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The unreal life of a South Asian female star

Even for a tennis player on the world tour, accustomed to traveling through a maze of unfamiliar cultures, Mirza might seem to have an unreal life. There was, for example, a tennis tournament in Kolkata.

John Martin, The New York Times  |  Last updated on Thursday, 24 January 2013 12:19 Print font size - +

Melbourne, Australia:  Sania Mirza of India is the most celebrated female athlete in South Asia.

She is ranked just 282nd in singles and 12th in doubles, but Mirza's movements on and off a tennis court, including her surprise 2010 marriage to a Pakistani cricket player, are the staple of tabloids and televisions across the subcontinent of 1.7 billion people.

Cementing their star status, Mirza, 26, and her husband, Shoaib Malik, 30, appeared on India's version of "Dancing With the Stars."

On the air, the Times of India reported, "Sania also talked about the ordeal they faced - the controversies surrounding their marriage - and how constant surveillance by the media almost took a toll on their personal life."

Even for a tennis player on the world tour, accustomed to traveling through a maze of unfamiliar cultures, Mirza might seem to have an unreal life. There was, for example, a tennis tournament in Kolkata.

"I remember having a thousand people for security," Mirza said. "I couldn't leave the hotel room without informing about five different people. And even when I did, I had a car in front of me and I had a car behind me. I had a guy sitting with me."

The authorities were braced for a potential threat from followers of a Muslim cleric who was quoted as saying that Mirza, a practicing Muslim, should not play in a short tennis skirt.

Nothing happened.

Months later, she said, the cleric said he had not made the remarks and told reporters that he was proud of her success.

Mirza's marriage to Malik, a former captain of the Pakistani team, surprised people in both countries, she said, because the couple, who met in Australia in 2004, had hidden their relationship.

"We were both high profile on that side of the world," she said. "So I think that, because of the political situation or whatever it is between India and Pakistan, everyone was a little startled by it.

"I think tennis teaches you that - and sport teaches you that - religion and color and race and country is the last thing that you look at when you meet a person."

"And I think that's the beautiful part about sports," Mirza added. "I married the person I loved, and he married the person he loved."

Their marriage was nearly blocked by a claim that Malik remained married to another woman. There were reports that he signed a divorce decree five days before he and Mirza were married in two ceremonies, one in Hyderabad, India, the other in Lahore, Pakistan.

Last summer, Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi, a leading Indian player, won the French Open mixed doubles title.

Then, as the players prepared for the Summer Olympics, a dispute broke out between Bhupathi and Leander Paes, another leading Indian player.

Mirza found herself caught in the middle when the Indian tennis federation intervened, announcing that she would be paired with Paes. She said she was not consulted.

"Our federation was basically pacifying Leander Paes and saying, 'You know, OK, you don't need to play with Mahesh, but here you go, you know, you can play with Sania,"' she said.

Mirza called the decision "a little male chauvinistic."

"As a woman," she said, "I cannot accept to be treated as a bait to, like, pacify someone else, because, you know, he's unhappy that something's not going his way." Mirza and Paes won one match before losing in the quarterfinals to the eventual gold medalists, Victoria Azarenka and Max Mirnyi.

The players have publicly patched up their differences, Mirza said.

Mirza has chosen to play mixed doubles at the Australian Open with Bob Bryan of the U.S. They are seeded third and have advanced to the quarterfinals.

"I'm not a perfect Muslim; I think none of us are perfect human beings," Mirza said. "I do the five pillars of Islam, you know. I pray five times a day."

But Mirza said she does not adhere to every tenet of her faith. "I don't think I need to get into explaining myself as to why I'm doing something or why I'm not. I think it's between me and my God."

© 2013 New York Times News Service

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Story first published on: Thursday, 24 January 2013 11:06

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