The Sania Mirza Effect – By B. Singh

There have been many informed and analytical opinions floated in the Indian media about why women’s sport is not given its due importance in our country. Even in otherwise “liberal” households, the thought of a girl-child seeking a career in sports is frowned upon, if not laughed off outright. This is a little ironical, considering that of all our attempts to make a mark in the international sporting arena, a significant contribution has been made by women: P.T. Usha, Shiny Wilson, Anju Bobby George, Karnam Malleshwari and others. If you leave out the men’s cricket team, which after all did once win the World Cup (but that’s OK, so did Pakistan’s) and blips on the screen like Milkha Singh and Leander Paes, hell almost our entire sporting hopes as a nation thus far have rested on the strong, slightly dusky shoulders of our sisters from Kerala!

In my (completely uninformed) opinion, they are just the exception that proves the rule. Women’s sport in India is something nobody wants to touch. Is it mere coincidence that so many of our speedy ladies has had a male coach, in most cases one they were married to?

That’s not true, you say. Take women’s cricket- hasn’t it come a long way? India recently made the finals of the Women’s World Cup, just like their (undoubtedly richer) male brethren. Quick, name three Indian women cricketers. Diana Eduljee doesn’t count- for some reason, her name sticks out probably because its so uncharacteristically sexy for an Indian name, and in any case she retired ages ago.

Can’t do it, can ya? How about Mithali Raj? She captained the Indian ““errrr— fillies who made the finals of the Women’s World Cup in South Africa, only to lose to the all-conquering Aussies (I suppose our only hope against those marauders is that someday Bangladesh fields a women’s cricket team as well). According to my trusted research aide, Mr. Googlekar, she’s also scored 214 against England three years ago and her idol is Sachin Tendulkar. So cute! (and probably the only reason the article got published in the first place. I can imagine some sub-editor going “Acchha, Sachin Tendulkar? Print kar do!” )

Forgive me for soundng cynical, but it’s probably true. You see, women’s cricket, and women’s sport in general, is not sexy at all (the interview with Ms. Raj carried no photograph, for rather obvious reasons). You could argue that, with Sehwag and Bhajji in the team, neither is the men’s game, but then we have the occasional Dravid and Dhoni (no? the field seems split on this one) to balance things out. And, thanks to Pepsi, there’s enough money in the game to keep it sexy. Money’s always sexy. But why are Indian sportswomen so unsexy?

As before, let’s look at exceptions to prove the rule- Sania Mirza. As I write this, she’s just lost another match to a highly seeded player, this time at Wimbledon. And you can almost smell the headlines being furiously cooked up at editors’ desks everywhere (“œBrave Sania goes down fighting to fifth seed”; “US Open Champion struggles to beat young challenger”). Yeah OK, so she did put up a sort of fight, most of the time anyway, and that forehand will probably take the net umpire’s head off some day soon, but come on! Indians have lost at Wimbledon before, what’s so new about this? When she lost at the Aussie open (to Serena Williams in the third round), the Times of India invited her on board as guest editor for a day. If inshallah (yeah yeah, she’s Muslim) she does manage to win one of the Grand Slams some day, what on earth will they give her? Her own permanent page? (Actually, that’s not completely ruled out, given the way ToI is headed, but that’s another day, another column). The only time little Sania’s won anything of repute is her first ATP title (the Gold Flake Open last year). Dig a little deeper and it’s not hard to know why- the court was chockfull of blatantly partisan Hyderabadis all rooting for their favourite daughter/sister/future wife and maintaining a sullen silence (some booing even) every time her opponent tried to win a point. Poor Alyona Bondarenko didn’t know what hit her. They telecast the final live on DD and I was amazed at the noise level, which seemed frankly, too high even for cricket, let alone tennis, which is supposed to be a quiet sport!

But I digress— my point is that, if Sania Mirza was a buck-toothed, flat-chested, pimply faced, pigtailed, tomboy of a tennis player- in other words, anything less than deliciously feminine, which she is now— would our cousins from the land of the Nizam have come down in droves to support her? Would our nation’s masthead waste oh-so-precious column centimeters on her? Would my parents miss their daily dose of Jassi to cheer her on, no matter how many times she loses? Would I even be writing this piece?

I’d have to say the answer to all those questions would be a big fat NO.

Don’t get me wrong, please. I love Sania Mirza. But more than that, I love what she’s done for women’s sport in this country. Sania jaisee koi nahii. Game, set, match Sania. May her tribe increase.

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