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The stars shine down, sans Sania

Williams sisters, Jankovic main draw for the fans, reports Deepika Sharma.
Hindustan Times | By Deepika Sharma, Bangalore
UPDATED ON MAR 02, 2008 11:23 PM IST

Glitz, glamour and mega stars -the WTA Tier II $6,00,000 Bangalore Open is all set to field some of the biggest names in world tennis. With Indian ace Sania Mirza deciding to ignore events in the country, the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, will be the cynosure of all eyes.

Eight-time Grand Slam champion Serena, playing for the first time since the Australian Open, would be looking to improve her ranking that has dropped from world No. 7 to No. 10 this year. Seeded third here, Serena has got a first round bye and would be seen in action later in the week. However, on Sunday the 26-year-old's father and coach Richard said his daughter was not 100 per cent. "I am not saying she is not fit but something has re-occurred. I will not tell you what else other players will read about it," he said.

Serena's six-time Grand Slam champion sister, Venus, would also be looking to gain some vital points to improve her world ranking of No. 8. Jankovic, who has climbed up the WTA rankings charts faster than Michael Schumacher's lap, will also add to the glamour factor. The 22-year-old too begins her campaign later after getting the first round bye.

From an Indian perspective, the absence of Sania Mirza will be felt throughout. Playing here would have done wonders to her world ranking of 32. Meanwhile, two Indians — Isha Lakhani and Shikha Uberoi — have been given wildcard entries. Uberoi has a tough first round draw against fifth seed and world No. 18 Agnes Szavay of Hungary.

Last year's champion Yaroslava Shvedova of Russia would be looking to defend her title as she takes on Uzbekistan's Akgul Amanmuradova in the first round on Monday. Russia's pin-up girls Maria Kirilenko (world No.27) and Vera Zvonareva (21) will take on Chinese Yan Zi and a qualifier respectively. "It is a great opportunity for me to win here and I am going to put my best foot forward," said an optimistic Zvonavera. Apart from high-quality tennis, it would be Venus's short skirts and diamonds along with Jankovic's baby doll hair band that promises to spice up the courts.

Sunitha upset with AITA

Sunitha Rao is India's second highest ranked Indian after Sania Mirza in the world. Currently ranked 181, Rao is extremely unhappy for not getting the wildcard at the event. Surprisingly, Isha Lakhani and Shikha Uberoi, ranked 824, Lakhani is 349th respectively, have been given wildcards.

An emotional Sunitha, who had to slog it out in the qualifiers on Sunday, said she expected the All India Tennis Association (AITA) to give her wildcard. "I expected it. I am the second ranked player after Sania. It would have been a huge opportunity. I have been working really hard," said Rao.

"AITA's decision has hurt me a lot. On Friday when I came to know about it I just wasn't in the right frame of mind," she added. "I have my final qualifying match and I guess I will have to earn it my way. I think I deserved the wildcard more than any other player at the moment. I don't think my achievements count for anything."

On being asked if she was penalised for not winning her Fed Cup matches early this year, she said: "I am sure I was. But since Sania was injured all the pressure was on me. Australia fielded their best team and I tried my best. It was nothing but bad luck."

Rao also said she wished she was in a better position.

"I can't afford a coach. I was training under Bill Eastburn earlier but I am making ends meet to pay for bills back home in the US. I often call him and cry. There are so many hardships and here your own country's federation is not supporting you."

Monday's matches: Akgul Amanmuradova (Uzb) v Yaroslava Shvedova (Rus); Shikha Uberoi (Ind) v Agnes Szavay (Hun).

A celebrity coach, but a father first

Richard Williams is always thought of as a loony tennis dad. We have seen him holding handwritten signs during Serena and Venus's matches, filming them on Centre Court and often engulfed in controversies.

What makes him special is the fact that, along with now ex-wife Oracene, he has raised two Grand Slam Champions under one roof, facing countless adversities. From fighting extreme poverty to protecting his daughters from racist taunts and keeping the family together when elder daughter Yetunde was shot dead in 2003, Richard has been a father first and a coach later.

At the draw ceremony for the WTA Bangalore Open, he was conspicuous by his athletic presence, just like his daughters. Just over a day in the city, and Richard wants to make a difference here. Straightforward and affectionate, he is one of those celebrity parents who plan to give back to the society.

"My daughters will only gain points at this event. But what we will gain as a family is when we help do something for the society," said Richard. "It hurts to see a woman on the sidewalk begging for money or a bunch of kids asking us to feed them.

“In terms of prestige and money my daughters already have everything. They are very rich and powerful women."

He went on tell about his special plan. "I am going to be speaking to the Governor of Karnataka and will take help from Vijay Amritraj to help the poor here," he added.

When asked about the problems he faced while making Serena and Venus what they are today, Richard said: "I am a master planner. A lot depends on how you plan and what you plan. You have to earn money. It doesn't matter if it is 10 or 15 dollars. What matters is that you're earning," said Richard.

Talking about the hardships the Williams sisters had to face, Richard said: "Kids in America are lazy. They come from affluent family backgrounds. They can't make themselves a drink or even their beds," explained Richard. "My daughters have learnt everything the hard way. They are champions not just on the court but also off it.

"We have stuck together as a family because we are unique. For us the hard times were the easy times. People normally get killed in hard times but we stood by each other," said Richard.

It won't be an exaggeration to say that Serena and Venus wouldn't have been what they are if they didn't have the backing of their parents. After all, a family that eats together stays together.

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