Marriages can be tightropes at the best of times, but for Sania Mirza, her cross-border romance and subsequent wedding to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik was turned into such a kerfuffle in 2010, that the slightest veering away from tennis talk had become a highwire walk for her.
But perched on the peak of world rankings in doubles and shepherding youngsters along as captain of the Fed Cup team in the Asia/Oceania Group II campaign in her hometown Hyderabad, the freshly minted World No. 1 jogged back her memory to her marriage from five years ago.
“In 2010 I thought my career was over after the wrist injury. I couldn’t even comb my hair or lift a thing. Playing tennis was out of the question. One of the best decisions I took back then was to get married,” she declared, when asked about some of the most crucial calls she took in her life that helped her on way to attaining the No. 1 pinnacle. “It took my mind off tennis,” she explained.
Time to restart
Six months later sitting at her Dubai home, Malik would goad her to resume playing again. “My racquets were in the basement somewhere, I hadn’t touched them for months and didn’t want to even look at them. But Shoaib said I should restart. I was still No. 70 in the world, so I went to Wimbledon, won a couple of rounds, suddenly the wrist started feeling better and I was back,” she recalls.
The other big decision was of course switching to doubles. “Three surgeries in 7-8 years. It was a straight choice between not playing tennis at all or moving to doubles. I’m glad I did,” she added.
“So, does the credit for No. 1 go to your husband?” – the tightrope trap again. Not side-stepping, Sania would be forthright as ever: “I give credit to everyone in my life who’s supported me, and yes, to my husband too.”
Just before Sania would field questions from a packed room of scribes, Pakistan’s senior tennis statesman and Davis Cup-Fed Cup coach for years, Inam ul Haq would talk about how Pakistan was profoundly proud of Sania, just as much as India was reveling in her achievement.
“Everyday in Pakistan when she plays, there is her photograph in newspapers. Even if she loses in first round, we want to know just as much as when she wins Grand Slam titles,” he says. “Her reaching No. 1 is such a strong message going out to girls in both India and Pakistan that they can achieve anything if they work hard,” he adds.
Haq first saw the youngster in 1998 as a u-14 player hitting monstrous forehands in a Lahore tournament. His son was the same batch of u-14s. “She never gave up. Tried fighting after every ball. Down 0-5 in final set, 0-30 and she would still be hitting winners and turn things around. Everybody in Pakistan was impressed and in recent years inspired by her,” he says.
Haq had carried a stickful of news clippings, which were not allowed past immigration, but the man who is helping out the new generation in Pakistan says that Sania’s achievement will resonate across the world. “Not just our tennis girls, the women’s cricket team, football team, everyone will be inspired such is her story of beating the odds like anyone in the subcontinent needs to,” he adds.
“Yes, she is your beti and our bahu and Bhabhi,” he chuckles, adding, “But there are almost 57 Islamic countries, and there are women players from Morocco, Turkey and Indonesia trying to do well and to whom she will be an immense inspiration. Frankly, she’s a role model for every girl anywhere in the world,” he summed up.
The Indo-Pak sports couple have exchanged gushing messages on twitter post the elevation to No. 1, but on the sidelines of the Fed Cup even as Sania opened up on matters of marriage, she reiterated her commitment to the sport that brought her all the success. “There’s never enough of wins. If Roger Federer can keep playing, everyone should try and aim for more. So, yes, I want to win some more Slams,” she would say — her personal and professional life suddenly not seeming like that much of a tough tightrope. There was no fear of falling, even at the summit of rankings success.