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India's Mirza slams stereotype

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NEW YORK - The diamond-studded nose ring protruding from her left nostril is the first giveaway that Sania Mirza is not your typical teenage prodigy shooting up the rankings.

True, the 18-year-old has star-in-the-making credentials.

-During the past year, Mirza has managed to leap 284 places to No.42 in the WTA Tour rankings - better than any other player in that period and the highest ever for an Indian woman.

-She became the first woman from India to reach the third round of a Grand Slam at the Australian Open in January, and then the first to win a WTA title when she captured her hometown tournament in Hyderabad shortly thereafter.

-On Monday, she became the first Indian female to win a match at the U.S. Open when she defeated the USA's Mashona Washington in a topsy-turvy affair, 7-6 (8-6), 6-7 (6-8), 6-4.

Mirza is a devout Muslim from a conservative Islamic family who tries to pray five times a day. Her aggressive game is not only breaking down stereotypes, but also putting tennis on the map in a part of the world where cricket is king.

"Fifty years ago, people in India didn't believe that a woman could play a professional sport," says the affable Mirza.

While Indian men have had a tradition of success in tennis, women have lagged far behind. In Mirza - a righty with a two-handed backhand who hits ferociously and fearlessly off both wings - they now have a female role model.

"Girls like me coming out and playing on the world stage is a little shocking, but that's changing, and I'm glad," she says.

Mirza's title in Hyderabad in February created standing-room only crowds. Wherever she has traveled since, Indian fans have flocked to see her smashmouth groundstrokes and go-for-broke style.

Particularly at home, her popularity has soared. She recently ranked second in a national magazine's youth icon poll, and won the Arjuna award, one of India's most prestigious sports awards.

She now travels in India with a bodyguard, and can rarely venture out in public due to the media and fan crush. But perhaps even more than her results, her audacity has propelled tennis out from the back pages of newspapers to the front.

"She's not an Indian as far as the mind goes," says Times of India reporter Prajwal Hegde, who came to New York to cover Mirza's every move for India's largest daily paper. "She's bold and brazen and that comes out in her game."

If there is tension between being a pro athlete and coming from a conservative Muslim upbringing that calls for women to bare little skin and adopt low-profile lives, Mirza is not fazed.

"Not everyone is perfect and just because I wear a miniskirt or just because I'm wearing pants or whatever it is doesn't make me a bad Muslim," she says. "As long as I believe in God and I have my faith, I think that's good."

Mirza's aggressive style was honed from an early age. She picked up tennis at the urging of her father, a one-time cricketer at the university level. Mirza began bludgeoning the ball almost from the get-go, and eventually won the Wimbledon junior doubles crown in 2003.

"I always liked to hit the ball as hard as I could, even as a little kid," Mirza says. "That aggression is just helping me out now."

It also hurts her at times. Against Washington, Mirza showed an occasional lack of patience. She next faces unseeded Maria Elena Camerin of Italy, who upset No.21 seed Dinara Safina of Russia.

"I guess what matters is when you come through, and I did today," she says.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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