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On a winning spree

Photo: M. Periasamy  

COIMBATORE: Sania Mirza grew up in an India that thought it was odd for a woman to be a sportsperson. She developed her skills at a time when tennis was not given much priority. “When I started playing, it was unheard of a girl to play tennis and be a professional. We used to struggle to find a tennis court. Most of them were made of cow dung. I think kids today are really lucky to get good courts to play on. I wish I had such facilities.”

Now the world’s no.1 doubles player, Sania has come a long way. And, so has tennis in India. “The government is offering some top schemes for tennis players. Especially after the Commonwealth Games, there has been a big boost for tennis in the country. People, including sports academies and press, are recognising sports other than cricket. Before this, it was just a handful of athletes who were winning recognition.”

But, more benefits are always welcome, she says. “Sports is a tough field to succeed, and it is not easy for people from middle-class homes to play in the international arena. Hopefully, we will see a change soon.”

The sports star was in Coimbatore to run along with the participants of My India Marathon, conducted by Varnam Foundation.

She is happy to support an event like a marathon any time. “We come from a country where health and fitness have just started to get some attention. People are realising the importance to be healthy — even if it is about going for a walk everyday for 20 minutes.”

After their incredible 41-match winning streak, Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis are now the star pair in the tennis world. They are so popular that their fans — and the press — have dubbed them as ‘Santina’.

Having played singles for a long time, how does the transition to doubles work? “Initially, it was difficult. We were not friends or acquaintances when we started playing. But, now I am happy to say that we have become close friends. There is a trust that helps us during the game. Chemistry is important in any partnership; whether it is tennis or any business endeavour.”

There are some talented young girls playing tennis in India. “But, unfortunately women’s tennis has not taken that leap yet. It took 11 years for me to reach a certain level. But, soon we will find good players.”

She also said that Indians have a few strengths. Such as “great hand-eye coordination that works a lot for doubles. Even though Europeans and the Americans are better than us in terms of fitness and leg strength. That’s why it takes 30-35 years for someone from India to rise up in this field. We will catch up soon. Our levels of fitness have increased and so has quality of tennis in the country. ”

Does an occasional loss like the one at the Qatar Open bog her down? “As athletes, we are accustomed to taking losses in our stride. One has to move on. There is always a next time. That’s the only way you can recover and come back.”

Sania in Coimbatore

It isn’t easy being a woman sportswoman in India, she says. “As women, we go through so many hurdles. There are always the questions of when you are going to stop; you will be dark if you play sports; no one will marry you; and so on. But, you go on. We have to go past all these cultural hurdles.”

What about her dreams for the Olympics? “In tennis, you do not have the luxury to prepare for an event in advance. It is very competitive and takes place 30 weeks a year.” All she can think of now is the French Open. She is at the best stage of her career. “I am looking forward to keeping this high. The French Open is going to be a tough turf for us. Martina and I will have to work out some strategies and pick up from where we left off.”

“It’s not every day that you get to see Sania Mirza,” smiles an excited R. Atchaya, a third year engineering student at Sri Shakthi Institute of Engineering and Technology. Atchaya, a sportsperson herself, is excited to meet the woman she reveres. Many like her are waiting to get a glimpse of the favourite tennis star. Teachers, draping their sari pallus over their heads, are also squatting on the lawns in the hot sun. “We knew about Sania’s visit two days ago. Since then, there has been a buzz of excitement in the college,” says Srividya Raghavendran, a teacher.

The star was invited by the college to inaugurate the new tennis court. Coimbatore is not new turf for Sania. She was here 15 years ago for a junior tournament. The city has changed quite a lot, she says. “But the people here are warm as ever. Even though I have not been able to get out much, the experience has been pleasant. It’s always nice to come to a place that you visited a long time ago.”

The college has always encouraged its students to take part in sports activities, says S. Thangavelu, the college trustee and chairman. They hold cricket, jeep driving, horse riding, and ball badminton tournaments! “And that’s why we wanted a person like her to be here today. She has given us some proud moments,” he says.

“Sania will arrive in a few minutes,” the compere announces. Suddenly, the crowd plunges into silence. Students rush to the grounds to see her, while a few try to control the crowd. “Be disciplined. Stay in your positions,” the teacher announces through the mike. No. It’s not her. Students sigh in chorus. We go back to sipping water from our bottles.

Dhanush Kumar and his friends get their cameras ready to click a snap with the celebrity. She is a true icon, says Dhanush. “She does not use family or her gender as an excuse to not excel in sports. I admire that.”

After another series of false alarms and finally the compere announces. “Our chief guest has arrived!” And, there she was. Sania, dressed in a pink jacket, denim jeans and sporting glares. She waves to the students, who roar in delight. Will she say a few words to inspire them? They look up expectantly. But no. Within minutes, she rushes off to her air-conditioned car, with students and journalists trailing behind her.




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Printable version | Jun 6, 2021 10:33:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/On-a-winning-spree/article14136712.ece

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