A stroke of her strong forehand is enough to silence critics, self-proclaimed moral police and faceless trolls. Sania Mirza is unafraid to be herself, on court and off it.
A busy time for Sania Mirza, we have been told, after repeated working and reworking of dates, she has finally been able to fly down to Mumbai from Hyderabad before she sets off for the US Open. Call time is 6am and it looks like Sania has happily jogged her way to the photo shoot. Neither bleary eyed nor vexed.
Sania is an epitome of calmness even as we frantically put together the looks. This is the Sania all of us know, calm and collected… irrespective of whether she is on a winning spree or not, whether she is hailed for her seemingly unconventional choices or is questioned for them. “As a professional tennis player, I compete every day, every week. It would get arduous to celebrate every victory and mull over every defeat,” Sania puts everything into perspective.
There is nothing dramatic about her demeanour. There is no air fisting on winning or rolling down of tears on losing, unlike Mike Tyson, whose autobiography she has just finished reading. “I do say a little prayer before stepping onto the court,” the world’s No. 7 doubles player says. Much less dramatic is her answer when we ask her about what happens at home when she watches matches where India plays against Pakistan with her cricketer husband, Shoaib Malik. She replies, “Nothing!” And we believe her. An unapologetically fierce Sania feels that marriage has calmed her down.
The power couple of sports, who tied the knot in 2010, don’t exchange notes on each other’s performance on the pitch or on the court. “We don’t understand the technicalities of each other’s sport, but we do discuss the mental aspects of them.”
Her love story is linked directly to her other love…food. “We met in a restaurant when he was playing in Hobart, Tasmania,” she recalls. They had met socially a couple of times before that, but it was in Australia that things took an exciting turn.
She is constantly on the move from Hyderabad to Dubai, and where ever else she needs to be for her matches. How does she manage? “With a lot of scheduling and phone calls,” she answers. It is something the couple was prepared for, given their professions. What they were not prepared for was the doughty barrage of questions and trolls they had to face when they got married or each time the two nations lock horns over a sport, especially cricket. They choose to ignore it and find strength in each other. “Love is defined differently for every person. For me, it’s comfort.”
Sania also takes comfort in the fact that her tennis academy in Hyderabad ensures that dreamy-eyed aspirants don’t have to go through the same obstacles as she did. She tells us enthusiastically about tennis players Leander Paes and Martina Navratilova’s visits to her academy, where they shared tips with the students.
When she started playing tennis, at the age of six, there were only a handful of athletes who took the sport up professionally. Those were the times when the average Indian would have pin ups of cricketers on their walls and the elite would discuss Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis’ famous rivalry. Incidentally,
Steffi Graf was Sania’s icon too, but she did not stop at discussions and posters. She aimed for bigger things. Her father and later coach, Imran Mirza saw that in his daughter at an early age.
Sania shares a very close relationship with her father, agreeing about everything on the court, even though at times off the court a daughter is a daughter and a father is a father. “He helps me keep my cool in tough situations.” They have a rule, that they always adhere to, of not discussing tennis at home. “We don’t want to take away from our relationship of father and daughter.”
Her family stood by her when there was an uproar over what was considered appropriate dressing for a female Muslim athlete. “I had my moments, but I’m blessed to have a family that always backed me.” Even as a number of people fussed over the length of her skirt, Sania went on to win major tournaments. “Beating Svetlana Kuznetsova in Dubai in 2005 when she was reigning in the singles category has been the most memorable of all matches,” she says, adding that beating Li Na at the Asian Games in Doha the following year ranks high up on her list of favourites. But victories came at a cost for this right-handed tennis star when she incurred career threatening injuries in her playing hand at the Dubai Open in February 2010. She underwent several surgeries as a result and things seemed rather uncertain at the time. But Sania’s off-court resilience helped her sail through, what are considered the most difficult times in the career of an athlete, even when she had to retire from singles, she did it after having achieved her share of glory.
It was the longest break she took — six and a half months — and she admits to being disappointed. “It did take a toll on my psyche and I started toying with the idea of retiring in 2010,” she recalls. Aren’t we glad that she decided not to! The same year, Sania won silver medals at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. She tweaked her game for doubles and went onto becoming India’s first women’s doubles Grand Slam winner, lifting the Wimbledon trophy with Martina Hingis in 2015.
Would her career have panned out differently if she were not grievously injured, we ask. “I am happy with my graph. After all I was No.1 for two years. I think I should not be greedier,” she almost sounds like a monk with a racquet.
Behind this deep-thinking woman, there is a girl who wants to let her hair down once in a while. On her cheat days — she follows a strict gluten-free, sugar free diet — the self-confessed foodie enjoys Chinese cuisine and dinners at her favourite restaurant, Tao in New York City. “And I absolutely love biryani.” A true blue Hyderabadi, we say.
On the court, she likes to be comfortable in what she wears as her focus is on winning, but off the court Sania loves to dress up. Something that was evident during our shoot. Her enthusiasm was palpable, down-right adorable as she tried on different looks. Sania attributes her sense of style to her team and sister Anam, who she is closest to. “I do like to dress up, but partying is not something I am huge on.”
For someone who has perpetually been on a strict regime, late nights were never a thing. She wakes up at 6am everyday to practice, even when she attended Nasar School in Hyderabad “I never skipped my fitness routine and would pass out by nine,” she says. She attended regular school till 8th grade before studying from home and then attending St. Mary’s College in Hyderabad, but couldn’t finish her under grad. Does she miss having a normal childhood? “Yes, of course. I am only human,” Sania says, adding that she wishes she could have been able to enjoy more sleepovers at her pals’ places.
Now 30, Sania spends time with her friends, a few of them from the film industry, in between her tournaments or catches up on movies. “Dangal was the last film I watched,” she recalls. Director-choreographer Farah Khan is a good friend, with whom she also appeared on a comedy show. Is there a film in the offing? “Working in a film is not something that will happen for me. But, I might just explore television as an option.” With her wit and humour it will undoubtedly be a success. For now, it’s only tennis and more tennis be it clay, grass, carpet or hard concrete under the feet.
Tennis has been a part of her life, teaching her how to take both defeats and victories in her stride. “It has also taught me to never underestimate my opponents irrespective of their experience,” she says.
This year — which started off fantastically with a Grand Slam title — Sania completes 15 years as a professional tennis player. She inspired an entire generation of youngsters — many named after her — to look at tennis as a career.