India’s Tryst With “Girl Power”

Sania Mirza prepares to serve

Sania Mirza prepares to serve against Melinda Czink of Hungary in the Sunfeast Open 2005 tennis tournament in Kolkata, India, Sept. 21. (Photo: Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP-Getty Images)

Tennis player Sania Mirza is just 18-years old and set to overtake the top celebrity brand endorsers in the country. This is India’s first taste of the “girl power” that has earned millions through corporate endorsements for the likes of Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova.

In India there have been broadly two categories of celebrities who garner most endorsement revenues — cricketers, who are treated like demigods, and film stars. Cricketers Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, and film actors Shahrukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan have been around for a while now, with Bachchan continuing his hold over the Indian masses despite being over 60 years old. Enter Sania.

Sania has been the subject of attention for a while, but it is at the U.S. Open tennis tournament that she really caught the eye of world audiences and sponsors. Americans had the first real look at the very pretty, athletically built, nose and ear-ringed Indian star at the tournament.

A mix of glamour, performance, a “bold and brazen” game plan, grit and attitude, suave and affable communication skills, “going for the kill” forehands, and record performances (by Indian standards and history that is) has perched Sania at the very top of Indian brand ambassadors.

Post her U.S. Open sojourn Sania has been pegged as the joint second highest grosser among sports stars, in the same bracket as Rahul Dravid.

In November last year she was valued under $15,000 per deal. Her current rate has reportedly crossed $400,000, an over 25-fold jump. Sania has been signed up by GVK Industries, Sahara India, Hindustan Petroleum, Tata Indicom, Atlas Cycles and Tata Tea. She has a three-year deal with Lotto Sport Italia, which has been endorsed by tennis icons from Boris Becker to Martina Navratilova. There are many more (some estimates put the number at more than 20) lining up at her door.

Tendulkar remains India’s only million-dollar sports star. His deal with World Tel nets him $5 million every year, though these figures are still dwarfed by global trends with golfer Tiger Woods estimated to earn over a billion dollars through endorsements and appearance fees. Baseball and basketball players in the United States and footballers in Europe are also well into the million dollar league.

The main reason that other sports stars fail to notch the mega deals in India is the abysmal level of sporting performances as reflected in the Athens Olympics where a country of over a billion people managed just one silver medal. Cricketers are worshipped because it is the only sport in which India manages to hold its own against the best teams, though the performance of the Indian team has been quite poor in the recent past. But, starved of sporting icons, cricketers continue to rake in the moola. There have been a sprinkling of super achievers such as Geet Sethi (billiards), Vishwanathan Anand (chess), Rajyavardhan Rathore (shooting), Anju George (long jump) but none have been able to match the appeal of cricketers. None, that is, until Sania came along.

There is no doubt that Sania has set new levels for achievement for Indian women, given the list of firsts: she has leaped 284 places to No. 42 in the tour rankings and is likely to touch under 35 soon. This is better than any other player within the same time span 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 this year, and then the first to win a tour title in Hyderabad shortly thereafter. She has beaten players in the top 10 and many of her opponents have commented on her potential. Many expect a Grand Slam victory.

Last week, she became the first Indian female to win a match at the U.S. Open. She was beaten by Sharapova in the pre-quarters after winning three rounds, but not without putting up a fight. She recently won the Arjuna award, one of India’s top sports awards.

Though there is a long way to go yet and many more battles to be won, she does provide a welcome relief through her performance and looks. One favorite media interest has been the way Sania has managed to displace the spotlight on cricketers, though she has been gracious enough to say that she is a big Tendulkar fan. On the day that she won a match at the U.S. Open, the Indian cricket team too scored a victory at a tri-series being played at Zimbabwe. Mohammed Kaif, a top cricketer, scored a fine century. It has been a while since such a performance was relegated to the inside sports pages. Sania, meanwhile, dominated the TV news, front page and lead stories. The editorials followed.

Corporate India of course is relishing the prospect of cashing in on Sania’s drawing power. The Sania-Sharapova encounter also saw a 15 percent jump in advertisement rates for a tennis match telecast in India. In keeping with the number of people staying up late at night in India (to keep U.S. time) to catch her on TV, she was assigned one of the three show courts with facility for direct telecast, for all her matches. In addition to the main sponsors Hero Honda and Pepsi, the U.S. Open matches saw heavy advertising by IBM, Hewlett Packard, Maruti, Tata Tea and Yamaha.

To the further delight of her sponsors, she minces no words in talking her mind as well, which goes to enhance her persona. “Fifty years ago, people in India didn’t believe that a woman could play a professional sport,” said Sania. “Girls like me coming out and playing on the world stage is a little shocking, but that’s changing, and I’m glad.”

Being a devout Muslim and belonging to a conservative set up (she prays five times a day, by her own admission), she is also an ambassador of India’s secular traditions that allows minority communities to prosper. On the flip side, her attire (mini skirts, that is) has already invited comments from cultural Cassandra’s (read Muslim clerics, who match point for point Hindu fundamentalists in their outdated viewpoints). They want her to wear long pants and full-sleeved shirts. Thankfully, they are okay with her playing and winning.

She has a retort for them too and is unlikely to heed their concern. “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.”

Indeed, Sania could go either way from here. She can be a version of Kournikova, who earned her millions with her fabulous looks. Or she could go the way of Sharapova, who has replaced Kournikova as the number one pinup and has become the numero uno player as well. As of now, all the signs show Sania seeking to emulate Sharapova. It is up to her from here. She will need to keep the balance.