| Sania Mirza at the Netaji Indoor Stadium stands on Sunday. Picture by Gautam Bose
After decades, the Netaji Indoor Stadium will echo to the sounds of tennis. The dilapidated stadium refurbished in record time is dressed up to international standards. The Sunfeast Open 2005 Tier III with prize money of $170000 commences Monday and concludes on September 25.
The tournament is of great significance to sport and tennis in West Bengal. The vibrant and enlightened response of the chief minister and sports minister to enterprising promotion, and the involvement of large industrial houses have made such an event possible.
The presence of Sania Mirza, a near icon at the tender age of 18, has pumped life into what could have been labelled as a comatose rip-off meet.
A couple of years ago I saw Sania at Deshapriya Park, watched and supported by her omnipresent mother. Thereafter, since last year I watched with great interest her spectacular progress on the television and also her match against Sharapova in the fourth round of the US Open. In between, she had collected the scalps of Kuznetsova and Petrova, two top ten Russians.
Sania’s victories were hotly debated on the cocktail circuit. The jealous verdict, which invariably emerged, was that she was overrated, boosted by sponsors and very lucky. Her generous TV endorsements raised the jealousy factor a notch higher.
After Wimbledon and her superb match against Kuznetsova I wrote that there is ‘something special’ about Sania. On Saturday when I watched her at close quarters practise at the Netaji Indoor Stadium and not on a 29 inch television screen, which can never convey to you the real speed of shot, I was bowled over by her speed of shot and aggression. No wonder, she had the long-legged Sharapova go from modelling mode to undignified scampering at Flushing Meadow. Sania looked slim and fitter than what I saw of her in her television matches.
In Sania’s (seeded three) quarter all the players are ranked 100 and above except for the 7th seed Karolina Sprem of Croatia. I remember Sprem at Wimbledon 2004. She was 18- year-old and ranked No. 30 in the world. With a stream of crisp winning shots she mowed down Venus Williams, Shaughnessy, Maleeva, all seeded players before Davenport put her down in the quarters.
Though Sprem is ranked 85 now, her previous record shows that she is capable of playing top quality tennis. After Sprem, Sania will take on Russian might if everything goes according to the seeding. Likhotseva in the semis and Myskina in the finals. It is a tough tournament for Sania to win and she will have to be at her very best.
The presence of the Uberoi sisters, Shikha (ranked 151) and Neha (ranked 248), along with Sunitha Rao (ranked 161), will certainly add to the interest in the tournament. In Sania’s shadow one tends to dismiss them lightly. Believe me, to get to where they have, is not at all easy. One has to admire the enterprise, sacrifice and hard work put in by these girls. Special mention has to be made about the parental support, which entails far more sacrifice and is a much harder and trying job.
Whatever the results of the tournament, it has resuscitated tennis in Calcutta and put it back on track. To pull up sport onto its feet one requires a strong organisation with international awareness and vision, unstinted government support and the cooperation of industry. Only when these have jelled can we aspire for greater things.
As a lover of sport one has to applaud the chief minister, sports minister and the sponsors for putting Calcutta back on the tennis map. In equal measure, the enterprise shown by Jaidip Mukerjea, the tournament director and the Bhupathi family in organising and putting together the whole show, is laudable.
To stray from my blinkered vision of tennis I can see a golden opportunity for development of sport in West Bengal. Industry in West Bengal is at full throttle on the runway. Thousands of crores will be invested in industry and new townships. This is the time sport must be woven into the fabric of our lives, especially for the generations to come.
The current generations have suffered much due to the lack of sports facilities and a tunnel vision concept of education. Now that West Bengal’s economic future seems secure, we should think about sport. Think Big. Build football fields, astroturf for hockey, gymnasiums, athletic tracks, tennis courts, basketball, badminton etc. Let every child in the state have access to sport at minimal affordable cost.