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Pressure’s all on Maria and India

Sept. 3: One stands tall and slender at 6’1’’ and 59 kg; the other is short and cute at 5’7 1/2” and 59 kg. One has raked in career earnings of $4,021,489; the other $215,293. One is Russian-born American-bred; the other hails from Hyderabad; One is expected to win US Open 2005; the other wasn’t expected to reach the round she has'

There is no missing the gap, but there is also no escaping the glue between the girls who answer to lusty fan calls of “Maria” and “Sania”, in the countdown to the Sunday showdown.

They are both just 18 (Sania Mirza being five months older than Maria Sharapova), they both hit the tennis ball hard, they both make style statements, they are both out to have some fun. If Sania is known as much for her forehand as her nose ring and mini skirt, Sharapova’s Wimbledon win is as hyped as her hemline.

“It’s going to be another tough one. I haven’t really seen much of how she plays,” top-seeded Sharapova said about Sania, seeded 42 in the world. “I heard she’s got a big and powerful game' I’m sure it’s going to be a good match,” added the golden girl, sporting trademark golden danglers and golden chain with a cross.

Sania, who has never met Sharapova on or off court, admitted this would be “one of the biggest matches” of her career, but also made it clear she would not be “intimidated”. Sitting pretty with her all-silver ensemble of dangler, studs, ear rings, nose ring, plus a gold chain with a pendant, wristband and the yellow Livestrong on right wrist, she offered: “There’s obviously no pressure on me. I don’t think a lot of people expect me to win.”

Try telling that to the hundreds of racquet-wielding girls who thronged the tennis stadium at Fateh Maidan in Hyderabad this morning, throwing their weight behind the daughter of the soil. Or chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy, cricketer V.V.S. Laxman and shuttler P. Gopichand, all rooting for her. Or the many who offered prayers in mosques, temples and churches.

Naseem Mirza held a special prayer at her Banjara Hills home, as she kept the faith in her daughter who has moved from 326 to 42 in the ATP rankings in 12 months. “She is made of steel and grit. She has the power of God behind her in this battle for the country.”

In far-away Flushing Meadows, Sania was forced to return bodyline serves from the American media on what she felt about stray criticism back home for “baring flesh” on court. “No Muslim is perfect and no human being is perfect. I guess I’m not dressing the way Islam states but I guess we all make mistakes and that’s why Islam has forgiveness,” volleyed the teenager.

She also played down the pressure of being the first Indian woman to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament. “That’s not what I think every time I step on court, that an Indian never did this, an Indian never did that. I’m just there because I want to be there.”

There were no such pressures ' of religion or ranking ' on Sharapova, who has a clutch of compatriots trailing her on the ATP merit list. She had enjoyed a whirlwind week in New York ahead of the US Open fortnight, unveiling her baby blue and yellow tennis dress, launching a watch and perfume, and saying: “With being a popular tennis player come a lot of other things.”

Sania couldn’t agree more. And she wears that attitude on her T-shirts ' from Wimbledon (“Well-behaved women rarely make history”) to the US Open (“I’m cute' No!”).

And her passing shot: “It’s no big deal. I’m 18 years old. Give me a break! I’m trying to have some fun here. I’m bored of the stripes or checks or the lines.”

Sania Mirza responds to questions from The Telegraph

Q: Will all the pressure be on Maria'

A: I think so… She’s the No.1 seed (and world No. 2), has a big reputation… Frankly, I have nothing to lose. It’s Maria who has to contend with the expectations which follow the No.1 seed. She has to defend her seeding and reputation.

Q: Having got so far, do you already see yourself as a ‘winner’'

A: It’s somewhat of a tough question, but the answer I guess has to be ‘no’. Every match is like a job… I’ve got to give my best and, at the end of it, feel satisfied. I’m a winner only on the days I’ve succeeded. I judge myself on a daily basis.

Q: What will it take to beat Maria'

A: All my mental strength and physical ability… every ounce, Every…

Q: Is your preparation going to be appreciably different for the pre-quarters'

A: Whoever the opponent, the basics don’t change. However, the strategy does vary. Having said that, I’m going to keep it simple. Like I’ve stated, I’ve got nothing to lose.

Q: Finally, how do you rate Maria'

A: I don’t need to say much, for her seeding/ranking says just about everything. She’s the best at this point in time… I would give her 10 on 10.

Our Special correspondent

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