistics and are for the record books. That still doesn’t tell us what sort of person she is and what her background is. “She is a deeply religious girl who prays five times a day and tries hard not to play during the holy month of Ramadan. She reads the Qur’an every day,” her father and coach, Imran Mirza, told Arab News in a telephone interview from Hyderabad this week. “She doesn’t want to miss out on college, so she recently enrolled herself for a bachelor’s degree in mass communications, having completed her higher secondary course (Plus 2) last year. She went to Nasr School, an English-medium school which is a typical Muslim one.”
So she wants to be a journalist? “Having answered hundreds of questions from hundreds of journalists after winning the hearts and minds of a multitude of Indians, she probably knows the right questions to ask,” said the doting father.
Sania had already learned the nuances of journalism when someone asked her what’s it like for a Muslim girl to wear short skirts and slug it out on court. She quickly replied: “I don’t wear miniskirts on the streets.”
Imran Mirza himself was a sports journalist once. He ran his own sports magazine called “Sportscall”. “It folded a long time back,” he said, “but my heart was once into journalism.” The father thinks that the whole family has contributed in a big way to Sania’s rise to sports stardom. “My younger daughter Anam, who is 11, probably missed a lot of time with us because we were busy with Sania so much.”
Here in Saudi Arabia, old-timers recall one of Sania’s great-uncles coming for Haj many times. “He was my Phuppa Al-Haj Mirza Shakoor Beg,” confirmed Imran. “He performed Haj 31 times and died at the age of 96.” Sania’s grandfather was an avid sportsman.
“My father, Muhammad Zafar Mirza, played university-level cricket. He also played club cricket for Middlesex in England. But his first love was hockey. Then he went into academics,” said Imran. Sania’s mother also is a sports lover. “She never played organized sports though, but she played badminton a lot,” said Imran.
How did Sania get into tennis? “It was natural for her to pick up some kind of sport. Cricket was not an option for women, and we discouraged her from getting into swimming so tennis became the best option,” said Imran.
“We knew she had talent when she picked up the racket for the first time at the age of six. We knew then that she was destined for big things, but we didn’t know she’d reach the Top 100 ranking at 18. Now she wants to be in the Top 50 by the end of 2006 and the Top 25 by 2007.”
Imran says finding corporate sponsors initially was tough. “GVK Industries did a lot to promote her. Now we are deluged with offers from sponsors.”
Anirban Das, senior vice president of Globosport, which handles Sania’s commercial work, told Outlook news magazine that he spent the last few months “persuading people, trying to convince them there was something special about this girl.”
Now they have seen the light, and he is flooded with offers since Sania’s appeal extends beyond the demographic of tennis-watchers in that she is an icon for all young people — particularly women. As she was walking back after losing to World No. 7 Serena Williams in that celebrated Australian Open encounter at Melbourne’s Vodafone Arena, Brad Gilbert, coach of the likes of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, told her: “You have a bright future. I would like to see you in the Top 50 in the next 12 months.”
That’s what she’s working on now. Sania Mirza possesses a simple, wholesome charm that comes from sheer earnestness. There is a down-to-earth quality to her which goes beyond the transitory appeal of models. And, unlike actresses, Sania is real.
Sania’s rise to the top also has given a shot in the arm to the morale of the country’s Muslim minority. In his much-acclaimed article, Praful Bidwai hit the nail on the head when he said: “Sania has come to embody a number of aspects of modernity, freedom and rationality — the very opposite of the stereotypes that Indian Muslims are straitjacketed into. Many conservatives, especially Bharatiya Janata Party sympathizers, believe Indian Muslims are irredeemably backward, illiterate, overly religious, bigoted... In their view, Muslims are somewhat inferior, under-socialized human beings who deserve pity or sympathy, not equal treatment or respect. The Hindu nationalist, as well as the middle class pseudo-liberal, is deeply uncomfortable with the modern, liberal, educated, well-informed Indian Muslim who has an open mind and cosmopolitan outlook. The discomfort is all the greater if the person is a woman. Sania Mirza represents all of those modern attributes. And yet, she has become an irresistible, irrepressible icon by dint of her talent and her transparent charm. This is a major transformation of the Indian Muslim stereotype.”
So who is Sania Mirza? If you’re one of the Top 100 in the world of tennis, the answer might be “Trouble.”