Sania Mirza is talking about ‘selfless love’. For an athlete, it’s tricky territory. Being a world-class professional demands a certain level of selfishness: block out everything and everyone, focus on your training, your matches, your travel and your recovery.
Being a parent, she realised after the birth of her son Izhaan last October, is quite the opposite. “Suddenly, it’s not about you anymore,” she gasps. Sania sneaks out for training when her son is asleep and gets back before he wakes up. When she is away for work, her mind drifts to a thought that distracts millions of working parents: “What’s my child doing?”
On a comeback trail, the 32-year-old has spent the last one year juggling between being a selfless mom and a selfish athlete. It’s tough, exhausting even. But she hustles on, determined to show women who ‘kill their dreams’ after motherhood, that it needn’t be so.
What’ve your days been like since you’ve returned to full practice?
I start my day around 6.30 or so because after having the baby, I have to manage my time. That is the biggest challenge you face because you have to manage your time according to his timing. So I try to go for practice very early, I try to finish by 9.30-10 so by the time he wakes up, which is around 9-9.30, I can be back. After a 2.5-3 hour practice session, I spend some time with him. Then, there are some days when I do Pilates and some days I do a two-hour gym session. It’s a tough day. I am exhausted. It’s not like before where my only job was to play tennis and train.
Often, as athletes, you’ve got to put yourself first. As a parent, is it tough to balance your needs and your child’s?
The biggest change I’ve had since having Izhaan is that it’s a very selfless kind of love you have with your child while as a tennis player, everything revolves around you. Your training, your warm-up, your cool-down, your recovery. It’s all about what you want to do. And then all of a sudden, it’s not about you anymore. It is challenging, but it’s a very natural process. It just happens by itself which is why it is quite hard not just to play tennis but to work, if you have an office job, right after you have a child. It’s very difficult because there’s so much in the beginning years, when the mother is a lot more involved with the child as opposed to the father. Which is why it is very challenging to find that extra energy, motivation and inspiration.
Mine is not a routine office job. It requires a lot of self-determination and physical hard work. There are many times when he wakes up two-three times in a night. So you’re not actually getting that kind of sleep and rest that you probably need. Most of the times he sleeps with me, so when I start to play matches, one of the things I will have to do — especially on match nights — is he will have to sleep separately because it’s not possible for my body to recover the same way if I’m not getting proper sleep. Those are the things that are quite challenging. Again, it’s a natural sort of process so I’m just dealing with it. It’s a new experience and been a lot of fun and different. But it’s not taking a toll on me yet.
When you are away once you start playing and travelling, you think it might be different?
When I go for my work or endorsements, I do leave him overnight with my mom — he’s very good with her. Thankfully, I have a great team. We call it Team Izhaan, I always joke about it. So for me, it’s been relatively good and he’s easy. The first time I actually went to work, I was in Delhi for a day when he was six weeks old, it was the hardest day I had in years. I couldn’t imagine it would be that difficult. He probably didn’t even notice that I had gone but it took a toll on me.
Now, he’s almost one and he kind of understands when I’m not there. The other night was the first time ever that I went out overnight, to Mumbai I think. I usually speak to him on FaceTime. When I spoke to him that night, it was the first time he looked at the screen and cried because he wasn’t able to hold me or whatever. So I think now the realisation is coming more. The awareness that I’m not there. But it is what it is. At the end of the day, I advocate that as a mother of a child, your life doesn’t end. It doesn’t mean you kill other dreams or whatever you want to do, no matter what you do. It doesn’t make you a bad mother. It’s always the mother’s guilt that people always put you through by saying things like ‘oh my god, how do you leave him’ or whatever… there are so many people saying all kinds of things. With a good support system, you should be able to follow your dreams too. It doesn’t make you a bad mother.
Before she was forced off the court in 2017, Sania was on a scarcely-believable run. Since 2015, she had won 18 titles and reached a dozen other finals that made her the undisputed best in women’s doubles. Her march, though, was abruptly ended by a freak knee injury — jumper’s knee, caused by repetitive stress on the quadriceps tendon — in October 2017.
Year-ending 2017, she was ranked 12th in doubles. And even though she isn’t ranked right now by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), Sania has the cushion of starting where she left after the WTA introduced a rule last year that allows a player returning from pregnancy to use her Special Ranking (the ranking at the time when her break began).
During training, the shots are flowing like they did before. But Sania is waiting to see if it all comes together on the court. She is in awe of Serena Williams, who has shown that she hasn’t lost any of her powers after having a baby. And with former world number 1 Kim Clijsters, a mother of three, announcing a second comeback from retirement, there’s enough inspiration around.
Till a couple of years ago, it seemed tennis was better designed towards fathers making a return than mothers given there were close to two dozen men returning to Tour compared to barely a few women. But next year, you will join a growing brigade of moms who will compete on the professional tour. How do you feel about that?
It’s extremely inspiring. Of course, Serena has done it now but I think Kim was the first one to do it over 10 years ago when she came back and won a Grand Slam. She is making a comeback again. It’s pretty amazing and inspiring to see other women being able to pursue their dreams and keep them going. I have seen most women, especially athletes, most people used to retire and have kids. That was kind of a norm. And it’s obviously changed in the last few years.
Now that you’re back on court practising daily, how do you feel about your game?
I still have two-and-a-half months before I have to compete. It’s (the game) pretty close. But no matter how much you train, there’s nothing like match practice. If I feel at any point that it’s too hard to manage, I’m going to have to take decisions then and there. Right now, I do think I have tennis left in me.
Is that why you are making a comeback, because you feel there’s something more left to offer?
The simple fact is that I really miss competing. I feel that I still have a few years left in me at the top level. It would be incredibly amazing for me if my son can watch me play at a big tournament and watch me win. I could’ve easily said it’s over and I would’ve been very proud and happy about the career I’ve had. I have been number 1, I have won Grand Slams. What more can I do? But I just felt that I still had competition left in me. That’s one of the main reasons.
And then, I feel if I’m able to inspire even one woman, how incredible would that be! I get so many messages everyday from women who’ve given birth and left their jobs, and are now joining gym or returning to work because they saw my video. And I’m not even competing yet. Those are the best moments of my day, when I read those messages from all these women. So it’s a bunch of reasons why I would like to come back and I think that even if I’m not able to come back, hypothetically speaking, at least I tried. And that’s what is important. It’s about trying.
Has your measure of success changed?
The whole outlook to life changes after you have a kid. But when I walk on the court, I would still want to win. That’s the player inside me. If I don’t feel that way, then I shouldn’t be playing. But I do think that for me, whatever I do from now on in my life, especially in tennis, is only a bonus. Because my career could’ve well been over two years ago when I had a knee injury and I was pregnant. So whatever I’m able to do now on will be a bonus. It’s almost like a second life for my career.
Her ‘second life’ will begin in the first week of the New Year. Sania hopes to return to the Tour two weeks before the Australian Open, which gets underway on January 20. Her schedule, she says, will depend on whom she eventually partners.
2020 is also the year when the Olympic Games will take place. The last two Olympics have been nothing short of a soap opera, a cringey one at that, as far as Indian tennis goes. The ego battles between Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna made the selections and build-ups sordid affairs, with Sania even claiming ahead of the London Games that she was used as a ‘bait’.
In Rio, Sania and Bopanna came closer than ever to pocket a doubles bronze. The pair was a set and a break up against USA’s Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram in the semifinals before the wheels came off and they lost in three. In the medal match, they lost to Czech pair Lucie Hradecka and Radek Stepanek in straight sets. Moments later, Sania admitted she might have played her last Olympic Games.
For some of us on the outside, the build-up to an Olympics, as far as tennis goes, has been traumatic. Are you looking forward to a peaceful way to play an Olympics one last time?
(Laughs) When we lost in the semifinal at the last Olympics, it was the most painful experience of my career. When you lose in the first round, it probably hurts less than when you’re playing for the medals. At that point, I had no intention of playing tennis at the next Olympics. Now that I’m making a comeback hopefully, that is definitely something that is in the back of my head. I would be very proud of myself if I’m able to make it to Tokyo.
I have been very clear — whether it was Olympics, Asian Games or Commonwealth Games — that I always play for my country. I don’t play for anybody else. Olympics is very close to my heart. And Tokyo would be special as well because it will be my fourth Olympics. It’ll be amazing to be in a position to compete because probably the only thing missing from my career if I ever look back later is an Olympic medal. So it would be an amazing opportunity for me to put myself in that position again. I remember Olympics very fondly (laughs).
Do you, though, truthfully? You say Olympics are special and yearn for a medal. Could the story have been different at London or Rio if…
…To be very honest, I’m not a person who’ll say I didn’t win that because of that. That’s not fair and I’ll be a sore loser. Do I want to have the same experience again at the next Olympics? Definitely not (laughs)! I think whenever you go with baggage into anything, especially to compete, it is very tough because you already have enough going on. So you don’t need extra baggage — everybody knows what was going on, all kinds of things being said, media was involved on different occasions, different people involved… So I don’t think it helps the cause in anyway. Maybe, that wouldn’t have happened and we wouldn’t come with a medal regardless. That’s why I won’t say it’s because of that we didn’t win a medal. But I am going to say that I really don’t think that any of that stuff helped when you are trying to go and win a medal for the country.
The entry, it seems right now, won’t be so straightforward because of the rankings issue.
We have to wait and watch. It is very different this time. We are in a different position as a tennis-playing country. We are not in that commanding position that we used to be when Mahesh, Leander and Rohan were all in top 15 of the world and I was in the top 10. I have some relief, I am technically in the top 10. We just have to wait and see how it turns out.