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Fame fetters Sania
- Armed bodyguards after fan frenzy

Feb. 16: Hitting vicious forehands from the back of the court is one thing, meeting fame's harsh serves is quite another. Welcome to celebritydom, Sania, still only 18.

But, as Shobhaa De says: 'Celebrityhood has come of age in India.'

India's great tennis hope has sought protection from some of her fellow Indians after an incident yesterday at her Hyderabad home.

A group of youths descended on the Mirza family's residence in Banjara Hills late in the evening. Mother Naseema said: 'They (the fans) wanted to talk to her and collect her autograph. We had to plead with them to leave us alone.'

But the group shouted slogans against their idol who seemed to have quickly fallen from grace. 'Sania has become arrogant,' they commented.

Today, Naseema went to see the police commissioner, Dinesh Reddy, to seek protection from some of the more fanatical admirers. The commissioner has provided a team of armed safari-clad security personnel to guard Sania round the clock. 'Initially, I think Sania might need protection for a few days till people get used to her celebrity nature,' Reddy said.

It may, however, be only the beginning. Many say Sania has the talent to go far and success comes at the price of loss of privacy ' ask any celebrity, in sport and entertainment, who wears bodyguards on her satin sleeves.

'Her parents have done the right thing because Sania is going to be an international star and there are many crazy people around,' said De, the author who is a keen celebrity watcher and herself a celebrity.

Remember, a fan obsessed with Steffi Graf threw a knife at her rival Monica Seles, who was then a champion but has not been the same since.

Imran Mirza, her father, said autograph hunters have been chasing Sania wherever she goes. 'Sania was almost caught in a traffic jam last evening because of autograph hunters.' For tourists and visitors to Hyderabad from the districts, Sania has become a destination since she won the Women's Tennis Association event here last week. 'All those who come to the film studios and Hitec city make a detour to visit our house. Sometimes they are a pain,' said Sania.

Over 3,000 delegates are expected to be in Hyderabad shortly for the national youth festival and the police expect a rush to Banjara Hills at the time. 'It (protection) is a precaution as most of them might want to meet her and get photographed,' said the police commissioner.

'It's nothing new. Our cricketers and film stars have lived with it all along,' said De.

True, and Sania will have to devise her methods, learning from the international experience, to protect herself in public life. But professionally, tennis has a bigger hazard than cricket or movies. A cricket stadium in India is often a cauldron of uninterrupted noise ' more like a football ground ' and whether or not the players like it, they have come to accept this reality. Only umpires complain because they can't hear the nick.

In a movie hall, there are often whistles or catcalls, but the star isn't around to listen.

Tennis is different and Sania's fans aren't quite ready to handle her celebrityhood on court. They showed it during the Hyderabad tournament when there were cheers and claps in the middle of a rally.

Martina Navratilova, who was in Hyderabad to play the doubles, said: 'I love passionate crowds, but they have to be a little more restrained' They must realise that they can't disturb the players while play is in progress or between serves.'

And she wasn't even playing against Sania in the final. The one who did, Alyona Bondarenko, having lost to Sania and lauded her opponent's tennis, added: 'I'm very disappointed with the crowd behaviour.'

At Wimbeldon, the chair umpire says 'quiet please' and silence descends. At the US Open, the crowd is not so disciplined but they don't make noise during rallies.

In Hyderabad, the chair umpire had to stop play and ask for a replay of the point. Guess why ' Andhra chief minister Y.S.R. Reddy entered the stadium bang in the middle of the second set and waved merrily to the packed galleries, sparking another round of applause.

Happily for Sania, she won't have to meet too many chief ministers on court. India isn't ready for big-time tennis yet.

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