“You don’t lead in a partnership,” says Sania Mirza. It’s a statement delivered calmly, with the hint of a smile. But the message is forceful – you can tell in the unblinking stare of her eyes.
“You are equal on the team,” she adds, with equal intent. It’s not just words, but a mindset that Mirza follows.
There’s a tradition when it comes to Indian doubles, that one player would lead only for the partner to play second fiddle. Back in the glory days of the dominating Lee-Hesh duo, Leander Paes was seen as the one in charge, while Mahesh Bhupathi – a man of equal calibre – followed. Bhupathi then took command when he teamed up with Rohan Bopanna years later.
Mirza believes in altering that tradition. In being a renegade to the concept, and rightfully so. For, she has found a measure of success in her charge towards parity when partnering Barbora Strycova.
In her long and fruitful partnership with Martina Hingis, Mirza always saw herself as an equal to the former world number one. An un-awed artist, commanding the baseline with bludgeoning forehand strokes that supported Hingis’ duties at the net, Mirza fancied herself an equal on all counts. It was that audacious confidence – unmindful of Hingis’ reputation and superiority as a singles player, which makes Mirza set the terms of a partnership, with conviction.
“The respect needs to be there. Then it comes to who’s playing better on the given day, or who is playing worse, and the other person is trying to help. That’s how a partnership is formed, and that’s how good partnerships last for a very long time,” she continues.
As it turned out, the Indian style of partnering often led to ego clashes. Pairs that would have taken the tennis world by storm, and earned millions in the process, fell into disarray. Mirza, meanwhile, has always been one for parity in importance.
At the same time, she holds strong opinions about the women’s game being touted inferior to the men’s event.
In a recent interview, world number two Serena Williams asserted that she would have been considered a great in the sport years ago had she been a man.
“We always have a tag. Say a Martina Navratilova for example, why is she considered only the best women’s tennis player? I think she’s one of the best tennis players ever,” says Mirza of the 59-time Grand Slam winner (18 singles, 31 women’s doubles and 10 mixed doubles). “Do I think Serena is one of the best players, man or woman, to have played tennis? Of course, and everybody (players) thinks so too.”
Williams, so far, has equalled Steffi Graf’s record of most number of singles Grand Slams titles, 22.
Meanwhile Mirza, has ended 2016 by topping the world doubles rankings for a second year in a row.
There was a split with Hingis shortly after the Olympics, and the 30-year-old teamed up with Barbora Strycova to compete in the doubles events.
It’s a partnership she looks to herald for the long term despite the Czech player holding commitments to the singles game, where she is ranked 20th in the world.
Mirza is certain though that her partner will not compromise on the doubles game. “We are honest to each other. I don’t think she is going to focus more on singles than on doubles, which is why are in that partnership. The commitment,” she says.
Given her greater experience on the doubles circuit, Mirza might have claimed the right to be the leader of the duo.
That’s not how she plays though. It never has been. You can tell by how she glares down and beats back the question of who will be the dominant partner.