CM on a swing with Sania - Image made over, Buddha plays new game in town

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By SANJAY MANDAL in Calcutta
  • Published 19.09.05
Bhattacharjee and Sania at the stadium. Picture by Santosh Ghosh

Calcutta, Sept. 19: A middle-aged 5ft-something Bengali with a mop of white hair and thick glasses and clad in a dhuti and panjabi swinging a tennis racquet isn’t a sight common in Calcutta, let alone California, but the symbolism is hard to miss.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has come a long way ? as far as swinging goes.

Chief ministers, even in Bengal, have been seen handling a cricket bat and, of course, kicking a football ? until recently very much the national sport, here we are talking about a nation within a nation. But tennis?

It’s quite a bourgeois sport. It costs a lot of money to learn to hit the ball to the other side of the net, as Sania Mirza would vouch for. And as the chief minister would have found out: the difficulty of putting the ball across the net, that is. He managed it a few times though, at the refurbished Netaji Indoor Stadium where a Women’s Tennis Association tournament started today.

Sania is here, to play her second WTA event on Indian soil. The first was at Hyderabad, her hometown. Calcutta could well be her second home, by that token.

And why not? Mahesh Bhupathi, whose firm Globosport manages her,has strong ties with the city. His former doubles partner and Davis Cup mate, Leander Paes, belongs here. He’s also committed to building a rooftop tennis academy at a development at Rajarhat.

The connections have already brought Sania to Bengal immediately after she achieved stardom at the Hyderabad Open to pay a visit to Siliguri for a tsunami charity. Sourav Ganguly was there, too.

Indian cricket’s first man and tennis’s first girl are good friends.

Sania, however, is a more wanted sportstar than Sourav, who’s been having some serious problems lately.

In this, the chief minister will not take sides. He’s been sold on Sourav for long. There weren’t too many people around when he exchanged words with Sania at the Sunfeast Open today, but the chief minister’s daughter, Suchetana, said: “Baba, Ma and I think Sania is an example before Indian youth.

“But it will not be a done thing to draw parallels between Sourav and Sania. I know Baba too feels the same way: that Sourav may be off form today, but one cannot deny his achievements.”

The Indian captain is also the information technology brand ambassador for Bengal. Brand is something Bhattacharjee has come to be acquainted with in his chief minister’s avatar, so much so that there is apparently now a Brand Buddha whose equity is high in India Inc. The Prime Minister called him a role model the other day.

Bhattacharjee holds the tennis player in much the same esteem. According to sources close to him, he told the 18-year-old: “Back home, we are all the time discussing you, your achievements, you must win. What we like about you is your optimism and fighting spirit.”

Ahem, optimism is a quality he shares with Sania ? for whom No. 1 is not a utopia ? despite the obvious difference in age.

The chief minister is engaged in a mission to breathe life back into Bengal’s economy, a task difficult to approach without optimism and fighting spirit.

“You are playing well. I like your style, I like your approach. You have to win Sania,” he is believed to have told her.

“My daughter Suchetana is also full of you these days.”

Suchetana bore it out. “It’s true at home we are all the time discussing Sania Mirza. Baba is full of praise, he keeps saying, ‘look at her, at such a young age she has come up fighting, beating some of the world’s top players’.”

The chief minister’s adoration for Sourav may be undiminished even in this uncertain hour, but watch out captain, you have competition.

No one has yet suggested making Sania a brand ambassador, too, for Bengal ? the new Bengal, of malls with rooftop tennis academies. Or the Bengal of 5,000-acre Salim Group projects. The Bengal of Buddhadeb who may be ill at ease, but not unwilling to wield the tennis racquet.

If urban development minister Ashok Bhattacharya is to be believed, Sania “has fallen in love with North Bengal”.

“Sania has told me that she would return to play one or two exhibition matches with Mahesh Bhupathi in two months. I think Sania has an event in November in mind,” he said.

“Buddhababu and I told her that we all love her.”

Is it because Sania is already what Bengal wants to be ? a brand that sells?