NEW DELHI: India has a new icon, and she's not a cricket player or a Bollywood starlet. She's a tennis player.
Sania Mirza seems to be everywhere these days in her homeland: Posing on magazine covers, promoting health campaigns and endorsing everything from cars to clothing.
All the while she's fending off hostile Muslim leaders who say her revealing on-court outfits are an affront to the religion.
For decades, top tennis players have been big stars in the West.
In India, the only sports celebrities to capture the nation's imagination have been cricket greats.
That is, until 18-year-old Mirza started swinging her racket, in February becoming the first Indian woman to win a WTA Tour singles title, in her Hyderabad hometown.
In a little more than a year, she has emerged as a role model for millions of young Indians, boys as well as girls.
They see in her rise a reflection of their own desire to succeed in a world where they have countless more opportunities than their parents had.
Mirza's success "cuts the stereotype of Indian women in the world - that they can only look pretty and are homemakers,'' said Astha Rawat, a 20-year-old college student.
Or, as 18-year-old Anshu Bhushan, put it: "She makes us all Indians feel proud.''
Mirza's aggressive on-court style in many ways mirrors India's growing profile on the international stage and plays well with the country's rising middle class.
As the Indian economy has opened, satellite television channels, Western films and glitzy malls bursting with clothes from Europe and the United States have succeeded in prying open the more hidebound sections of Indian society, exposing a world where girls can compete in every sphere, including sports.
"Sania symbolizes the new India, which is more aggressive, more assertive, ready to take on competition as it comes,'' said M. N. Panini, sociology professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
She "represents India's rising middle class - their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations.''
Mirza's gung-ho attitude is clear. After one recent match, she said: "I enjoy hitting the ball as hard as I can. I enjoy taking risks.
"And I believe you always have to take risks.''
While such bravado clearly plays well with fans, it has gotten her only so far on the court.
In August, she became the first Indian woman to reach the fourth round of any Grand Slam, but made it no further in the U.S. Open, losing to Maria Sharapova, then ranked No. 1.
She is now ranked No. 34 on the WTA Tour, up from No. 326 a little more than a year ago.
Mirza's progress has been dogged every step of the way by the Indian media.
Her glittering nose ring and short skirts and T-shirts on the court have all served as fodder for gossip columns and TV talks shows.
Fan mail, blogs and Web sites have proliferated.
Mirza's security has tightened in recent months - armed police trail her whenever she leaves her home in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad.
"She may not win the trophy every time, but because of her attitude she's won peoples' hearts,'' said Abhilasha Kumari, a communications professor at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi.
But Mirza's growing popularity has become a cause of concern among sections of the country's orthodox Muslim clergy, who say she is leading young Muslims, especially girls, astray.
India's Sunni Ulema Board, a Muslim organisation, last month issued an edict demanding she cover up during her matches.
The group described her tennis clothes - usually a short skirt teamed with a midriff-revealing T-shirt - as "un-Islamic.''
Mirza at the time refused to comment, but she later said her clothing was appropriate and required for the game.
Her response echoed the tussle many young Indians in a fast-modernizing society have with their own orthodox parents and religious leaders.
"She's awesome,'' said Akshay Rawat, an 18-year-old student.
"I like the way she's handled the problems she's faced, whether it's the clerics or the money hassles. It shows you can make it if you try really hard.'' - AP