Updated: January 20, 2022 7:27:19 pm
By the summer of 2001, when Sania Mirza made her first foray into the senior tour, there were just two Indian women who had made a mark on the international tennis scene. There was Nirupama Mankad, who partnered Anand Amritraj to the second round of the 1971 Wimbledon mixed doubles draw. In 1998, Nirupama Vaidyanathan (later Sanjeev) reached the second round in singles at the Australian Open.
Reaching the second round of a Grand Slam was the yardstick – a tough one to follow for Indians, it would seem – that Mirza had to cross. She first started playing on the International Tennis Federation’s Futures circuit in 2001, when she was still 14. Before her 20th birthday, she had already crossed the mark set by the two Nirupamas, and later raised the bar to astronomical heights – becoming a World No 1 doubles player no less.
The 2022 season, she announced on Wednesday, will be the last of her glittering career that has lasted 21 years.
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A few months after her 18th birthday, she became the first Indian woman to win a WTA title in singles, winning the event in her hometown Hyderabad in 2005. Soon she’d start to rocket up the singles ranking ladder and become the first to break the top 100, reaching a career high 27 in August 2007. Till date, in the Open Era that remains the third highest ranking ever attained by an Indian – behind Vijay Amritraj (18) and Ramesh Krishnan (23).
Along the way she’s beaten players of the calibre of former World No 1 Martina Hingis, Svetlana Kuznetsova (former No 2) and Nadia Petrova (former No 3).
Injuries did start mounting as her career progressed – she had undergone five surgeries, two to the right wrist and three to the knee by 2011, when she was 25. It’s the reason she decided to start focusing on doubles in 2012 – the last singles event she played was at Eastbourne, UK in 2012.
By that time though, she was already a two-time Grand Slam champion, winning the 2009 Australian Open and 2012 French Open in mixed doubles, both with compatriot Mahesh Bhupathi. In 2014 she’d add another mixed doubles title at the US Open with Brazil’s Bruno Soares.
And then she’d form the formidable partnership with Hingis – a team popularly called ‘Santina’ – in 2015. The Indo-Swiss duo went on to win 14 titles together, including the 2015 Wimbledon and US Open, and 2016 Australian Open.
In all, Mirza has won 43 doubles and one singles titles. She’s also been the recipient of the Arjuna Award, the WTA Newcomer of the Year (2005), Khel Ratna, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan.
Mirza was never going to be a player stuck playing on the national circuit. In 2001, she started playing on the ITF circuit in India. A year later, at 15, she had won three singles and one doubles Future titles. The titles started to snowball with every passing year, as her rapidly rising rank allowed her to compete at higher events. While still a teen, she had well and truly become a star international player, especially with the playing style that she had.
The ‘moonball’ game – a lob played to break momentum when the opponent is still at the baseline – had been a prominent style for Indian women at the time. Mirza broke that convention.
“I remember seeing her for the first time when she was maybe 14. She had that ripping forehand,” says Bhupathi.
Mirza played a hard-hitting brand of tennis. The forehand was powerful, the two-handed backhand was a touch slower but by no means an ineffective shot. Here was an Indian player potent on both flanks with the mindset to go for the kill from the get-go. She’d strike the ball with venom into corners and remain unfazed in doing so.
“Many players (from India) will go into a shell after a few unforced errors, but Sania would continue hammering the ball the way she wanted,” says Billie Jean King Cup captain Vishal Uppal.
It’s a style that has remained unchanged through the 21 years.
It’s well documented that the players that have emerged from India have done so despite the system. There has been no keen support from the All India Tennis Association (AITA), and Mirza’s rise too has been no different. Her father Imran, a builder by profession, spearheaded her grooming in the sport. On the way she did receive support and guidance from Bhupathi, and a keen sponsor in GVK Industries. But her career has essentially been a product of family funding and sacrifice.
The Billie Jean King Cup has been out of reach for Mirza despite the team reaching the World Group Playoffs for the first time ever in 2021. To conquer that event, a team needs a great depth of star players, and Mirza, till now, has been the only Indian woman to have fit the billing.
In the women’s doubles at the Olympics too it was a task too hard to ask for. She played in four different Games, from Beijing 2008 to Tokyo 2020, taking with her different women’s doubles partners at each event – Sunitha Rao, Rushmi Chakravarthi, Prarthana Thombare and Ankita Raina respectively. But could only win one match. Her best chance for a medal lay in mixed doubles. The closest she got though, was in Rio.
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Paired with Rohan Bopanna, she was a set away from securing a medal when she played the semi-final against Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram. The Indians won the first set 6-2, only for the Americans to turn on the afterburners in the second and super tie break third set. They then lost in straight sets to the Czech team in the bronze playoff.
One of the most quotable and articulate athletes from India, Mirza has never shied away from calling spade a spade. For the past few years, she’s been vocal about the role she’s played in being a mother and a working professional.
After giving birth to a baby boy in 2018, she did the hard yards to get back into shape and made a return to the tour in 2020 – winning the first event she played, in Hobart.
“The part of the world that I come from, having a baby is like the end of the world,” she had said after the win. “The woman is just supposed to give up and take care of the child. I just feel that even if this inspires one woman to follow your dream and do something that she loves, I feel extremely privileged in this position.”
On Wednesday, she reiterated that she continues to take her responsibility as a role model for working mothers seriously.
“I’ve worked very hard to come back, get fit, lose weight and try to set a good example for mothers, new mothers to follow their dreams as much as they can,” she said.
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