Monday, January 15, 2007

Sania thrives on being role model as tennis booms in India

Glamour girl Sania Mirza is thriving on being a role model and says she is seeing a boom in tennis in cricket-mad India.Adored by millions in her home country, Mirza fought her way into the
Australian Open second round Tuesday with a 6-3, 7-5 victory over Ukraine's Olga Savchuk.

She is under pressure to perform here after slipping down the rankings but has had a solid lead up at the Hopman Cup mixed team tournament and then the Hobart International.

The expectations from her compatriots are nothing new for the confident right-hander with the diamond-studded nose-ring, who has already proved she is capable of holding her nerve.

Since turning professional three years ago, Mirza, as a successful, independent teenager and a Muslim, has become an idol for young women in India and a symbol of female empowerment.

"It's been there always and I think it's only going to grow now so that's something I have to live with," said the 19-year-old, who has noticed many more children now playing tennis thanks to her high profile.

"Yes, there's a lot more. Tennis is really growing in India as a sport," she said.

"I got so many messages today from people saying they were going to sleep early so they could get up early in the morning to see my match on TV. I've never seen or heard of that before, people following tennis in such a big way."

Despite her success and the adoration it has brought, Mirza, has drawn controversy.

Conservative clerics have denounced her for dressing, both on and off the court, in outfits they have deemed un-Islamic and corrupting.

And when misquoted in 2005 as endorsing premarital sex, which is taboo in Islam, supporters of the clerics burnt effigies outside her family home in Hyderabad.

"It is a good feeling (being a role model) and everything has its pros and cons," she said. "But it's great when someone comes up and says I picked up a tennis racquet because of you and what's you've done.

"You need a role model to look up to and when you look at someone doing it from your own country you start believing that you can do it too.

"A lot of people are picking up tennis racquets and I just hope that five, six years from now we don't have one woman tennis player we have a few more.

"I think it's just a matter of time before we have more players coming out at this level."

Despite slipping to 53 in the world, Mirza believes she is a more complete player than when she was ranked 30 last year.

"I'm a more complete player these days, I believe I have more than when I was 30 in the world, I'm 53 now and I play much better tennis today than I did then," she said.

"I feel a lot fitter, I'm moving a lot better, probably the serve is my weakest point right now, but it's not exactly a weakness, but it's not a strength, it's just a matter of consolidating on that and playing some quality matches."

She plays Eleni Daniilidou of Greece or Japan's Aiko Nakamura in the second round.

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