It was sometime in December 2008 when we caught up with Sania Mirza during a practice session in Bengaluru at the Bhupathi Tennis Village. She was in good nick, playing against the men, her compatriots Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna. Mirza was returning to the court after a lull — she was eliminated from singles when she retired from the match due to a wrist injury during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and in doubles she lost in the second round. Throughout 2008, Mirza was plagued by a slew of wrist injuries requiring her to withdraw from several matches including those of 2008 French Open and US Open slams. Describing this phase as a ‘major low in her career’, she says, “I got into a depression. I didn’t want to watch the US Open because I couldn’t. I didn’t get out of the house for two-three weeks. I did not want to meet people.” It was the support system around her — family, friends, namely Bhupathi, and her manager Megha — who helped her pull through. “I have learnt a lot from that phase. It’s taught me to be patient and to accept things. Tennis is a part of my life and not my life.” She eventually gave up singles, after slipping from a career high ranking of No 27 in the world to 100-something.
Fast forward to December 2015, and this phase may seem like a distant memory. Seated in the comfort of her living room at her Film Nagar home in Hyderabad, her journey is underlined by her Twitter profile: “Dreamer. Believer. Doer. Even against all odds.” The room is adorned with MF Husain paintings, ceramic plates, crystal goblets and two ready-to-play chess boards. We notice a couple of SUVs labelled ‘Sania Mirza Tennis Academy’ parked in front of her house. There are three black SUVs whose number plates read ‘1’ in her portico. Clearly, it signifies the status of her world ranking — No 1 in doubles. At 29, Mirza has peaked like no one had imagined. She has had an incredible 2015 — dotted with nine major wins, including Wimbledon, the US Open and the WTA finals. She also made it to the BBC’s list of 100 most aspirational women.
As much as her detractors would hate to agree, Mirza is India’s pride. She is what many women dream to be — the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia, she endorses top international brands and visits the Taj Mahal in her private jet and parties with Bollywood A-listers. Her career earnings have crossed $5 million. So what’s left to achieve, we ask the star. “To be honest, I can hang up my tennis racquet today. But I want to play for the sheer joy of playing. After winning five Grand Slams, I want to win seven. There is no end to a sports person’s greed,” she laughs.
And why not be greedy? After all, 2016 will be the year when she rides on a billion people’s hope of winning that elusive gold metal at the forthcoming summer Olympics in Rio, where she will partner with Leander Paes in mixed doubles.
Lending her voice
The role she really seems to be enjoying is being the UN brand ambassador for women’s rights. “As a woman, I had to fight a lot of odds. Although we talk about equality, we all know it’s a man’s world. I do have a responsibility and feel my voice is heard. I would love to see a violence-free world where women can be safe and happy. On the Mission Sapne show recently, I met an acid attack victim. She almost died but is supporting her family. After seeing her, I felt that if you have the voice, you should speak out. Female foeticide and infanticide are causes I think we need to fight for. My parents are proud of me. I hope more parents will value their girl children.”
Writing the future
Mirza wants people to know that her success hasn’t come easy. Besides staying committed to her goal, she promotes the sport to build a strong future. “I used to play in courts made of cow dung. There was no hard court or anyone to practise with, and none to benchmark myself against. Today, the Sania Mirza Tennis Academy (30 km from Hyderabad) is adding value to the game. In the next 10 years, we are probably going to have more tennis champs from such academies. Both in my personal and professional capacities, I think I have managed to fill in the gaps. Children still don’t say they want to become tennis stars when they grow up, but hopefully they will think of tennis as a career once they turn teenagers. I do have a sense of fulfillment and pride that I have been a part of motivating girls to choose sports,” she says.
Mirza’s birthday selfie with director Farah Khan has got the media asking her if there is a biopic on her in the making. “You media guys! Someone asked me who should play me if a biopic was ever made. So I randomly said Deepika Padukone since she was an athlete, and if she is busy, perhaps Parineeti. The next thing I see is news that a biopic is being made on me with Parineeti in the lead and Farah Khan as the director. Farah and I had a good laugh,” is her retort.
Between her games, wins, practice sessions and public appearances, Mirza finds time for her fans. She interacts with them every day via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. “I love to keep it a bit personal. My thoughts, my random selfies, my wins, my tears… it is all there,” she says, dismissing the idea of acting in a feature film, despite her Instagram posts with Shah Rukh Khan. “Many say I am good in interviews and on TV shows. But on those shows, I am myself, sharing my experiences. I would be making a fool of myself if I think I can act. So SRK, hold the movie for now,” she says with a chuckle. And like Hyderabadi cricketer Mohammed Azharuddin, would she consider politics? “I have no plans now, but I always say, ‘never say never’,” admits Mirza, who has 3.17 million fans, 25k likes and gets hundreds of retweets in a minute.
Fear of heights
Mirza is aggressive and athletic on the court and one wonders if she has extreme adventure sports on her bucket list. “No way. I am scared of two things, the ocean and heights. What’s worse, I have to face my fears four times a week — flying over an ocean. My bucket list would include sleeping for 30 days in a row in my own bed, and to be able to take out clothes from my own closet and not a suitcase. I haven’t been able to do that since I was 13,” she shares.
With inputs from Nandini Kumar
Manju Latha Kalanidhi and N Jagannath Das