3 years

Person of the week

An Indian Star

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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The tennis star who was called Pakistan’s daughter-in-law dedicates her US Open triumph to India
It was not too long ago that Sania Mirza found herself being dragged into a controversy not of her choosing. She had just been made the brand ambassador of the new state of Telangana when K Laxman, a local BJP leader, called her the ‘daughter-in-law’ of Pakistan, an allusion to her marriage to the Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik. On 6 September, when she won the mixed doubles of the US Open, Mirza dedicated the win to India and Telangana. It was an answer to those who had questioned her patriotism. And in an interview to AFP, she said, “It was tough, you know. Just before I left there was a lot happening at home. But, yeah. Still a proud Indian, I guess, five weeks later.”

This is Mirza’s third Grand Slam title after the 2009 Australian Open and the 2012 French Open, and all of them have been in the Mixed Doubles category. Mirza is undoubtedly the best women’s tennis player this country has ever produced.

It is true that she never made it to the top bracket in the Singles category, where the competition is toughest, but that could also be said of Bhupathi and Leander Paes, the other icons of Indian tennis. But Mirza’s Singles ranking has been much better than that of the two men. She broke into the top 30, her highest ranking being 27, while Paes’ best was 73 and Bhupathi’s 217.

Bhupathi and Paes have also never been dragged into the kind of ugly public intimidation that Sania has seen. When the ‘daughter-in-law of Pakistan’ comment became a big talking point, she did an interview with NDTV and said she couldn’t understand why she had to keep affirming her Indianness. “Why am I being picked on?” she asked. And then struggled and failed to hold back her tears.

These are some of the times she got picked on: In 2005, the Kolkata Police had to give her protection when there were rumours that orthodox Muslim groups had a problem with the clothes she wore while playing; after she spoke about the necessity of safe sex at a conference, it was twisted to mean that she was encouraging pre-marital sex; a case was filed against her for insulting the national flag because a photo appeared of her watching a game with the soles of her feet spread out before the flag.

Her talent combined with good looks makes Mirza a celebrity by default in a country that thrives on turning humans into deities and then takes pleasure in seeing them wince. In Sania’s case it takes on a more vicious form because of her gender and religion. She doesn’t fit the template. She is a perfect target for any fringe element that wants easy publicity using constructs like religion and patriotism that are defined by those who can shout the loudest.

The only way for her to get back is on court, but even her achievements are questioned. Despite three Grand Slams, you still hear voices of condescension about Mirza having it easy and not making a mark in Singles. But the Mixed Doubles is also a competition with good players vying for the title. Winning it might not be as difficult as the Singles, but it is not handed down; there is equal sweat and toil involved.

After her marriage, Mirza announced that she would settle in Dubai. For a couple belonging to India andPakistan, that was the only sane recourse if they had to be together. But she added that she would always hold an Indian passport. After winning the US Open title, she tweeted a photo of a box of donuts and wrote: ‘That was my celebration in the airport lounge but I am coming hoommeee’. Home meant India.