New breed of Indian women players takes centre court of world tennis

first_imgSania MirzaImran Mirza remembers the question well. Like he remembers travelling to tournaments with his wife and two little girls in his Maruti 1000 fitted with a diesel engine, driving from Hyderabad to Thiruvananthapuram, Ahmedabad …. He remembers the insinuation in the question. Which Indian girl has made it big,Sania MirzaImran Mirza remembers the question well. Like he remembers travelling to tournaments with his wife and two little girls in his Maruti 1000 fitted with a diesel engine, driving from Hyderabad to Thiruvananthapuram, Ahmedabad …. He remembers the insinuation in the question.Which Indian girl has made it big in tennis? Last week a shrieking, cheering whistling, 4,000-strong crowd at the WTA Hyderabad Open replied so loudly that the ears are still ringing.They came in an endless stream. Women in silk saris sat on concrete steps, old men in lungis perched grandchildren on their knees, local loafers carried a few flags and banners but mostly a rude gleam in their eyes.Few knew tennis, most just knew Imran’s daughter’s name. They cheered like they do at cricket, treating match point like it was the final over of a one-dayer where victory was certain, the noise rising even as the players scrambled through the point.Shakshi UberoiThis was rush hour tennis and an Indian woman was in the centre of it. While Sania Mirza is the poster girl of Indian tennis, she is also the leader of an entire pack that has made a breakthrough for the sport.In the backdrop of Saniamania, on the hard courts of a place once called Fateh Maidan-the field of victory-India’s women tennis players are making it.Big, small and in between. A fussy, fusty past of pretty backhands, prettier tennis skirts and evenings at the club have been cast aside with swift finality. The goal posts have been moved.As former World No. 4 Jelena Dokic made her first appearance in Hyderabad, a 23-year-old Indian player marvelled at how “normal” she looked. Sanaa Bhambri, all of 16, spoke of competing without awe and by way of uncanny example, said, “We are not running after Dokic for an autograph.”Enrico Piperno, captain of the Indian Federation Cup team (the Davis Cup of the women’s game) since 2000, says, “The girls have raised the bar. A certain benchmark has been set.”Ankita BhambriFor the first time in 2004 the Indian Fed Cup team of rookies Sania and Ankita Bhambri and veterans Manisha Malhotra and Rushmi Chakravarti came close to qualifying for the playoffs. Without a single top 200 player, India lost to Thailand in the race to feature in the final 24.Today Sania and Shikha Uberoi are ranked in the top 150. While US-based Uberoi has only recently been cleared to play for India, Sania and her sisters are products of Indian sport’s chaotic structures. Much in the system may not work, but something obviously has.While high noon is still some time away, in Indian women’s tennis, morning has broken. “The moon balling is over,” says coach S. Narendranath,”It has become a physical thing.”Fed Cupper Sai Jayalakshmy, who has played against the top players of the late 1980 sand the tykes of today, feels the difference on her racket strings: “All the girls now hit the ball a lot harder.”Narendranath says that among his 100-odd wards, the girls seem to know what they are working towards more than the boys. Off-court training is gospel.Once girls began weight training at 16 or 17; now if strength levels are considered adequate at 14, nobody waits. Along with titanium rackets, a girl needs muscles. Uberoi, 22, has plenty of those, a striking example of an athletic Indian player, though thanks to a four-year stint at the Harry Hopman Academy in Saddlebrook, Florida, and a crammed sports schedule while growing up.Indian girls make their presence felt as four of them make it to the top 150 in the world junior rankings.She refuses to concede that the traditional Indian build or what players call “genetics” gets in the way of making a top professional. “Power or speed,” says Uberoi. “You need to either hit the ball hard or be lightning fast-a combination of both is pretty much unbeatable.”Without either, you would do well not to show up on court-even in India. This bloom of purpose has curious roots. In the mid-1990s, the All India Tennis Association (AITA) made a controversial switch to the “Spanish model” for the national tennis structure.Domestic tournaments were mostly replaced by world-ranking point events. It brought all kinds of overseas players to India, gave Indians better competition and the chance to earn points.Today winning the National title is not an end in itself, to be repeated ad nauseam en route to an Arjuna Award. It is merely what 17-year-old Punam Reddy, the Under-18 champion, calls, “the stepping stone, the first thing you want to do”.India No. 4 Ankita Bhambri, now 18, won the Under-14 and Under-16 Hard Court Nationals aged 13. Sanaa, who won the women’s Nationals last year, says, “Whether they are 16 or 17, girls of the new generation believe they can match the world.”In 2004 the men played 15 weeks of tournaments to the women’s 12. The calendar for 2005 has 24 weeks of competition for men and 16 weeks for women. The grass court Nationals, once the most prestigious title in the country, have not been played since March 2002.WATCH THEM: India’s top two juniors Nagraj(left)and RanganathanThe route to the upper reaches of professional tennis has become more accessible but not smoother. It still requires obsessive involvement of parents.”If I had known what it would take to get my daughter this far,” says Imran, “I don’t think I would have done it.” Poultry farmer Satish Reddy now picks Imran’s brains to chart out a career for his only child, the 5 ft 10 in Punam.The Mirzas started Sania out at 6 years, and drove to her events just so that when she lost, they could leave immediately and save on the hotel bill. Industrialist G.V.K. Reddy began sponsoring her from age 13- but only after hitting with her himself. Yet the first six years were brutal.”I tell parents, don’t do it for fame or money. Do it for the love of tennis,” says Imran. Sania’s annual schedule was carefully spread over events which helped her gain experience, ranking points and the attention of sponsors.Satish’s trepidation over the expenses-already January cost him Rs 3 lakh to send his daughter to two events-is only matched or perhaps trebled by the Bhambris of Delhi who have three serious players in the family, Ankita, Sanaa and 12-year-old son Yuki. “Our parents are going nuts.How can they pick any one of us?” asks Sanaa. If they pick them all, can they pay the bills? Ankita says, “May be sponsors did not expect anything from women’s tennis because we hadn’t done as well as the men.” Maybe the time to expect is here. Already another generation fidgets on the side lines, waiting to be called up: four Indians feature in the top 150 in the world junior (under-18) rankings.Sandhya Nagraj is the junior India No.1 followed by Madura Ranganathan, Punam and Tara Iyer, daughter of a World Bank executive now based in Washington.For years women’s tennis was considered a farcical sideshow to the flamboyance and successes of men but the Nirupama Vaidyana than’s breaking into the WTA tour in 1994 set in motion events she did not dream of but which all the same have led to today.To thousands screaming in Hyderabad for two girls in a first round doubles match. To Ranganathan, like Vaidyanathan from Coimbatore, who says, “Because of what Nirupama did, so many girls in Coimbatore now play tennis. It is still conservative, they still say girls are not supposed to play sports. We just live with it and play.” Yesterday one girl, one town. Tomorrow one champion, one country.advertisementadvertisementadvertisementlast_img

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