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Imagine taking on Maria Sharapova in the US Open in a tent-like burqa, or, at the very least, a veil. Because if some Sunni clerics have their way, that is how Sania Mirza, the 19-year-old who is changing the face of sport in cricket-mad India, would dress for her next WTA appearance, writes Jo Johnson. The nose ring, short skirts and T-shirts with slogans such as “I’m cute?” would have to go, along with the swagger, the one-liners and all the other elements of her “un-Islamic” attitude.

In August, despite her size (she’s 5ft 4in), weak serve, baby fat and lack of pace, she became the first Indian woman to reach the fourth round of any Grand Slam. In the end, she made it no further in the US Open, losing to Sharapova, then ranked number one. But her strong forehand and natural sense of timing are highly regarded and her star is rising. In the space of a little more than a year, she has shot to number 31 from number 326 and is, without doubt, the biggest thing to hit Indian sport since the Test debut of cricket prodigy Sachin Tendulkar in 1989.

“India does not have
many non-cricketing names exploding on the professional sporting stage and suddenly we have a young Muslim girl from conservative Hyderabad reaching the fourth round of the US Open,” says S. Kannan, a veteran Indian sports journalist, who believes Mirza’s achievement is all the more remarkable given that India lacks the tennis club system that forms champions in other countries. “It takes 15-20 players just to have a competition at all.”

“Sania mania”, much more than the hero worship of Tendulkar the “master blaster”, serves an important social purpose in an India that is short of Muslim role models. There are others, of course, notably India’s president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, but he suffers, in the eyes of impressionable teenagers, from the worst hairstyle in the country – and that is saying something in a land where middle-aged men, for reasons unknown, dye their hair a radioactive-looking tangerine.

The frenzy echoes France’s unwavering support for Zinedine Zidane, the preternaturally gifted French-Algerian footballer who led les bleus to World Cup glory in 1998. For India’s secular ruling coalition, Mirza is a symbol of Muslim integration and of the country’s ability to embrace religious pluralism. For young women, she epitomises the new “go girl!” mentality inculcated by US sitcoms. For hormonally charged young men, of course, the appeal is doubtless largely physical.

The adulation has a very Indian intensity and the pressure of being made to represent a new generation of increasingly emancipated and independent women – Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsi and Buddhist alike – is starting to take its toll. Mirza, who this month starts a five-week boot camp training course with Tony Roche, coach to world number one Roger Federer, is “not connecting” with the press right now because “she’s had some bad experiences recently”, her agent at Globosport tells me.

The reality is that Mirza vanished after a controversial appearance at a “leadership summit” in New Delhi last month (her warm-up acts included the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress party). Making her first public comments on her responsibilities as a celebrity since September, when an unknown cleric pronounced a fatwa demanding that she wear the veil, she reignited a debate most had let lie.

“As long as I am winning, people shouldn’t care whether my skirt is six inches long or six feet long,” Mirza said. “How I dress and what I do inside the house is a very personal thing. It is scary that every time I wear a T-shirt, it becomes a talking point for the next three days. I used to get annoyed. I’m very short-tempered. But if you’re in the public eye, everyone’s going to have an opinion about you and it’s up to you whether to take it seriously or not. Most of the time, not.”

The Mirza family panicked, requesting that newspapers correct any impression that her comments might have been a specific riposte to the fatwa, to which she had not directly referred. The Hindustan Times, the conference’s organiser, published a clarification. But no sooner had that fire been put out than another started, with conservative clerics picking up on improbable reports she had endorsed pre-marital sex in off-the-cuff comments on the summit’s sidelines.

As a rented rabble burnt her effigy in front of TV cameras, Mirza issued a second clarification, this time in a formal statement. “I would like to clearly say on record that I could not possibly justify pre-marital sex as it is a very big sin in Islam and one which I believe will not be forgiven by Allah,” she said, claiming that the media had attributed to her “a viewpoint that is totally contrary to what I believe in and what I stand for as a Muslim and as an Indian girl”.

For Vir Sanghvi, an editor at the Hindustan Times who moderated the conference, the events said much that was depressing about modern India. Above all, he said, commentators were wrong to treat the controversy as a consequence of the rapid changes in society, with conservative India shocked by changes in social mores and traditional Islamic authority figures perturbed at their ebbing influence. Rather, it reflected media manipulation by publicity-seekers.

“There was no spontaneous anger or outrage,” he argued. “It would be a serious mistake for us to see these controversies in clash-of-civilisation terms. They have little to do with social change, and everything to do with a desire to make the headlines . . . If Sania Mirza is too scared to mention a fatwa and if she has to issue statements condemning pre-marital sex because somebody objected to remarks she did not make – well then, I think there’s something seriously wrong.”

So far, the various controversies have yet to deter companies begging her to endorse their brands. As an advertising vehicle, she is unique in that she can reach female consumers that tend to be left pretty cold by endless advertisements featuring a long out-of-form Tendulkar and India’s cricket captain, Rahul “The Wall” Dravid. Hyundai recently signed her up as brand ambassador for its Getz city runabout and promptly ordered production capacity to be more than doubled to 3,400 units a month.

The wall of sponsorship money reflects rapidly rising expectations of Grand Slam titles that mirror, in a way, the country’s optimism about its own future. Kannan warns Mirza’s fans not to believe their own hype, at least not until she’s worked on her serve and her speed.

“The top 10 looks a stretch. You can get to 30 but beyond that the women’s rankings are much more watertight than the men’s. Suddenly we all want her to be a world-beater, forgetting that she is still very much an underdog.”

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