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Shikha stands tall in Sania-swept town

Siliguri, Nov. 30: What use are eight Grand Slam titles when pitted against the phenomenon called Sania Mirza'

Such a thought may have flickered through the mind of Mahesh Bhupathi as Siliguri got swept in Sania mania.

'I have never played before so many people anywhere in India. It's amazing,' said Ankita Bhambri, one of the bright young stars of Indian tennis.

Thousands of fans of the sports-starved town had thronged the indoor stadium complex at Deshbandhupara to have a glimpse of the stars. Only about 4,000 of them actually got to see them in action inside the stadium, where an imported hardcourt had been specially laid for the tournament.

'In less than one year, how far Indian tennis has moved... it's great,' said Shikha Uberoi. The movement forward has, of course, coincided with the ascent of Sania. After an incredible year in international tennis, her WTA ranking is 31 at the moment.

Every move the 19-year-old from Hyderabad made was greeted with resounding applause from the crowd, most of them youths. She returned the compliment by speaking a line in Bengali. 'Kemon achhe Siliguri, bhalo to (Hope Siliguri is feeling good)' It's good to be back here,' said Sania at the introduction ceremony.

The tennis sensation had come here about a year ago, but that was before her meteoric rise to become one of the most famous woman sports personalities in India ever.

'I am a fan of Sania, but I am not being able to get her autograph. Can you help' asked a forlorn Tania Paul, a Class VI student of Siliguri Girls' High School, as the men in uniform prevented her from approaching her hero. But many other young fans had better luck as the players obliged by signing autographs. Ankita, India No. 3 who hails from New Delhi, even agreed to sign her name on a photograph of Sania that a young fan had thrust at her.

But as the evening wore on, Shikha, with her easy disposition and smiling face, not to talk of her impressive tennis skills, started getting as much cheer as Sania. The girl from Florida in America seemed to have a way with the crowd as she kept on acknowledging their support. However, when a young girl asked her to scribble a message in her notebook, she gently brushed aside her request. 'You are asking for a bit too much. I am sorry. Next time,' she quipped, before putting just her name in the book.

Like most of the spectators at the stadium, Jae Seung Baek, a Class X student of Calcutta International School, was watching his first tennis match in a stadium. Here with tournament director Jaidip Mukerjea's son, Omar, the South Korean boy said he thoroughly enjoyed the tennis and the atmosphere in the stadium. 'I presented a bouquet to Ankita (at the introduction ceremony),' he grinned.

At the end of the gala tennis festival, a lot of other people must have left the stadium grinning. Mahesh included, one hopes'

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