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MILES OF SMILES Sania Mirza has been an inspiration for a generation of women tennis players in the country
MILES OF SMILES Sania Mirza has been an inspiration for a generation of women tennis players in the country

Sania Mirza is the face of women's tennis in India what with the popularity of the women's game skyrocketing worldwide, writes KALYAN ASHOK

Anyone for women's tennis? A few years ago, if you asked that question, you would have been met with a cynical smile and a shrug of shoulders from tennis buffs. Not any more. Believe it or not, the fastest growing segment of tennis not in the world alone, but also in India, is the women's game. At home, we can thank a phenomenon called Sania Mirza, who put that self-belief and fire back into Indian girls. Seventy per cent TV viewers watch women's matches and the number is growing. Why this newfound fascination? There is not one but several answers. Women's tennis offers a lot more surprises than men's tennis. Cyrus Broacha, the former VJ and now talk show host, makes an apt comment on men's tennis: "Roger Federer is again the Australian Open champion. Next tournament, they should first make him the champion and the other guys should compete for the runner-up spot."

Exciting contests

But in women's tennis, Serena Williams's back-to-form display shocks Maria Sharapova, a Kim Clijsters can roll over the rest on her day and Amelia Mauresomo, can slug out the rest on clay, and Sania Mirza, can take on the world when she gets going. There is no dearth of surprises and suspense is the key element. The women's tennis hall of fame is full of great rivalries Chris Evert vs Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles vs Steffi Graf, Venus vs Serena, and Maria Sharapova versus the rest.Today it is not just about baseline rallies or powerful serves. It is all about brilliant stroke play, deft volleys, scorching forehands and sparkling rallies. Then there is the most obvious reason for appeal of women's tennis the fashion statement. Dazzling tops and stunning shorts are sure show stealers. Maria Sharapova gets as much mileage for her dressing as her tennis. They are delights for spectators and sponsors. Whoever wants to watch Rafael Nadal with a five-day stubble on his face wearing crumpled shorts? Anna Kournikova might have never won anything significant but just try Googling her.With the sport exploding in the country, it was natural that WTA tour events, next only to grand slams, made their way to India. When Mahesh Bhupathi's Globosport, a sports and event managements firm, brought the event to India, Hyderabad to be precise, in 2003, there was scepticism all around. But Bhupathi's faith proved the critics wrong. Stars such as Mary Pierce and the legendary Martina Navaratilova participated. The events also created huge opportunities for Indian women players, who can only dream of playing such tournaments abroad. They received wild cards and many made an impact with Sania's lone WTA title in 2005 coming in Hyderabad. The WTA Tour itself has a fascinating history from its inception 36 years ago by women's tennis protagonists such as Billie Jean King, who with eight other US women players set the ball rolling. Their aim was to get a better deal for women's game in an era when they remained a sideshow for the men's spectacle. It was Julie Heldman, then publisher of World Tennis who backed that bid and an exclusive women's professional tour was kicked off with the sponsorship of Virginia Slims. The women's game spawned its own set of millionaires with Chris Evert first crossing that barrier in career earnings in 1975-76, followed later by Martina Navratilova, and others who crashed into the club in different periods including Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, the Williams sisters, Kim Clijsers and Maria Sharapova. Sony Ericsson emerged the main sponsor for the tour in 2005 and signed a deal worth $88 million. "It is all about youth, energy and action and that defined our decision," says Kevin Livesey, a Director of the WTA Tour Board.

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