"I Represent All Muslim Women": An interview by Charlie Wyett with Aravane Rezai

THE strawberries are being cut, the bottles of Pimms are being unloaded at the All England Club.

And some blokes are thinking how hilarious it would be to shout 'C'mon Tim' ahead of a player serving on Centre Court. Yet you really know when Wimbledon is around the corner when the debate focuses on whether Andy Murray is either British or Scottish and his apparent hatred of all things English. After all, he once made a joke. Murray is now used to political tapdancing yet this is nothing compared to Aravane Rezai's unique situation. The 18th women's seed at the championships, which begin Monday, Rezai represents France, the country where she was born and raised. Yet both her parents are Iranian and she is a proud muslim. Rezai, 23, has even represented Iran at the Women's Islamic Games - twice - and she has met the country's controversial president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet incredibly, this driven, uncompromising and talented tennis player has handled a potentially-difficult situation like a veteran MP. She has also overcome a lack of family money and initial racism from France's tennis authorities to become the country's sporting golden girl and equally, is now an inspiration for muslim women around the world. Rezai makes no apologies for being extremely proud of both her backgrounds. She is also enjoying a decent year, winning the third title of her year in Madrid last month, beating Venus Williams in the final. She said: "There are a few but not too many Muslim women in sport. Sania Mirza, who is Indian, also plays tennis but I am the first from a Persian background. "I am proud to represent Muslim women. I know I am a model for other girls and if I can give them power or any help to improve their life, that is good. I am here and I want to show on court I am a fighter. I fight for my personal life and I fight for my tennis career. They are two things. "I have two passports. When I play for France people said 'she is Iranian not French'. I am proud to be half-Iranian and that is why I have a necklace from Iran around my neck at all times. Yet I play tennis for France, the country where I grew up. "So many people ask me whether I prefer France or Iran . I say: 'do you ask a mother which son she prefers?' I love both countries. "I have made a lot of sacrifices in my life and I feel stronger than so many other players. I have a different character. I am very strong. I like to fight on the court. It comes from my double culture. "Unfortunately I am not a practising Muslim but when I have finished my tennis career, I will be. "I last went to Iran 18 months ago. When I go, I cover up respectfully but I do not wear Islamic clothing. Some Iranians did not agree because I met the president and I gave two rackets to the president like a gift. But the rackets were given to the country, not just the president of the country." Rezai is never far from her family. She is coached by her father, Arsalan, her hitting partner is brother Anouch and her mother, Nouchine, doubles up as her physio. She said: "It was difficult in Saint Etienne as the weather conditions in the winter - like England - are not good. There was also jealousy at some tennis clubs and it was difficult to find a court. "At 17, I was junior French champion but I was then suspended by the French Federation for two months because I played two tournaments in a row. Two other girls did the same but they did not suffer a penalty. They were 'pure' French whereas I am half-Persian. I was not happy. "We had a lot of financial problems because dad did not work as he was looking after me. Everything we won was used to finance our travel. I was like the family business. There was real pressure to win. I knew I had to win tournaments because if I did not, we did not have the money to compete. I used to sleep in a van during tournaments - until I was 18 or 19. We never got anything from the French Federation."
While tennis is sport which breeds a few too many one-dimensional characters, Rezai is an engaging character whose life does not revolve around the practice court. She said: "I like astro-physics. I love watching stars. "I also like motorbikes as I enjoy sports with speed. I like ski-ing and soccer. My team is Lyon." Rezai reached the semi-finals at Edgbaston and after beating reigning Eastbourne champion Caroline Wozniacki on the south coast this week, she was forced to retire from her next match as a precaution due to a wrist problem. A hard-hitting and aggressive player, her game is clearly suited to grass and is more than capable of reaching the second week of Wimbledon for the first time. Rezai, who has also beaten the likes of Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova, said: "This is a good opportunity. Winning in Madrid gave me a lot of confidence. I realised that I can beat the top players. I believed in myself and did something big. Hopefully, I can continue. I knew it would click but just didn't know when. "I have become very popular at the French Open and now, cannot go out without people talking to me. It is very different at Wimbledon, as I can walk around the village. "But if I get results at Wimbledon, I will be popular in England." And if Rezai does deliver something special over the forthcoming fortnight at Wimbledon, it will be massively-significant triumph. A victory to be celebrated by millions of women around the world.