Sania and Saina


By T S Sudhir

Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal came together for a photo-op at an event organised by Andhra Pradesh Tourism in Hyderabad.

For long, their names have been confused with each other and even at the do, the hostess didn’t seem to have realised that Saina is not Sania. She referred to Saina as Sania Nehwal, not once, not twice, but thrice, even as the audience grimaced.

Saina was the golden girl at the Delhi CWG and it is pretty clear, she is India’s big hope for the future. Sania, in contrast, would hope for one last hurrah before she calls it a day.

Will Asian Games be that one big opportunity for both Hyderabadis?

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Saina, not Sania


By T S Sudhir I remember when I did my first television story on Saina Nehwal in November 2005, I titled it `Saina, not Sania’. Those days, Sania was the name that sold and well. Saina’s almost identical name to the then Hyderabadi hurricane came in handy to conjure many a catchy line. When I look back at that story’s title now, it seems almost prophetic. As if by cruel coincidence, around the same time Sania tumbled out of Wimbledon first round, Saina was setting the world of badminton on fire with three back-to-back wins in 15 days. In those three Sundays, her ranking moved from world number 6 to 3 and a week or so after that, she became the second best badminton player in the world. Any visitor to Hyderabad these days invariably pops the question : Will Saina go the Sania way? Already her brand equity is moving northwards. Before her number 3 spot, Saina charged about 6 lakh rupees per endorsement. That figure shot up 500 per cent, post her Indonesian Open win, to 30 lakh. Now at number 2, her managers have the opportunity to push that figure up even more, perhaps even a crore. Rougly a dozen companies want Saina to sign on the dotted line. That is of course, still less than what Sania used to charge. At the peak of her career, Ms Mirza was worth 1-2 crore rupees per endorsement and was the face of some of the best brands. Today the world number 142 is worth some 15 lakh rupees per endorsement and many of the biggies have not bothered to renew their contracts with her. But it is not about brand equity alone. Unlike Sania who was as comfortable on a tennis court as she was on page 3 or cheering Sachin Tendulkar and Shoaib Malik in a cricket stadium, Saina knows only one route in life. Home to badminton academy and back. Middle class as it may sound, that helps. Like an Arjuna, this 2009 Arjuna award winner and now the 2010 Rajiv Khel Ratna award winner, sees nothing else apart from an Olympic gold and a World championship title. So far, even the harsh lights of the media glare haven’t affected her focus. And I hope it stays that way. Since Sania and Saina are as different from each other as chalk from cheese, it becomes fashionable to pull Sania down while praising Saina. Which is unfair. As much as people may like to indulge in Sania-bashing, the fact remains that she burst on the sports scene when India badly needed a woman sporting icon. Sania with her looks and a world ranking of 27 was the role model young girls wanted to emulate. Till things started going horribly wrong. A spate of injuries, an attitude that thought nothing of snubbing people in public, something many senior sports journalists have cribbed about, along with the Muslim clergy issuing fatwas at the drop of a hat on everything to do with her, be it her short skirts or shooting at the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad, didn’t help. Sania’s refusal to play in Bangalore in 2008 was seen as an insult to the people of this country, who loved her and wanted her to win on home turf. And the hullabaloo over her marriage to cricketer Shoaib Malik, after cancelling the engagement to Sohrab Mirza, was like the last straw. For the common public, known to pull down celebs, Sania had become more a butt of jokes than admiration. The pin-up girl was now used for dart practise. What will help Saina in contrast, are her roots. Her parents are critical to her remaining grounded. Just like her agricultural scientist father Dr Harvir Singh hasn’t changed his attitude, even as the ranking of his bachcha (or Steffi as he calls her) has gone up, coach Pullela Gopichand reminds her rankings are just a state of mind. The number matters little once Saina steps on court. On the contrary, as Saina says, it may only fire her lesser-ranked opponent to do better. In another two weeks, Saina will fly to Paris for the world championship as the captain of the Indian team. “No, no, it is not a huge responsibility,” she smiles. “I will only tell my teammates to focus and play well. My concern will be my matches.” But while Saina accepted the captain’s role, she politely declined the job of a DSP with Haryana police. Saina who hails from Nehwal village in Haryana, is employed with Bharat Petroleum. And in any case, a danda in a hand used to wielding a racquet won’t look too good, would it ! But Saina did not say no, when organisers of the Hyderabad Fashion Week wished to turn her into a bride and walk the ramp. “I enjoyed it. I am open to walking it again if approached. But yes, I was definitely more nervous walking on the ramp than I am before a match.” When inquisitive journalists keen to put a number on the worth of Saina’s brand equity kept asking her to dish out some figures, Saina was as graceful as she is on court. “I don’t really know Sir,” she smiled throughout. “My job is only to play”. Choosing the drop shot over the smash is a smart strategy that Saina’s dad says comes naturally to her. She uses her innocent charm to win friends, she is not in the race to prove she is the smartest. Neither in the way she speaks, nor in her T-shirts. Not that Saina doesn’t speak her mind. But she does it gracefully. Does she share with Gopi his aversion to endorse soft drinks, I ask. Gopi had refused to endorse aerated drinks at the peak of his career, saying they are not good for health. Saina laughs and doesn’t make an attempt to be politically correct. “Well, I also drink colas at times, so why not? Today’s generation wants to drink everything. Gopi Sir took a very brave decision because he believes if we do anything, the public follows. I don’t see it that way that if I drink, others will also start drinking it.” Saina will walk into the arena in the world championship this year as one of the strong contenders to win the title. This time last year, a bout of chicken pox before the world championship in Hyderabad affected her preparation for the big ticket tournament. For all you know, that may have given her the immunity against defeat this time round. You can also find T S Sudhir’s blogs at http://www.thesouthreports.com/ (Please post your comment to tell us what you thought of this blog. You can also subscribe to this blogsite to receive regular updates)

Shoaib’s Hyderabad blues


By T S Sudhir

The facebook page `Thankyou Pakistan for taking Sania Mirza. Now please take Rakhi Sawant also :)’ had 1,39,331 facebook members who `liked’ it on Wednesday. When I checked today, the number had climbed to 1,45,613.

The rate at which Shoaib Malik has been doing a Hyderabad darshan of different sport facilities, and leaving a trail of controversy, may provoke Facebook users to soon open another page. `Please keep Shoaib Malik in Pakistan. Give us Hafiz Saeed instead’.

This week, Malik drove down to the Gymkhana grounds in Hyderabad, wife Sania in tow, to practise at the cricket facility. Family friend Chamundeswaranath may have helped fix the practise session for Malik, given the fact that the former Pakistan skipper is banned by his country’s Cricket Board, on suspicion that he played the gentleman’s game Down Under in December 2009 in not such a gentlemanly manner. Chamundi is an influential cricketing official with all the right contacts at the right places but the fact remains that he too was removed unceremoniously as the secretary of the Andhra Cricket Association last year, on various cricketing and non-cricketing charges.

Mr and Mrs Malik of course got a warm welcome from the cricketers who were practising there. The pleasantly surprised lot even clicked photographs with them for posterity. They were clearly overwhelmed. “Shoaib Malik is such a big player. I felt very excited bowling to him.”

But the time that Malik spent there, hitting a few sixes, sent the Hyderabad Cricket Association into a tizzy. Because Malik was extended a privilege that had been denied even to Hyderabad boy and former captain Mohammed Azharuddin. Azhar was never allowed to enter the Gymkhana after December 2000, when he was banned by the BCCI on charges of match-fixing. Ditto eight Hyderabad cricketers including Ambati Rayudu, when they started playing for the rebel Indian Cricket League (ICL). Different rules for sons of the soil and different rules for a son-in-law, a former cricketer smirked.

As the finger-pointing began, no one in the HCA wanted to take the blame, particularly with the BCCI expressing its displeasure at Malik padding up on Indian wickets. And Hyderabadis, already miffed with the controversies surrounding the Pakistani’s two innings in the city, did not want another T20-like cameo from him now.

And in an atmosphere that has been Kasav-ified, a small-time politician even lodged a complaint with the local police station, accusing the Pakistani cricketer of trespassing. The local inspector was more amused as he wondered if the complainant wanted Malik and Kasav to be dealt with in the same manner. But the purpose of the politician was served, as he went on to hog airtime on more than one Telugu news channel.

A joke doing the rounds is that Malik could make himself available for bidding by the Deccan Chargers in the Indian Premier League, if the ban on him is revoked. The sight of this damaad in Hyderabad’s blues, sweating it out for his biwi’s city team, with the parivaar cheering him on, could well be the photo-op of the next IPL.

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Game, set, match, Sania


By T S Sudhir

IPL franchisees kept the Pakistanis out by not bidding for them in Season 3. Yet making headline news during the IPL is ironically a Pakistani cricket player. And he looks all set to walk away with what most would see as a `Karbonn Kamaal’ catch.

No bouquets for guessing who we are talking about. It is Shoaib Malik, who did show some daredevilry for the Delhi Daredevils in IPL season one. This time round he has discovered there is more to Hyderabad than just the Charminar and biryani. So in a couple of weeks, Hyderabad will be witness to jugalbandi of various sorts. Cricket and Tennis. India and Pakistan. And in keeping with the trend of Dubai having been a neutral cricketing venue for the two countries, the land of the Sheikhs will be home to this high-profile couple post-April. The Hyderabadi hurricane will now blow from Dubai.

Only this January, Sania was in the news because she and her fiancé Sohrab Mirza called off their six-month-old engagement citing “mutual incompatibility’’. Both families chose not to wash dirty linen in public. But that did not stop closed-door whispers in the city’s Banjara Hills area about what went wrong. Especially since the childhood friends got engaged in an extremely high-profile ceremony at the Taj. Less than a year on, Sohrab Mirza, whose family owns the famous Universal Bakery, will now see a different SM say `Qubool hai’.

This second serve by Sania has admittedly taken many by surprise. Comments posted on Facebook rudely suggest this could even be a double fault. People ask, when Sania has everything going for her, why should she settle for someone who has been slapped with a one-year ban on representing his country. Malik was among seven senior Pakistani cricketers who were meted out harsh treatment by the Pakistan cricket board after the dismal Australia tour in December, with allegations of match-fixing doing the rounds.

For many Hyderabadis, it is tragically ironic that Hyderabad’s most well-known son-of-the-soil sportsperson was banned for life from playing cricket for the country and now its most treasured daughter looks set to bring home a son-in-law who has not exactly covered himself in honourable glory either.

But then, it is Sania’s life and the 23-year-old, who is known to reveal her state of mind through the messages on her T-shirt, has every right to choose who she wants as her mixed doubles partner in the game of life. It is certainly not Shiv Sena’s business to demand (as it has done in its party mouthpiece `Saamna’) that Sania should marry only an Indian. Sania in her inimitable style has usually given it back to whoever has dared to cross the line between the public and personal, opinion and prejudice.

I first met Sania when she was 11 years old, at a tennis court in Secunderabad one winter afternoon, where dad Imran had brought his two little girls for tennis practice. Those were days when the parents and Sania were putting in those hours of practice that brought her this far. Sania’s mom Nasima would not tire of calling up, to update on Sania’s progress in the various ITF tournaments she would play in different countries. Nasima would request that her daughter’s achievement in every round be highlighted on the sports news on the channel.

I am among those who had occasion to watch Sania’s progress at close quarters. Over the last 12 years, I and a couple of senior sports journalists in Hyderabad have chronicled Sania emergence as a champion, with a forehand to fear, on the international circuit. To her goes the credit of putting Indian women tennis on the world map and encouraged many a young girl to dream of being another Sania.

Sania’s victory at the Hyderabad Open in 2005 was a turning point in more ways than one. She became the new pin-up girl. What she said, what she wore, her clothes, accessories, body language and more than everything else, her attitude, became the talk of the town. That she was also moving up in the rankings, climbing to her best of 27 in 2007, of course helped. Sania was on a roll.

Unfortunately though, something else, somewhere else changed. People who had been her well-wishers for several years, spoke of being disappointed with how stardom had changed the girl they knew. May be it happens when a youngster suddenly becomes such a big phenomenon. I don’t know if it is fair to fault the girl or the people around her. But there has been real hurt about unnecessary snubs that could perhaps have been better handled, with a more balanced, sensitive and professional approach.

Despite all that, there is genuine concern among those who have always wished Sania well. Afterall, this is not the first time Hyderabad is hearing of Shoaib’s dalliance with a girl from the city of the Nizams. The former Pakistan captain has been accused by a Hyderabad girl, Ayesha Siddiqui of marrying her, only to back out later. Ayesha now wants a divorce before the Shoaib-Sania innings gets underway.

Shoaib will hope his bride brings him good luck. He is taking on his cricket board to reverse the ban imposed on him. And the clamour for Sania has already begun. The Pakistan Tennis Federation has asked Sania to represent that country, in the hope that it will be Advantage Pakistan, if her presence encourages a thousand Sanias to bloom in Lahore, Karachi and Multan. But that will remain just a dream, with Sania declaring `I am Sania Mirza and I play for India’.

Sensible decision. Just imagine, if she went by the PTF’s diktat and turned up for Pakistan in an Indo-Pak tennis match. It wouldn’t be just the Shiv Sena that will then go ballistic.