| Sania Mirza
Calcutta, Jan. 20: Just the other day Mahesh Bhupathi was saying the next Indian tennis star would be a woman. Tomorrow, when Sania Mirza plays Serena Williams, he may or may not prove to be right, but it could well be the point where a start is made.
'I have come here with no major expectations,' Sania herself said in Melbourne.
There cannot be against an opponent like Serena, a former Australian Open champion and the world's seventh ranked player against Sania's 166th.
But two years ago, even this showdown in a Grand Slam would have seemed like fanciful thinking.
The first sparks were fired by Sania on a July afternoon in 2003 when she won the junior Wimbledon doubles crown with Russian partner Alisa Kleybanova. No other Indian woman had ventured that far in a Grand Slam before.
The Hyderabad girl was all of 16 then. She could have allowed the adulation and fame get to her head, but Sania built on that breakthrough and worked hard to mature into a strong singles player.
She showed the world this week in Melbourne just how much she has developed. Two victories in her maiden senior Grand Slam and two more milestones later, she is ready for a 'dream date'.
'Playing Serena was a dream which has come true,' she said, as articulate with words as with her forehand. After all, Steffi Graf is her idol.
It's not just Sania who is causing a fair bit of excitement among Indian tennis fans. The California-based Shikha and Neha Uberoi are warming up for their day in the Grand Slam sun.
The 21-year-old Shikha, currently ranked 150 in the world, made headlines at the US Open last year when she won three rounds to qualify for the main draw, beat world No. 56 Saori Obata in the first round and then led Venus Williams 4-1 before fading away.
Neha, who will be turning 19 next month, is still working her way up the rankings but she, too, has big potential. Want confirmation' She beat her elder sister at the Hyderabad Open international meet last February.
Born in Mumbai, Shikha has already got permission to play for India. She would, in fact, have made her India debut last April had the International Tennis Federation not delayed issuing the clearance. The US-born Neha will have to wait a few more months.
No one's more excited at the prospect of the Uberoi sisters donning India colours than Enrico Piperno. As captain of the Indian Fed Cup (women's equivalent of the Davis Cup) team, the Calcutta-based coach is dreaming big. 'What a team we'll have' Sania, Shikha, Neha. Even Ankita (Bhambri) has improved greatly. The day is not far when we'll qualify for the world group,' remarked Piperno.
What's so special about Shikha and Neha' 'Both are modern-age players' very fit and quick. They take the ball on the rise and give it a real whack. Both can volley well, too,' said Piperno, adding that Neha has more potential than Shikha.
It's not possible to miss a common thread running through Sania, Shikha and Neha. All three have access to ample foreign exposure.
Shikha and Neha were lucky that their father Mahesh left Mumbai to settle in the US about two decades ago. When in the US, they train with Venus Williams' former coach Rick Macey. Sania has been making frequent trips to Italy's San Remo academy headed by Bob Brett, who once coached Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic.
'Exposure to foreign training is absolutely essential' the system in India is such that no sportsperson can bloom into international class unless they go out of the country,' said Bhupathi, who has had a large role in grooming Sania.
Asked if she made any special preparations before heading to Melbourne, Sania said: 'It was the usual practice with Bhupathi at home and abroad with Bob Brett.'
It's too soon to start making comparisons with last year's Russian revolution led by Maria Sharapova, but Sania, Shikha and Neha give some hope while the boys' well, are there any'