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Saturday, May 28, 2022

Sania Mirza signals end to pioneering journey

India’s greatest women’s tennis player says 2022 will be her last season on tour.

Written by Shahid Judge | Mumbai |
Updated: January 20, 2022 3:42:16 pm
Sania Mirza is a former doubles world number one. (File)

In a posh Mumbai hotel in December 2016, Sania Mirza spoke, with a smile on her face and an unblinking stare, about how there should be no leader in a successful doubles partnership. This was just a few months after the famous ‘Santina’ team – of Martina Hingis and Mirza – had separated. But the Indian made it clear that despite Hingis’ seniority, both played on equal terms.

“You don’t lead in a partnership, you are equal on the team,” she had said, making it clear that she will not be led.

In many ways, it’s a statement that has defined Mirza’s career. She is the trailblazer who set the path to the top of her sport for generations of Indian women to follow. She’s played her tennis – free-flowing, hard-hitting, unfazed – her way. Now the 35-year-old has decided that the end of this season will mark the end of her playing career. And she will do it on her terms.

Following her opening round loss at the Australian Open on Wednesday, Mirza made the announcement.

“I do feel my recovery is taking longer, I’m putting my 3-year-old son at risk by travelling so much with him, that’s something I have to take into account. I think my body is wearing down,” she said after her match.

“Also, for me to find that motivation every day to come out, the energy is not the same anymore. There are more days than there used to be where I don’t feel like doing that…

“Having said that, I still want to play the season because I’m enjoying it enough to play the year. 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. Beyond this season, I don’t feel my body doing it. It’s beat.”

The body has faced severe niggles – often needing surgery – over the years but Mirza would simply not go away. She’d take a break, get back on court again and start edging her way back to the top. From 2017, she spent a good chunk of time away from the game, nursing an injury and then finally returning to the tour in 2020 after childbirth – winning her first tournament back in Hobart.

She’s climbed back to as high as 68th in the world in doubles, but now she will play simply for the joy of the sport rather than engaging in the grind. And deservedly so. For, now is the time her career will be celebrated for all that she’s achieved.

Long list of achievements

A six-time Grand Slam champion, 43-time tour winner, the first Indian woman and third from the country to be the World No. 1 doubles player, the only Indian woman to break into the top 30 in singles, and a two-time Asian Games gold medallist. These are the stats that top the list of achievements, but one could already tell that Mirza was destined for big things when she was still a teenager.

“The first time I really interacted with her was when she was 15, at the 2002 Asian Games,” recalls India’s Billie Jean King Cup captain Vishal Uppal. “She had this attitude, this tenacity in the way she played. This feisty and aggressive approach. Many players will go into a shell after a few unforced errors, but Sania would continue hammering the ball the way she wanted.”

It’s a style – previously unseen from an Indian women’s player – that saw her challenge and beat the best in the world – the likes of Hingis (former singles No. 1) Svetlana Kuznetsova (former No. 2) and former No. 3 Nadia Petrova were scalps she picked up in 2006 alone. A year later, she’d reach her career high of No. 27 in the world.

At that stage, she had already become the first Indian to win a tour title, winning the WTA event in her hometown Hyderabad in 2005. But for a player of her calibre, Grand Slam titles beckoned. Come the 2009 Australian Open, she was ready to break the duck.

“The previous year we lost in the final. (In 2009) she was ready to break through and win her first,” says Mahesh Bhupathi, who partnered Mirza to her first Major title. “She’s won six now, so she’s leaving quite a legacy. She will be remembered as the greatest women’s tennis player India has ever produced.”

Uppal adds: “She’s set the bar for women’s players from India. Younger generations will now have someone to try to match, and do better than.”

She’s set the standard, but didn’t have anybody’s shoes to fill herself. A benchmark hadn’t been set, and her rise was left to her own devices. There was no Indian woman to have won more than a round in singles at a Grand Slam, nobody had broken into the top 100. Nobody had won a tour title. Mirza did it all before her 20th birthday.

But just like the success, controversies followed her. Marrying Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik too prompted some to voice their opinions.

Yet through the turbulence, she stayed determined to excel.

“Sania was always focused about what she wanted to do when it came to tennis,” Bhupathi says. “She did an amazing job of blocking the noise around and focused on getting to the top, which she was able to do. With such discipline, will power and focus, there’s not much that can stop you from doing what you want to do.”

She first appeared on the ITF Futures tour in 2001. Now, 21 years later, Mirza, who refused to be led, now leaves a legacy for many to follow.

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