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Can Sania Mirza do a Bjorn Borg?

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Last updated on: September 19, 2005 16:32 IST

If Sania Mirza sneezes, it will be news.

From food - she doesn't like coconut in anything - to what traveling coach John Farrington thinks of her - he is reportedly working on her sideways movement - the 18-year-old is the toast of the Sunfeast Open, being played in Kolkata from September 19 to 26.

On Monday evening, she and West Bengal Chief Minister Budhhadev Bhattacharya serve off the Women's Tennis Association's tier III event, which has prize-money of $170,000 (about Rs 75 lakhs).

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The Netaji Indoor stadium, the venue for the event, has been specially renovated at a speed faster than Sania's ferocious forehand -- the 'stadium' was more a venue for trade fairs and musical concerts till two months ago.

But now, with an army of policemen, private security guards and organisers in tow, it is the court of India's reigning tennis queen. When she walks into a qualifying round match, all cameras -- there is no 'audience' except a ball boys' battalion, the media and organisers -- turn from the game to her and her family - father Imran (who celebrated his birthday on Sunday), mother Naseema and sister Anam.

Ticket sales for the tournament - they are priced at a very reasonable Rs 100 to Rs 400 - also depend on the girl who sports the most photographed nose ring in Indian sporting history.

"Sania days will be sell-outs, we hope six days out of seven are Sania days," says one of the organisers, smiling. And everyone is hoping for a final between world number 13 Anastasia Myskina and the Indian girl who is ranked 34.

Can the personality cult help Indian tennis?

"Before Bjorg happened, there was no real tennis in Sweden. After him there were half a dozen champions from Sweden. Mahesh [Bhupathi] and Leander [Paes] have inspired many youngsters to play tennis. Now, Sania is inspiring the whole country," says says Dr C J K Bhupathi, Sania's first mentor and the father of one half of the duo that fanned to the Great Indian Tennis Dream in the late 90s.

The history of tennis in India has been the history of sporting families, elite clubs, limited access. Even Lee-Hesh came from established sporting families. Then just how did Sania Mirza, a girl from a city better known for its biryani and historical monuments, and from a family with no real sporting history, come to be at a stage when the WTA Tour inspector is amazed at her popularity?

"Mahesh personally picked her up from my tennis academy. Globosport [that manages Sania] nurtured Sania because of Mahesh [Bhupathi]. Globosport is Mahesh, Mahesh Is Globosport," says Dr Bhupathi.

Mahesh had played the junior circuit too. And he knew Sania was ready to take on the big guns. 

It began with an e-mail. 'Now we should send her outside. It is time to take her to someone like Bob Brett,' Mahesh wrote to his father. Dr Bhupathi knew his son was right. So began Sania's sessions with Brett, one of the biggest tennis coaches in the world. For one month first, and then in instalments.

Mahesh helped Sania get wild cards to various tournaments. "But Sania pounced on every opportunity and made the maximum out of it, thanks to her phenomenal talent," Dr Bhupathi is quick to add.

Would there be a day when India wouldn't need to send a talented tennis player out to learn more?

"There are people like Vijay Amritraj who can probably be as big as Bob Brett, but he [Amritraj] is not in this business," Dr Bupathi points out. 

What about the age factor? Don't most Indian tennis players hit the big time, if they do, pretty late?

"Some make it at 14, like Martina Hingis; some make it between 16 and 19 like Sania. Some make it later. Making it is what matters, doesn't matter at what age you make it," says a smiling Bhupathi senior.

"Those who make it at an early age are geniuses. Like Michael Chang, Martina Hingis, Boris Becker, Steffi Graf - a different league.

"Sania is in a different league."

Sumit Bhattacharya in Kolkata