Queen of the court: the trailblazer who never backed down

Sania Mirza. File

Sania Mirza. File | Photo Credit: Getty Images

A month ago, when Sania Mirza announced that she would be walking away from tennis at the end of the season, it brought a tinge of sadness.

“My body is wearing down,” she said, after losing her first-round doubles match at the Australian Open. “For me to find that motivation every day to come out, the energy is not the same anymore.” The court, her home since the age of six, where she seemed free and full of expression, had turned unwelcoming. The fierce competitiveness that had sustained her all through had dissipated.

It took a while for the news to sink in, but once it did, it was time to celebrate her. Sania is no ordinary champion. Her career is like a great publisher’s splendid backlist, peppered with glorious titles. She is the first Indian woman to win a Grand Slam trophy and the first to reach No. 1 (both in doubles). She is the first Indian to win a WTA title and peaked at No. 27 in singles, the best for an Indian woman.

Sania featured in the singles’ top-32 for a large portion of a four-year period (2005-08); and for the next four years (until 2012), her top ranking each year did not dip below No. 97.

Sania Mirza at the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) in Manila, 2015. File

Sania Mirza at the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) in Manila, 2015. File | Photo Credit: Anadolu Agency

There was her successful return to competitive tennis after motherhood and a central role in inspiring all women to be successful on their own terms.

“She put Indian women’s tennis on the world map,” says Ankita Bhambri, Sania’s peer, teammate and most recently a coach in India’s Fed Cup team. “She made feel possible what seemed unattainable. We didn’t really believe we could make a career out of tennis and go far. She has definitely shown everyone the way and the path.”

When Sania turned pro in 2003, power was taking hold in women’s tennis. Racquet and string technology were advancing and the Williams sisters — Venus and Serena — had changed the game, with their strength, serve and all-round shot-making.

Sania wasn’t as athletic. She didn’t have a big serve either. What she had was a fearsome forehand, which she swung hard and well. It carried her to the third round of the Australian Open in 2005, on her Slam debut in singles.

The same year, she made it to the fourth round of the US Open, which to this day remains the best run at a Major by an Indian singles player since Ramesh Krishnan reached the quarterfinals at the 1987 US Open. Between February 2005 and September 2006, she earned three top-ten wins, against Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova and Martina Hingis.

“She had that great capacity to raise her game and be really bold when it mattered,” says noted coach and former player Nandan Bal. “That’s been her hallmark. I did a bit of travelling with her at the under-14 level to Europe. I was with the boys’ team and the girls were there too. Even at that age, she would never hold back.

“You could be very sure that when the match got tight, like a final set tie-breaker or a super tie-breaker, Sania would go for the lines. That’s a great takeaway for the next gen. You become a great champion by playing a bold brand of tennis.

“It’s easy to say if she had been fitter, had a better backhand, she could have gone a long way,” Bal went on. “Fair enough. But she had a big heart. Look at even [Rafael] Nadal… everyone has flaws. But you make up for those with sheer big heart. That’s what makes champions.”

While in singles she hit highs no Indian has in the last three decades, it was in doubles that she reached the pinnacle. An accomplished doubles player well before she gave up singles in mid-2012 due to a persistent wrist injury, she won the mixed doubles crown at the Australian Open with Mahesh Bhupathi in 2009 and the duo repeated the feat in 2012 at the French Open. She was a losing finalist in mixed doubles at the 2008 Australian Open and in doubles at the 2011 French Open.

But once she decided to solely focus on doubles, she took flight and the acme was her partnership with Hingis. They teamed up in March 2015, Hingis’ solid backhand and net game well-complemented by Sania’s forehand excellence. Three tournaments into the partnership, Sania had got to No. 1 and she would remain there for 91 weeks.

That year, the duo won two of four Grand Slams and three of four Premier Mandatory tournaments. With Hingis, Sania also won the WTA year-ender, defending the title she had secured in 2014 with Cara Black.

In the new year, they conquered Melbourne too. Their winning streak lasted 41 matches, an incredible achievement in a format as fickle as doubles — a cacophony of short points and quick reflexes with very little margin for error, where trust, empathy and forgiveness for your partner are essential traits.

Ankita Raina, the current India No. 1 in singles and No. 2 in doubles, experienced this first-hand, playing and training alongside Sania while representing the country at the Fed Cup and Olympics.

“Training sessions are always fun with Sania as well as challenging,” she says. “I wanted to hit forehands at the speed which she hits at. But to do that continuously and consistently was intense. What I picked up was how relaxed and positive she used to be, even if she wasn’t feeling it [the ball] on a particular day. She would always keep the atmosphere light, which not a lot of players can.”

Another of Sania’s great influences has been in catalysing participation. Role-model effect in professional sport is quite limited. Michael Chang, a Chinese-American, inspired Kei Nishikori of Japan. Chinese players Wang Xinyu, 20, and Zheng Qinwen, 19, both of whom idolised Li Na, have broken into the WTA top-100 in the last three months.

But Paradorn Srichapan, the first Asian to be ranked in the ATP top-10 (2003), and Tamarine Tanasugarn, ranked as high as No. 19 (2002), haven’t quite had the same effect on Thailand’s tennis scene. However, all these champions have stoked interest.

“To have a role model from your country in the same sport always helps,” says Ankita Raina. “When I started competing in the junior category, Sania was India No. 1. I always wanted to be that. When she was back after giving birth to Izhaan, it was so inspiring not just for me but for so many women.”

Bal, who is based in Pune, Maharashtra, a region with a rich recent history of hosting women’s tournaments, believes the base has widened. “Look at all the girls from Ankita down… Karman [Kaur Thandi], Zeel Desai, so many of them. We never had so many trying to make it internationally.

“The other day I was looking at Shruti Ahlawat. She is barely 15 but the way she carried herself on court, with such immense self-belief… ‘If Sania could do this, why can’t we?’ That’s the feeling now.”

Ankita Bhambri feels this has been possible because of the positive effect Sania has had on parents. “A lot of parents started believing that this dream was possible. After all, it’s the parents who take their children to the courts in their early years. When that happens, you see more and more players.”

Not a lot of these successes can be quantified, and in an era where standards of excellence have been set at 20 or more Grand Slam titles, there is every chance of fans assessing Sania, even with her 43 career doubles titles, through such a blinkered lens. But a player of unrealised potential, she certainly isn’t.

“Didn’t she also win six Slams? That’s not less,” says Bal. “Forget a Slam, forget a Tour title. Just to win a match is so difficult. We should celebrate her as someone who had more guts than any player we have known. She stood up, traded blows with the best in the world and came out successful.”

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2022 5:11:08 am |