Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Tags for Two

For quite some time, I've been waiting to create tags for Sania Mirza and Maria Kirilenko. And yesterday, I finally felt as though their time had come.

Let's start with Mirza: Two years ago the girl from Bombay had quite the breakthrough in her home country, winning at Hyderabad as the 134th ranked player in the world. Not only did that launch Mirza into the Top 100, but she also soared into the media's radar as the Muslim girl who played tennis - and did so with an attitude.

Much of the controversy surrounding Mirza over the last two years has been just that: she was a female playing a professional sport from a country in which millions of people didn't approve of what she was doing. Not only did Mirza receive death threats, but she was told to cover up during matches, not speak her mind and to educate others around the world about the god we should all be praising.

To her credit, Mirza has stayed true to herself, her family and her career. Yes, she an 'upper-class' (read: 'rich girl') from Mumbai that honed her tennis at private clubs in an urban setting. But while much of India scowls at Mirza, she has also become an international icon. Millions of Indians watch, listen to or wait for results from her weekly matches, hoping that her powerful groundstroke game can garner her another hard-fought win.

(A Sania Mirza billboard in India, where she is - to some - a national hero. Photy by Azgar Khan via Flickr.)

After a successful 2005, in which Mirza wrapped up with a fourth round appearance at the US Open, injuries set her back and she dropped out of the Top 50 during the 2006 season. Results have been spotty: last fall, she beat Martina Hingis one week, only to lose to Olga Poutchkova and Meghann Shaughnessy the next two.

Yet following a 2nd round effort at Wimbledon, Mirza has seemed to finally take the strides toward becoming the hard court player she can be. Semis at Cincy, final in Stanford and quarters in San Diego (who does she think she is, Jankovic?). This week in LA, Mirza has already beaten Aleksandra Wozniak and Martina Hingis, and now awaits the winner Razzano/Peer.

While I've patiently been waiting for the upswing of Mirza, millions of men have been urging (and drooling for) Maria Kirilenko to break into the top tier of tennis for some time now. She's blond, beautiful, athletic and Russian - hmm, that sounds familiar, right?

Much like Mirza, Kirilenko's breakthrough season was 2005, when she shot up the rankings from #105 at the beginning of the year to #26 by season's end. She scored a win over that other Maria during the year, along with Patty Schnyder, her first Top-20 win ever.

Now with injuries behind her - the similarities to Mirza are just oozing - and a more confident, mature game, Kirilenko seems to have arrived on the WTA Tour. Last week, she scored big wins over Lucie Safarova and Jelena Jankovic (7-5 in the third) and just yesterday in LA, stunned Marion Bartoli in straight sets.

(Maria Kirilenko is 35th in the rankings and will move up after LA following her first round loss in 2006. Photo by Hugo Cura via Flickr.)

Kirilenko, whose claim to fame still remains ingrained in her looks and her Stella McCartney outfits, now takes on Gisela Dulko in the round of 16 in LA.

Can Maria of smaller stature and size seize her week? Not if Sania has anything to say about it. And, if they do meet, it'd be in the finals. Now wouldn't that be the ultimate arrival for both?

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