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Sans Sania, Indian Tennis Fans MIA

New America Media, Commentary, Viji Sundaram Posted: Aug 04, 2009

Editor's Note: Indian expats, in the grip of Sania-mania, temporarily put aside their passion for cricket and pack the stands when India's top woman tennis star is scheduled to play, writes NAM editor Viji Sundaram.

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- The recession notwithstanding, this years Bank of the West Classic drew legions of tennis fans to Stanford Universitys Taube Stadium for the Sony Ericsson WTA tournament, which ended Sunday. Thats not surprising considering its star-studded roster Venus Williams and her sister, Serena, Maria Sharapova, Elena Dementieva, Marion Bartoli, to name a few.

But because one of the tournaments most popular draws in recent years was not there -- unlike in the last four years -- the stands were virtually free of hysterical South Asians. Yes, Sania-mania is so intense among Indian expats, they fill the stands whenever Sania Mirza, Indias Number 1 woman tennis player, aka, the Queen of Indian tennis, is scheduled to play.

Yes, its always a sellout when she comes, acknowledged Patrick OConnor, who was doing the public relations for the seven-day event.

They wave the tri-color between points. They shout out encouragement in Indlish and Hindi. And if she wins a match, its bangra time.

It doesnt matter whether Mirzas in the top 50 or not on the WTA tour although she has gone up as high as 30 once, and is currently 83 in singles and 49 in doubles. Nor does it matter that she has won only one WTA singles title so far, and a couple of Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. It helps, though, that shes very sexy.

Well, after all, Sania is the only Indian tennis player of (even) this stature, observed Foster City, Calif., resident Abhiroop Gandhi, who had come with his wife to watch the quarterfinal match between Venus and Sharapova July 31, but wished he could have also seen Mirza in action.

Mirza did get a wild card entry to play the Bank of the West Classic, but chose instead to play the Lexington Challenger tournament, which, incidentally, she won, increasing her earnings by $50,000.
In India, the 22-year-old Mirza enjoys so much celebrity status she has two bodyguards accompanying her when she steps out of her home in Hyderabad. Three years ago, the Indian government honored her with the Arjuna Award, the highest civilian recognition for any sports person.

When Mirza won her only WTA title in India in 2005, delirious fans held up signs that said, Sania has dragged us from cricket to tennis. No! But thats impossible. For Indians, tennis cannot share altar space with cricket. Not now, not in a million years. After the excitement of that match had died down, those same fans must have wondered how they could have ever said such a thing. Cricket is to Indians what soccer is to Brazilians.

You cannot even speak of the two sports in the same breath, said Silicon Valley software engineer Anil Bhatt, another spectator at the Bank of the West tournament. Tennis is nice, but cricket will always be our first love. He was speaking for the other 1.1 billion Indians as well.

And even though many Indian American men keep that passion alive in their adopted country by playing in minor cricket leagues they and other expats from cricket-loving countries have formed in many cities in the United States California has at least half a dozen of them -- they havent been able to pass their love for the game on to their offspring. The children find it hard to understand how their parents can spend a whole day before the TV set and enjoy what one teenager described as the paint-drying tedium of a cricket match.

Its baseball, minus the adrenaline, said 16-year-old Jake Patel, from San Jose, adding: Its like, dull.

Patel and scores of other Indian American kids, especially from affluent families, have embraced the game of tennis and are today hitting tennis balls with wild abandon on Americas tennis courts. Most of these nerdy youngsters dont have the genes to load their guns, but they seem to have the lifestyle choices to pull the trigger. Some kids are even making it to the top in national junior rankings. A handful are getting coached in prestigious tennis academies. Some of the tennis-playing girls acknowledge Mirza is somewhat responsible for taking them to the courts.

But an informal survey suggests that very few among them are hoping to break into her stratospheric heights. All they and their parents want is to improve the youngsters chances of snagging a sports scholarship from an Ivy League school. I want to go to Stanford and train to be an engineer, said 15-year-old Srinidi Raghavan of Saratoga, Calif., a promising player who is being trained by two coaches.

In the highly competitive landscape of tennis, you are going to lose ground if youre going off to college. Mirza, who comes from a long line of cricket lovers and players, knew this. She took the bold step of quitting school when she finished 10th grade, turning stereotypes inside out. 

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