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New balls please
It's a perfectly made-up face. Dior's spray foundation is the base;dark eye-liner with a touch of teal and mascara. The shockingpink bodysuit paired with a fitting white jacket flaunts the curves and underlines the confidence. But these days, when India's champion tennis player laughs, the laughter doesn't quite reach her eye. Sania Mirza has always made light of her load, but that doesn't mean the 25-year-old doesn't feel the weight.
Upset at being used as "bait" by the All India Tennis Association (AITA) to pacify a sulking Leander Paes, Sania came down strongly on the national federation in a press statement condemning the humiliation meted out to a leading woman athlete. As soon as Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna's stand - to not partner Paes - was politically endorsed, AITA dragged the unsuspecting Hyderabadi into the controvers by offering her up as a peace settlement.
Not only was Sania forced to break-up a successful partnership with Bhupathi that fetched India two Grand Slam mixed-doubles titles - one as recently as a fortnight ago - but she found herself 'listed' as Paes's partner for the London Olympics too.
Strange, since Sania has never even played a Grand Slam with Paes. And then, while AITA's esteemed selection committee spoke to all three male stalwarts - Paes, Bhupathi and Bopanna - asking for their choice and preference when selecting the Olympic team on June 15, they conveniently ignored Sania.
A noted sports psychologist, Chaithanya Sridhar, who has researched emotional labour in team sport, has suggested that AITA looked to save face by using Sania as a scapegoat. Indeed, it must be asked, would AITA have reacted differently if it was one of the male players?
Sania was perhaps an easy target because she's a woman. Sridhar has also pointed out that AITA probably did not expect Sania to slam them so strongly and so convincingly. Sadly, Sania's case isn't unique, especially in terms of treatment meted out to female athletes. As Sridhar says, "It's shameful, but it is a reflection of how our society treats its women. To really make a difference, equality in sport and society has to move beyond a legal mandate. It has got to be a social norm. "
Interestingly, in a year in which London 2012 will showcase the Olympic movement's biggest steps yet in bringing gender equality to sport, AITA has chosen to discriminate against one of its biggest names. The quadrennial extravaganza will be the first Olympics in which every participating country will be represented by at least one female athlete. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia, the last of the male-only teams, announced that it would 'supervise' participation of its women athletes. The two other countries that failed to send a woman athlete to Beijing 2008, Qatar and Brunei, had already announced that they would accede to the International Olympic Committee's desire to stamp out such sexual discrimination among its member nations.
Unlike P T Usha in the 1980s, who quickly became India's biggest female sporting sensation, and badminton ace Saina Nehwal today, Sania Mirza stormed an arena that already had big male achievers hogging the limelight: Paes and Bhupathi. Bopanna and Somdev Devvarman arrived shortly after. No Indian woman had ever been ranked in the top-100 of women's tennis, and then all of a sudden, the country sat up to notice a fearless new powerhouse, who displayed a forehand that would rival a man's, and an attitude that at once told you two things: diva and deadly, not necessarily in that order. Indian tennis wasn't prepared for Sania. Neither was society.
Former India hockey captain and goalkeeper Helen Mary, who also called the shots in a male dominated sport in the 1990s, once said, "In national camps, girls were made to feel like prisoners. No visitor was allowed to see them. The players were allowed to use their cell phones only on Sundays. If we raised our voices, we were either made to warm the benches or find ourselves out of the team. Even a joke or laughter among the girls didn't go down well with the coaching staff. This would have never happened in the men's camp. " Clearly, different rules have long applied for shorts and skirts.
In Sania's case, it's not just AITA. Even male players have treated her poorly. Paes' father Vece went on camera demanding a written assurance from Sania that she play mixed-doubles with his 39-year-old son. In the last fortnight she has faced humiliation from every conceivable quarter. But Sania refuses to bow.
It's time then for India to embrace the girl we have viewed with an unequal measure of pride and prejudice. To borrow the famous Virginia Slims catch phrase, 'You've come a long way baby'. But what about the men?
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