She is the best thing to have happened in women’s tennis in India, yet her game has never found the recognition it deserves. How does Sania Mirza cope with the controversies that take the spotlight away from what she does best?
Twelve years ago, it had taken Krishna Bhupathi less than 45 minutes to realise that Sania Mirza was the undisputed owner of India’s most outstanding forehand in tennis. Not long after he’d shepherded son Mahesh’s career, Bhupathi Sr’s keen eye had spotted this wicked weapon in another prodigy — a shot that could be hit clean and accurate on any surface. What he was unprepared for, though, was how, by the end of that first training session in Hyderabad, Mirza, then a 14-year-old, had ended up on backslapping terms with him. Their 40-year age gap had gotten scrambled as he realised that neither was the teenager’s forehand dainty, nor would her demeanour ever aim for demure. At a press conference in 2005-’06, he remembers Mirza fielding questions and then walking off when she was done, leaving behind a dais full of startled celebrities, including a southern superstar. “That day, I knew this girl was something else,” he says, with a touch of pride.
India’s biggest name in women’s tennis started this week winning the World Tennis Association (WTA) Doubles final with Cara Black in Singapore. Five titles on the Tour this year, a Grand Slam win at the US Open, an Asian Games gold, Sania Mirza will be realistically India’s biggest hope for an Olympic medal in tennis at Rio De Janeiro two years from now.
Yet, for all that she’s achieved in this last decade — and no other Indian girl has since — there has been grudging acknowledgment in India of her achievements. She has been judged severely for binning her singles career and settling into the easier rhythm of the doubles circuit, and is rarely accorded the same seriousness as Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. She has faced fierce personal scrutiny and her nationalism has been questioned time and again. Mirza gets through it all, quietly believing what she always has: that she is world-class. “A lot of times you need to believe you belong there, with the world’s best. I’ve been pretty confident all my life, though in school, I hated being the one to ask questions,” says the 27-year-old with a chuckle.
Far too often in her career, she’s been accused of being too arrogant to qualify as a popular champion. It is as if her critics expect her to go bulldozing winners on the court one moment, and turn into a docile creature the very next, when she steps off the court. “In our part of the world, when kids are supremely confident, they are labelled arrogant. If you don’t bend down to what everyone says, it’s considered to be bad attitude. Coaches discourage self-confidence in kids, and that hampers them when they have to stand on the court and match strokes with the big players,” Mirza says. Any tennis pro will tell you that humility and politeness are all very good, but best left behind in the locker room. “Confidence is very important in tennis, more so in mixed doubles. One has to be able to hold one’s ground. Sania’s unafraid and doesn’t back off. That attitude is great,” says Romanian Horia Tecau, who partnered Mirza at the Australian Open final earlier this year. Tecau says Mirza’s steely nerves come in to play at crucial moments in the match — something that was apparent even when he squared off against her and Mahesh Bhupathi at Melbourne two seasons ago.
Born in Mumbai, Mirza grew up in Hyderabad, where she took up tennis when she was six years old. She was not content being just a many-time national champion at the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association and aimed higher to find a place on the international stage, even if she had few role models. “Ten years before I started, there was Nirupama (Vaidyanathan). Then I started playing well, and suddenly went from Number 200 to 31 in the world, and no one expected that. After that, for so many years, I have moved from one Slam to the next in doubles, I don’t think of it as something unique. But it gets lonely since there’s no other Indian girl out there,” she says. It’s her way of seeing what should be apparent to Indian followers of the game — it’s been Sania Mirza and no one after her.
Why then has controversy hijacked all discussion about her talent? Clerics have pronounced her outfits on court to be too short, prudes have opined that she was corrupting young minds by speaking on the importance of safe sex. She has been slammed for her decision to not wear a sari at an opening ceremony when she had been training for an upcoming match only hours ago. There were attacks on her patriotism when a photograph showed her sitting with her feet up on a table, with a national flag in the foreground. Most recently, she was declared unfit to be Telangana’s brand ambassador because she is married to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik.
If you happen to drift lower towards the comments sections of online articles on Mirza, you will find paw-marks of trolls dishing out sexist, communal and largely feudal comments on a woman who plays her sport really well. “I came at a time when there was no girl in any sport and the last icon was (sprinter) PT Usha. People were shocked and surprised to see me, but I guess it was boring to speak about just the forehand and my serve. Some of the controversies were so pointless. At 18, you are supposed to know how to party or bunk college, not how to be politically correct. But I’m calmer now while handling such things,” she says.
Mirza has never been known to mince her words, and nowhere was it more apparent than at the time of London Olympics 2012 when she spoke out against being thrown around like a bait. In order to placate Leander Paes, who couldn’t resolve his men’s doubles partnership for the Games, the Indian tennis federation promised him an assured mixed doubles pairing with Mirza, without bothering to check with her. She ruffled quite a few feathers in protesting, but Mirza was only being her frank self. “As a child, I always used to strike the ball hard, flat and fast. Harder than the guys,” she says. “I used to lose a lot, but my parents told me it was okay, so I continued without allowing any self-doubt to creep into my game. Many coaches would try and tone it down, because people were not used to it. I was stubborn though,” she says.
Whether it’s rabble-rousers or pedantic coaches reading her the riot act if she refused to play safe, Mirza could parry their offensives with the same conviction. “I see these people as distractions to steer clear of. Sometimes, after everything an athlete does, they’ll still say, she’s only Number 5, not Number 1. I wonder why they can’t see how tough it is! But it says a lot about them, not me,” she says.
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Not everyone sniggered at her non-conformism though. When she took the court in stylish sports gear, junking the boxy shorts and baggy T-shirts her colleagues preferred, many fans cheered for a spunky star who refused to be an also-ran. On court, Krishna Bhupathi remembers the great demand for tickets to Mirza’s matches in 2005 in Dubai among expats. It outnumbered those for the top-seeded Serena Williams’ matches. The same year, the British press would go crazy when she would smack the ball hard against Svetlana Kuznetsova at Wimbledon, and Enrico Piperno, India’s long-time Fed Cup coach, recalls staring in wonder as she pelted winners on both flanks against Li Na at the Doha Asiad in 2006, blowing the Chinese away. She had the guts to go for the winners, but didn’t have the speed, says Bhupathi. “She had flair, but needed to work on other things. The service never happened in a big way.
Though I was disappointed that her singles career didn’t work out, I’m happy she’s doing well in doubles,” he says.
Great forehand, a decent backhand, poor service and no volley — that’s where Sania’s game stood when she woke up one day, wracked by unbearable pain.
In one of her last singles tournaments at Brussels in 2012, Mirza would beat three Top 100 players. And wake up the next morning with painful swollen knees. “I am double-jointed and suffer from hyperlaxity, a genetic problem not many are aware of. It causes chronic pain and my joints are vulnerable to freak injuries. It’s like having arthritis in your teens,” says Mirza.
Hyper-laxity affects athletes the worst when going through rapid growth spurts, and since it wasn’t detected earlier in her case, the pain ended up being severe. “People kept saying she should have done this or that, but they refused to understand that my body had its limitations,” she says. It was a tough decision to switch to doubles. “I had to make the right call, and now that it’s working, I can say it was the right thing to do. But I miss playing singles, I could easily be in the Top 100,” she says.
She remembers the nightmarish 2008 Australian Open doubles finals, where she teamed up with Mahesh Bhupathi, and lost the match. Loaded with painkillers, Mirza had wondered aloud to her apprehensive partner if she’d ever be able to play another final. A year later, she would win the same tournament with him. “I’ll never forget that feeling. Mahesh had managed my career when I was young. It was almost like winning with family,” she says.
Mirza’s proficiency as a doubles player is an established fact now, with 2014 being a standout year. Bruno Soares, 32, a doubles specialist from Brazil, has no qualms in admitting that it was Mirza, playing on the deuce court, who guided him through the tense moments of the US Open final thriller they won this year. “She’s very positive, and when she wrote to me asking if we could pair up, the decision was easy. Her game is all-rounded, her solid returns and big forehands are reassuring when I am standing at the net. She has a smart understanding of the game, but, most importantly, she can carry a team along. Whenever my game is down, she is standing there confidently and playing her best. Even when she’s not at her best, she is never rattled. The opposition struggles to find faults with her game or to pick on her as the weak link,” he says.
While Mirza is yet to claim a women’s doubles Slam, the year-ending WTA finals is encouraging, given how she is playing the crucial points. That someone could comment on her worthiness to be Telengana’s brand ambassador and reduce her to tears deserved a whiplash retort and Mirza delivered that with the US Open win. But it was a delectable volley she chose: a wry declaration immediately after she lifted the trophy: “Still a proud Indian, I guess.”
It shouldn’t have needed reiterating, not after she’s picked six gold medals, four silvers and four bronze for the country across Afro-Asian, Asian and Commonwealth Games. Not after the tiny Indian flag continues to appear next to her name whenever she wins a Grand Slam final (thrice) or plays in one (thrice).
It’s been an eventful year for Mirza. In the last few months, she’s wielded a broom to clean Hyderabad’s streets for a cleanliness drive, and a week later, wielded magic with her racquet in Singapore. She’s played at the Asiad and won medals. In between, she’s found time for a trip to the Taj Mahal and to take a turn on the fashion ramp in Delhi. Off the court, she is witty and informed. Her Twitter account (2.07 million followers), with its mix of Disney quotes and Adele’s lyrics, Emma Watson’s inspiring speech at the UN and some moving dialogues from the hit TV series Grey’s Anatomy, is a trawl through a young woman’s mind. It’s how she finds articulation for painful injuries and heartbreaking losses. “I love Meredith’s (the central character in the series) lines. I am a bit of a romantic too,” she says with a smile. A pause later, she feels the need to reiterate: “I am thoughtful, you know. Though it’s hard for people to believe it!”