Anytime that the young Indian tennis star plays, it’s a national obsession – at least as far as Indian newspaper editors are concerned. Stories about Sania help break up the monotony of articles on Sachin Tendulkar’s waning abilities and soccer game results that are more than a day old (thanks to the time difference at press time). So, of course, when the 18-year old phenom played at Wimbledon’s Centre Court yesterday, all eyes – and media outlets – were on her.
It could have been her match. Mirza played against Svetlana Kuznetsova, a player she beat to win the Dubai Open earlier this year. In fact, when she was up 4-2 in the first set, I was rooting for her to rout the Russian. (Must be some piece of Rocky IV still lodged in my brain.) Alas, she couldn’t pull it off, even though Kuznetsova seemed to be off her game.
Besides India’s cricket team, who are held almost in as high esteem as A-list Bollywood stars, there aren’t too many sports stars in this land of one billion. As of now, I can only think of two. On the Formula 1 Circuit (another boring sport that gets a lot of airtime here), Narain Karthikeyan has filled the void. And, in tennis, it’s Sania Mirza, who despite her age and lack of experience, has already overshadowed any tennis success by fellow Indian players Mahesh Bhupathi or Leander Paes.
Mirza is very likable. And, on the occasions she sports glasses, she looks a bit like Preity Zinta. So it’s not surprising that she receives a lot of press. Nevertheless, Sania makes headlines, even though her current ranking is a lame 75. When she breaks the 50th percentile, then that will be a story.
Judging from the sports pages, Indians certainly love to observe sports. But playing them is not their forte. A few years ago, around Olympic time, some economists put together statistics on the most- and least-sporting nations per capita, judged by Olympic medal count. I can’t find the exact report, but this one is a good simulation. As you can see, India came in dead last. Perhaps if cricket were an Olympic sport, those numbers would be higher. Though, with the current state of Indian cricket play, that, too, is doubtful.
What does this all mean? Nothing really. While I do find it a bit pathetic that India hasn’t been able to muster much sports talent, I don’t see too many non-Indian kids winning the National Spelling Bee. (By the way, five of the last seven winners have been of Indian origin.) There are also a surprising number of young Indians winning contests sponsored by NASA.
I have no doubt that Indians have a very competitive spirit. It appears that their heads and priorities are definitely in the right place. But, let’s wait to praise Sania Mirza until after she’s accomplished something. I pity the players, such as Paradorn Srichipan, of Thailand, and Mirza, who often have to carry the hopes of their respective nations on their shoulders. Too much hype, and the pressure that comes with it, is a good way to ruin a player before he or she has had a chance to improve.