Sania Mirza breaks down Indian stereotypes

Updated: September 2, 2005, 5:34 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- In some respects, Sania Mirza is a typical 18-year-old.

She has two silver hoops through the middle of her left ear, with a diamond post and two swinging, glittering dangles. Ditto for the right ear. There is a gleaming nose ring through her left nostril and, usually, a T-shirt with a glib message. Earlier this week, it was "I'm cute?"

At Wimbledon, she sported this message: "Well-behaved women rarely make history." Was she trying to make a point?

"I'm tired of answering that question," she said at the U.S. Open on Wednesday. "I wear a lot of T-shirts that say a lot of things. It's just a T-shirt. I can say what I want to. I'm not making a statement."

Her tennis, on the other hand, is. In the context of where she comes from -- the great, roiling, teeming country of India -- Sania Mirza is turning stereotypes inside out. She is making her own kind of radical history.

Even sophisticated U.S. tennis fans may not know the name, not yet. But in India, where the population is estimated to be 1.08 billion -- roughly one-sixth of the world's population -- Mirza is Julia Roberts or Gwyneth Paltrow.

"She already has movie-star status," said Prajwal Hegde, a reporter for the Times of India, the country's largest newspaper. "And because she is young and a woman in the sports arena, it is a new thing for us."

And now for the world, too. The rising star of India will likely play Maria Sharapova in a fourth-round match on Sunday.

And it is not just that her age and gender, it is the way she's ascending the international tennis ladder. She is ruthless and aggressive, and she hits the ball hard and goes for the lines. Like Koneru Humpy, an inscrutable 18-year-old Indian who is ranked No. 4 among the world's women chess players, Mirza comes right at you.

In India, this is a different sporting approach. Vijay Armitraj, a 16-time champion on the men's tour in the 1970s and 1980s, and former world doubles champions Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, were considered sportsmen, a reflection of the genteel arena where cricket dominates.

Mirza, a right-handed player with a two-handed backhand, is the WTA Tour's No. 42 ranked player -- up a dizzying 284 places in the last year -- more than anyone else. It is the highest-ever ranking for an Indian woman, among many other firsts. Mirza was the first to reach the third round of a Grand Slam, first at Wimbledon and now here at the U.S. Open. She was also the first to win a WTA Tour title, in her hometown of Hyderabad back in February. She is already a winner of the Arjuna award, a substantial sporting prize in India.

Tennis has enjoyed increasing popularity in India -- Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters are very popular -- but Mirza has helped propel the sport onto the front pages of newspapers there. While she has walked the streets of Manhattan in relative obscurity this week, she employs two bodyguards when she's home in India, one for days, the other for nights.

Mirza has a number of lucrative endorsement contracts for, among other things, jewelry, bicycles and tea.

She is, by all accounts, maintaining a balance in her life. Her parents -- piercings aside -- are fairly strict. Mirza, whose English is flawless, was a terrific student. She wept the first day she missed school to play in a tournament because it meant giving up her No. 1 slot in class.

There is an uncanny ease about her. Maybe it's because she's been explaining herself to reporters since she was 13 years old.

After her second-round match with Italy's Maria-Elena Camerin, Mirza said, " I think I was being a little dumb out there, because it was so windy. To hit a smash, I would hit it and I was like, 'Oh, my God, what are you doing?' "

That she acts her age -- amid the backdrop of her celebrity -- is a large part of her charm. There is another dynamic at work, too. Not only is Mirza working against long-standing cultural biases, she is a devout Muslim from a conservative Islamic family.

"Fifty years ago, people in India didn't believe that a woman could play professional sport," she has said. "Girls like me coming out and playing on the world stage is a little shocking, but that's changing. I'm glad."

"Not everyone is perfect and just because I wear a mini-skirt or just because I'm wearing pants or whatever doesn't make me a bad Muslim. As long as I believe in God and I have my faith, I think that's good."

Mirza has won more (18 matches) than she's lost (10) this year on the professional tour, which is saying something. After losing to Serena Williams in the third round of the Australian Open, she won all five of her matches in Hyderabad, over some quality opponents. Later in February, she beat U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the second round at Dubai. That was followed by a dismal four-month stretch that saw her lose five of seven matches.

The summer hardcourt season has been kinder; Mirza has beaten Anna-Lena Groenefeld, Eleni Daniilidou and Nadia Petrova on her way to the U.S. Open. She prevailed in her first two matches at the National Tennis Center, barely. She was stretched to three sets in a 2-hour, 13-minute match with Mashona Washington in the first round, then went 2 hours and 7 minutes another three-setter with Camerin. On Friday, she defeated Marion Bartoli 7-6 (4), 6-4.

Being 18, Mirza said, is all good -- well, almost.

"Everything about being 18 is great," she said, "excepting I cannot drive still when I go back home. My mom won't let me."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.