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Making Themselves at Home

Times Staff Writer

Peng Shuai, 19, is shy enough to need a nudge from her coach to speak in English. She is obedient enough to have skipped Wimbledon, the world’s biggest tennis tournament, to play the second round of a Chinese national tournament. But she was bold enough Tuesday to say that she was “very disappointed” to have missed Wimbledon.

Sania Mirza, 18, is the first Indian-born woman to win a WTA tournament. Even though many people thought she should be a doctor or lawyer, her parents let Mirza choose her own course, which is unusual in India. She has a pierced nose and bellybutton and five piercings in her ear. She carries two cellphones, a smashing forehand and an aggressive attitude.

“My dad was a defensive batsman in cricket,” Mirza said, “and he told me that if I played sports I should always go on the offense.”

Peng, back on the WTA Tour for only the second week after being in China for 10 weeks, upset third-seeded Russian Elena Dementieva, 7-5, 6-4, Tuesday in a second-round match at the Acura Classic. Mirza, ranked 64th in the world, has advanced through the qualifying tournament here, and Tuesday she won her first-round match, 6-2, 6-2, over veteran Tathiana Garbin of Italy.

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Peng and Mirza come from untapped markets. When Mirza won the Hyderabad Open in her hometown in February, it was, Mirza said, “a big deal, yes. We don’t have so many female athletes who are stars.”

Mirza plays a fearless and attacking style. She aims for the lines with her big groundstroke. Sometimes she hits the lines for winners, sometimes she hits the walls, but in either case the crowd appreciates her willingness to try for dramatic shots. Already this year Mirza owns a win over defending U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who is seeded second here.

Peng has claimed wins over top-10 players Anastasia Myskina and Nadia Petrova in the last eight months. She lost to French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4, on clay in Charleston, S.C., in March and was up a set and a service break against top-ranked Lindsay Davenport in the second round of the French Open before losing, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-0.

Enthusiastic about her momentum, Peng was reluctant to return to China for the month of June where she was required to compete in a Chinese national tournament. Her coach, Alan Ma, said the event was held every four years and was the equivalent to the Olympics in importance .

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But it takes up three months -- March, June and October -- and it has forced Peng, who is ranked 46th in the world, to take a step down in her competition level. “It’s comparable to going back to playing in college,” Ma said, “after you’ve played the pros.”

In her first match back after her 10-week layoff from the tour, Peng lost, 6-4, 7-6 (3), to Iveta Benesova last week at Stanford. On Tuesday, she played with more confidence than Dementieva, even though the Russian was a runner-up last year at the French and U.S. opens.

Peng will play only 14 WTA tournaments this year; she had hoped it could be 22. “Already I learn a lot here,” Peng said. “I just want to play more.”

Mirza, whose father is a builder and whose mother owns her own printing company, said she passed a tennis court every day when she was taking swimming lessons.

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“I was 6 years old,” Mirza said, “and I think one day I got lazy and said I wanted to go play tennis.”

Her sports hero was Steffi Graf and never, Mirza said, did her parents discourage her efforts to become a pro tennis player -- despite being in a traditional society in which daughters are obedient.

“When I was 12 or 13,” Mirza said, “I very much knew what I wanted to do and my parents left it to me. That is very rare, I know, and I hope my example helps other girls.”

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As the tournament progressed into the second round, only two Americans were left in the draw -- 31-year-old Lisa Raymond, who won her first-round match Monday, and 29-year-old Mashona Washington, who beat Croatia’s Karolina Sprem, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-1, Tuesday.

Besides Dementieva, the other seed to lose was No. 15 Flavia Pennetta of Italy, who lost, 6-1, 7-5, to Japan’s Akiko Morigami in a second-round match.

In a sold-out session Tuesday night, Kuznetsova beat 33rd-ranked Klara Koukalova of the Czech Republic, 7-5, 6-3.

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Featured matches

Today’s featured matches in the Acura Classic at the La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad:

Stadium court (10 a.m.) -- Sania Mirza, India vs. Nadia Petrova, Russia; (7 p.m.) Marta Domachowska, Poland vs. Kim Clijsters, Belgium.

* Grandstand (10 a.m.) -- Daniela Hantuchova, Slovakia, vs. Ai Sugiyama, Japan.

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