Like most, the pandemic-induced lockdown has caused a great deal of anxiety for Sania Mirza. But it isn’t just the unknown nature of the virus or being confined indoors that makes the tennis star uneasy. In her case, it is also the fact that her family is separated: Sania and her child Izhaan in Hyderabad, India, and her husband, cricketer Shoaib Malik, in Sialkot, Pakistan.
Sania, who returned to the tennis court in January after two years, was travelling non-stop for tournaments, escaping the virus along the way, and returned home from the USA just before the lockdown was imposed. Malik was competing in the Pakistan Super League when similar measures were enforced there.
“So he got stuck in Pakistan, I got stuck here. That was very difficult to deal with because we have a small child. We don’t know when Izhaan will be able to see his father again. It’s as basic as that,” Sania said in a conversation with The Indian Express on Facebook Live. “We are both pretty positive and practical people. He has a mother who is over 65 and by herself, so he needs to be there. So in the end, it worked out best that he was there with her. We hope we are healthy and come out of this on the right side of it.”
It’s one of the many emotions Sania is experiencing simultaneously. Tennis, at the moment, does not occupy prime space in her mind. “I don’t have anxiety problems but a couple of nights ago, I was having anxiety out of nothing. I was lying in bed and thinking of things because there’s so much uncertainty. Having a toddler in the house, you don’t know how to protect yourself, how to protect your child, you have parents who are older. So, you are not really thinking about work or tennis,” she said.
It’s about survival, she adds. The plight of migrant workers, among the most affected during the lockdown, ‘breaks her heart.’ She’s been raising funds and doing zakat (charity), this being the month of Ramzan. But Sania isn’t sure if even that is enough to help those in need. “It’s almost like you feel guilty to be in a privileged position when you see videos of them,” she says.
On Friday morning, Sania saw a picture of a ‘mother carrying a child on her shoulder while dragging a suitcase, and having another child on the suitcase.’ “It’s heart-wrenching. I really do feel for those who go on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis financially. The daily wagers…” she said. “Fortunately, a lot of us are in a privileged position and are able to help. I personally have reacted by trying to help. We raised Rs 3.3 crore, if I am not wrong, in a period of three weeks with a movement called Youth Feed India. But our population is so large that it’s difficult to say what we all are doing is enough.”
The situation of tennis players ranked outside the 200-250 mark also bothers her. Especially because she is convinced tennis will be one of the last sports to resume when the situation worldwide gets better.
Sania felt the initial impact of the coronavirus pandemic on tennis when she was playing the Fed Cup in the first week of March in Dubai. “One day we would have ball boys, the next day we wouldn’t, because of the virus, and it was not hygienic. When we had ball kids, they were not allowed to give us a towel or do certain things. Then suddenly, we had no linesmen… we’re experiencing it (the impact) as we were going,” she said.
Hours after leading India into the Fed Cup playoffs, Sania hopped on a flight to California to play the Indian Wells Masters. However, by the time she reached, the tournament was called off due to the virus. Since then, no competitive event has taken place and the Tokyo Olympics, one of her biggest motivations to return to tennis post-motherhood, were postponed by a year.
“It’s very, very tough for the athletes. Imagine (the condition of) runners who were supposed to be peaking this year for the Olympics. A lot of athletes try to peak for the Olympics. For tennis, we have Grand Slams, other tournaments, so many things to look forward to. There are so many sports where they have only one or two things in a year. So, it’s a huge, huge miss,” she said. “A lot of things change because of this. You have to find motivation, who knows what their mental and physical state is going to be. Even for myself.”
Gradually, sports bodies across the world are firming up plans to resume action. On Saturday, live football will return in the form of the German league. However, given the amount of travel involved as well as the fact that players from multiple nations compete in a tournament, Sania said it will be ‘too big a risk’ to restart tennis until the danger subsides, adding that she won’t even open her academy again until she is ‘sure the kids are not at risk’.
“The second you travel, you are compromised. The second you sit on a plane, you are compromised. It’s impossible to have a tournament where you’re going to have 500 players from 100 different countries and nobody is going to have the virus. It’s just too big a risk,” she said.
Uncertain road ahead
Malik, however, may have to travel to England in a couple of months if Pakistan’s tour isn’t called off. Sania said she will ‘definitely be worried because he will be going to the UK, which is highly hit right now.’ However, she feels it will be relatively easier to have control in a team sport like cricket than in tennis.
“When you travel as a team, it is a bit more controlled. They can test them before they leave or take a private jet. They are playing in an extraordinary scenario so you have to take extraordinary measures. I am sure the other team will do that. So, it’s a lot more controlled and in tennis, it is very difficult to do that because it’s not just the player, we all come in a team of four. Will you also test those people? Nobody will be going to a tournament two weeks before, it’s impossible to do that,” she said.
Sport, however, isn’t a priority for her at the moment. Survival, she repeated, is. And reuniting with her family. “We have left it to fate,” she said.
“(But) I am really looking forward to being back as a family again and being at the same place. It’s really not been easy staying away from my husband and for Izhaan to stay away from his father. No amount of virtual video calls can do justice to actually meeting in person. I also look forward to a normal world where hugging and shaking hands become normal again, where we don’t think that we might die if we hug someone we love or kill them, you know.”
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