Sania Mirza

October 17 2005 / New Statesman

It is difficult to believe that a slender, 18-year-old Muslim tennis player from India has the potential to change the world, but it is equally difficult to overestimate the effect Sania Mirza is having on millions of young men and women, and especially women, in the world’s second most populous country. She is the first female Indian tennis player to be ranked in the world’s top 40; indeed, she is the first significant female athlete of any kind, in a country where women have been typically discouraged from taking up sport. Mirza has the discipline, the tenacity, the flamboyance and, above all, the talent to go much higher in the rankings and, in so doing, inspire a whole new generation of Indian girls to express their hopes and ambitions through sport.

At home, in India, Mirza is a role model and an icon, her fame locating her somewhere between Bollywood and the mass adulation that surrounds the Indian cricket team. She is celebrated as much for her attitude and fashion sense (she wears a nose-ring and “librarian” glasses) as she is for her talent. She evidently enjoys the attention and delights in confounding expectations of exactly how a young Muslim woman from the subcontinent should behave. At Wimbledon, she wore a T-shirt bearing the slogan: “Well-behaved women rarely make history”; at the US Open in September, where she lost in the quarter-final to the Russian sensation Maria Sharapova, her T-shirt read: “You can either agree with me, or be wrong”.

All this means that Mirza is in ceaseless demand - for interviews, billboard advertising, endorsements (her fee is reported to be second only to the great batsman Sachin Tendulkar’s) and television appearances. But already she is becoming something of a prisoner of her own celebrity in a rapidly modernising country of more than a billion people. She can no longer even leave the Hyderabad home she shares with her parents without the obligatory bodyguards.

There are other threats, too. Some Muslim groups have begun to complain about the “indecent” short skirts and skimpy tops that she wears on court. One Muslim cleric, Hasheeb-ul-Hassan Siddiqui, of the Sunni Ulema Board, has even issued a fatwa against Mirza, stipulating that she be prevented from playing in sleeveless tops and short skirts. Her tennis clothes, he said, as well as those she wears for advertisements, “leave nothing to the imagination”. For an entire generation of young Muslim girls, she “would be undoubtedly a corrupting influence”.

The cleric is correct in identifying the world-transforming potential of a young, attractive, articulate and media-smart teenage Muslim tennis star, but wrong in his assessment of that influence. He understands how sport has become a common language for the global tribe, as well as an engine of change, an aggressive symbol of meritocracy and the mirror in which we see reflected back at us the competitive, style-driven, money- and celebrity-fixated world in which we live. Tennis is one of the few sports in which women enjoy parity with men; female tennis players are among the wealthiest and most celebrated of all sports personalities.

Though sport is increasingly an expression of capitalist hegemony, it can also be subversive, destabilising hierarchies and helping to liberate many in the developing world from a life of penury and subordination. Muhammad Ali, Pele, the Aboriginal tennis player Evonne Goolagong, the West Indian cricketer Viv Richards, the so-called ghetto Cinderellas Venus and Serena Williams and the Chinese basketball star Yao Ming - these sporting icons, because of their fame, achievement and corporate power, have helped to transform the way mainstream sporting audiences think about race, gender and the old political structures that once controlled the games we play.

Can Mirza have a similarly transformative effect, not only in India but also throughout the world? She may not have won a major tournament, yet already she occupies a role through which flow many of the most significant intellectual and cultural currents of our times: the clash between secularism and political Islam, the emancipation of women in the Muslim world, the dominance of celebrity, the tyranny of the image, the emergence of India as a world power.

“Every word I speak, every skirt I wear, is discussed and analysed,” she complained, on a recent return to India from the United States. If she continues to improve as rapidly as she has over the past six months, Sania Mirza will simply have to get used to such obsessive scrutiny. There is no turning back now.