The ball is in their court!

Updated on Feb 01, 2006 04:56 PM IST

While cricket may ignite the passion of all Indians, tennis seems to be making waves here, writes Meeta Chaitanya.

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PTI | ByATLANTA DIARY | Meeta Chaitanya

While cricket may ignite the passion of Indians regardless of age and sex, another sport seems to be making waves in the Indian sports fan circuit here -- tennis.

Although this sport has a niche audience base across tennis playing nations including India, its popularity hasn't even begun to underscore the mammoth contribution of talents in the game- or so one thought.

Beginning early last year Sania Mirza, the first Indian woman to break into the top 50 in WTA rankings has become the next big thing in Indian sports.

Fans in the states have been following headlines on her with as much ardour as those at home. In fact, everyone with just about perfunctory knowledge of the game has an opinion on her future- and what it means to scores of aspiring girls in India, and Indian girls in America.

Somewhere in between dodging rumours of fatwas and a veritable tennis victory in the first grand slam of the year, this teen has become a bona fide hero for a lot of Indians.

Her growing legions of fans were thrilled when Mirza was conferred with the Padma Shri Award this January.

The 19-year-old sensation is currently ranked 34 in the world, and her daunting performances and spirit on and off the court have endeared her to more than just fans.

To some, it is too early for this youngster to dovetail into the glamour clique by bagging more than lucrative deals with advertising majors, but her merit as a youth icon to reckon with has met its match in the endorsement deals she has today.

This paper reported early this year about her two year Rs 65 lakh deal with Coke, reportedly the highest non-cricket, non-entertainment endorsement that boomerangs her literally, into the top bracket of money spinning stars in India such as Tendulkar, Dravid, Shah Rukh Khan to name a few.

A tennis icon has rarely commanded such marketable presence. Hitherto, Tennis greats Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes as brand ambassadors of Adidas and J Hampstead, reportedly commanded around Rs 25 lakhs.

This may be a first but Sania, who was initially signed up with GVK Industries, Sahara India and Tata Tea is not new to capitalizing on her wide appeal. She was picked by Korean giant Hyundai earlier to promote the Hyundai Getz. The three-year deal is said to be worth around Rs 1.5 crores.

Interestingly, Globosport, the company that represents Mirza professionally and that has rightly identified and worked with her talent and appeal both as a player and a celebrity is the brainchild of an equally gifted player who has just added another feather to his cap -- Mahesh Bhupathi.

While Mirza's fan base is as unprecedented as her achievement, for a very long while now avid Tennis enthusiasts have loved and followed every game Bhupathi and his erstwhile partner Paes have played representing India and doing her proud consistently in the international arena.

Reinforcing his caliber as a player India's 'doubles' ace Bhupathi along with wild card entrant Martina Hingis scored a resounding victory over sixth seeds Daniel Nestor of Canada and Elena Likhovsteva of Russia to win the Australian Open mixed doubles title in Melbourne this Sunday.

Bhupathi,with his 10 Grand Slam titles has successfully dominated the mixed doubles circuit making his pairing with six different partners an eclectic thrill rather than a challenge for his fans.

Perhaps the most noteworthy tennis icon who has made a huge impact on the tennis loving public across borders is Leander Paes.

While Indian fans have followed Paes for years, it is with an equal amount of alacrity that American fans here wait for a Lee game.

This tennis ace was to them unrivalled with Bhupathi on his side (chest thumping and delightful on-court rapport included), and he remains a hero even as he and partner Martin Damm of the Czech Republic lost in the men's double championship match at Australian Open on Saturday.

Paes who has been the top ranking Tennis player from India for over a decade is loved by tennis watchers all across for being the consummate sportsman.

Even as Sania climbs to great heights, buffered staunchly by the likes of Bhupathi, for Indian fans in Atlanta and elsewhere she is the youngest torch-bearer in a strapping line of tennis greats who have contributed handsomely to the legacy of the game.

They have made this niche sport the connoisseur's delight and the passer by's hearty distraction.

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