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Sania Mirza set to create history
May 19, 2005 11:36 IST
Last Updated: May 19, 2005 11:53 IST
Teenager Sania Mirza has already achieved celebrity status in India. An advertisers' dream with her trendy sunglasses and multiple earrings, she has been given her own security guards to stop her being mobbed by over-enthusiastic fans.
Now, the 18-year-old Mirza is set to create history as the first Indian woman to get a direct entry into a Grand Slam singles draw. She goes into the draw for next week's French Open at a career-high position of 72 in the WTA world list, having been ranked just 206th at the end of last year.
The confident Mirza has become the toast of India, rivalling the country's top cricketers in the affections of sports fans.
Her impressive run began as a wild card at the Australian Open, where she became the first Indian woman to reach a Grand Slam singles third round before she ran into eventual champion Serena Williams.
She went on to capture the first WTA tour title by an Indian before adoring home fans in Hyderabad, sending millions of Indians into frenzied celebrations.
The landmark victory, 46 years after Ramanathan Krishnan became the first Indian man to win a title, helped her to crack the top 100 in the rankings.
A stunning second-round victory over US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova followed at the Dubai Open in March, when she reeled off seven straight games after a slow start.
Indian media have given Mirza saturation coverage, well beyond the sports columns, and she has been feted by politicians, including the prime minister.
Mirza, who idolises German tennis great Steffi Graf, has drawn so much attention that the regional government in Hyderabad has provided her with personal bodyguards.
Mirza is unfazed by all the attention.
Her biggest concerns are an ankle injury which sidelined her in mid-March, and her distaste for the Parisian red clay.
She only recently resumed training with a stint under respected coach Bob Brett in Italy. Her hopes for match practice on clay were dented with defeat in the qualifiers of this week's Strasbourg international tournament in France.
"I've been doing a lot of strengthening exercises. The ankle is still a bit tender but I don't think it is that bad any more," Mirza said from Strasbourg.
"It's very tough to be without tennis for more than six weeks and come back."
She admitted that expectations on her were growing.
"I guess the way people look at me now will be different but I still have to go out there and prove myself.
"I don't want to say: 'I have to do this', otherwise something is going to happen," she said. "I could lose in the first round too."
Daughter of a Hyderabad-based builder, Mirza showed early promise in tennis after a switch from swimming as a six-year-old.
Her natural forehand and all-out aggression are unusual among Indian women tennis players who have in the past displayed a tendency for soft serves and tame baseline rallies.
Mirza's big boost came in 2002 when Indian Davis Cup player Leander Paes took her on as his mixed doubles partner at the Asian Games. The duo went on to win the bronze medal.
Her rise has been steady since then.
She won the Wimbledon girls doubles in 2003 alongside Russian Alisa Kleybanova and stints under Brett helped her to improve both her game and fitness.
She won 12 titles on the secondary ITF women's circuit, including five in 2004, before her encouraging Australian Open showing.
With her ankle still on the mend, Mirza may find the going tough at the French Open. However, she has set her sights firmly on her year-end target -- breaking into the top 50.
"That is possible," she said. "The season is only halfway through."
PHOTOGRAPH: Jewella Miranda