A product of parental sacrifice

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Sania Mirza always had the spark to make it big. -- Pic. K. GAJENDRAN-

IT may sound incredible. But, it is an acknowledged fact in the brilliant career of Sania Mirza. Her parents — Imran and Nasima — were watching on TV the Wimbledon final between Steffi Graf and Conchita Martinez when Sania was just five years. "Would you like to see your daughter play in Wimbledon?" asked Imran to his wife. And the reply was typical of a dreaming mother. "I will give my life for such an opportunity." The parents literally did exactly that.

Well, those were the times when dreams were like any of those fantasies, akin to chasing mirages. But, Mirzas were determined to stand out as shining examples of how parental support to a talented and performing youngster can transform the contours of the potential champions. The rest is history as Sania is on a fabulous journey in the women's tennis circuit with her remarkable run at the highest level raising hopes, which hitherto no other Indian woman player had ever done. Her record speaks for itself. A maiden Grand Slam for an Indian girl (winning the 2003 junior Wimbledon doubles title), bagging a `double' in the inaugural Afro-Asian Games in front of home crowd last year and returning to the same venue within four months to become the first Indian ever to win the WTA title (picking the doubles partnering Liezel Huber) to name a few of her outstanding achievements.

Unlike in most cases, it was the mother Nasima, who introduced the young six-year-old Sania to tennis and interestingly for the first six months, Imran Mirza (Sania's father) didn't even bother to watch her game. He was always under the impression that the girl was too young to make any comment. But the defiant mother persisted. Now, she can look back with a sense of pride. For, Sania has achieved what no other Indian women's tennis player has in recent memory. More importantly, there is only one way the Mirzas can really look — ahead and not backwards.

Well, the success story of Sania Mirza is not scripted by a couple of freak performances. Beyond the baseline and in real life, the amount of sacrifice her parents made was something which most others may even shudder to think of. Mind you, Imran used to drive in a car to take Sania all over India for competitions. Those were the days when money mattered a lot and which the Mirzas had very little. Economics and sports just didn't seem to go in the same route then. But, the grit and determination of the Nasima-Imran duo was primarily responsible in one of the most remarkable success stories of Indian sport in the last two decades.

For long tennis as a sport was alien to many in the Indian middle-class being a very expensive sport. With the future always uncertain, not many ventured to take it up with the desired seriousness. But Imran and Nasima preferred it, which they themselves describe as some sort of a big gamble. "Honestly, we simply did it for the love of the sport and never for money. We basically enjoyed the sport and that was why we could spend countless hours on the courts with Sania, uncaring about all other family obligations," feel both of them. There is a sidelight too here. Imran had decided that if he were to be blessed with a son, he would be a cricketer and a tennis player, if it were to be a daughter.

What really made them take the decisive step to put Sania into tennis? "As some say, there was always the spark in her. Though when she started playing, it was basically for fun and enjoyment and we were only expecting her to play at the State-level. And, let me remind you when she cracked into the top 200 in Indian tennis in the under-14 category, it was a big day which stretched a bit too far by way of some celebrations," recalls a smiling Imran. As far as inspiration for us to sustain our interest in Sania continuing the sport it was the late Ghulam Ahmed (former India Test off-spinner and a distant relative of the Mirzas), he said. "He was a big source of motivation who always said good words about Sania in the formative years," recalls Imran.

With her parents and sister at home. — Pic. K. GAJENDRAN-

But what really impressed Mirzas about their daughter? "The fighting spirit even when she was just 10 years of age. I can tell you, when she is down she turns out to be a very dangerous player who can be really difficult to beat. She just hates to lose," explains Nasima. Ask Sania how does she feel now about her game? "Frankly, the Grand Slam title in the Junior Wimbledon doubles last year is the turning point of my life," she starts off with her usual air of confidence. "That really made me believe in myself and instilled the feeling that I am good enough to achieve much bigger than what I have been doing till then," she explains even she spends her day off from the sport playing chess with her younger sister Anam. The parents too concur with this saying that the Wimbledon title has been the high-point of Sania's career. "There is a sense of responsibility in her now and a great level of maturity which are badly needed for the talent she had," they observed.

To state that Sania is a product of immense sacrifice by her parents on the family front would be stressing the obvious but at the same time it is unavoidable. "Sometimes, I feel guilty of not sparing enough time for my younger daughter," says the thoughtful mother.

The best part of Sania's consistent rise on the tennis horizon was the meticulous planning and a large chunk of the financial burden taken care of by the GVK Group of Industries chairman G. V. Krishna Reddy, himself an ardent fan and president of APLTA. With either the father or the mother invariably accompanying on all her trips for competition and even taking care of the schedule of events, all that Sania had to do was to concentrate on the game. "I am fortunate to have such lovely parents and if I am not exaggerating they are more like friends," says the tennis prodigy. The student of St. Mary's Junior College (Yousufguda) acknowledges that they were instrumental in her focussing completely on the game. "For me, there were absolutely no distractions of any kind," says the tennis star from a very conservative family.

Not many may be aware that the Mirzas have a re-assessment programme of their own of Sania's progress on the circuit every six months. And, this has been going on for seven years now. "It really helped me in rectifying the flaws and brought the desired change in attitude when the situation demanded. For you are getting inputs from those who really care and love you and are genuinely concerned at how your career is shaping up," says Sania. The parents too have a simple explanation. You cannot decide your kid to be a champion unless he or she has the inherent talent and the determination to succeed and more importantly starts enjoying the sport, is their message to other parents.

That her career is on a new high is evident by sheer performances — winning six singles and four doubles ITF titles this year itself apart from the WTA doubles title partnering Liezel Huber in front of her home crowd this February. A feat which is unparalleled in Indian women's tennis.

Sania with her collection of medals and trophies. — Pic. K. GAJENDRAN-

It seems Sania has developed a habit for winning of late. And she attributes the credit to her two training stints with Italy-based coach Bob Brett. "Frankly, he emphasised on a couple of adjustments in my game which no one else could. And the gruelling physical conditioning schedule under him had a big positive impact on my career in the last 12 months," acknowledges the best-rated Indian player now. In fact, the only second Indian woman to break into the top 200 in the World rankings after Nirupama Vaidyanathan.

The tennis prodigy also reminds an interesting feature which has a sobering influence on her career. "My parents never really thrust upon me the desire to keep winning. Their first objective was to see that I enjoy playing the sport. And my father tried to take a leaf out of his own experience in this regard. When he was a pretty good opening batsman (he was in the reserves for Mumbai Schools then) his father was more than keen that he should play big-time cricket. Consequently, Imran's game was affected. To ensure this didn't happen to me, my parents were just content in seeing me happy on the court no matter whether winning or losing," explains Sania.

Given the option, Sania simply loves to be at her newly-constructed home designed by her father in the post Jubilee Hills locality in Hyderabad, spending as much time as possible with her naughty younger sister who is said to have a terrific sense of humour. At the same time she decorates her champion sister's room with welcome boards and balloons everytime Sania returns triumphant from her foreign trip. Well, like any Hyderabadi Sania too loves the Hyderabadi biryani but never really dares to have a sumptuous meal for she is more worried about her fitness levels. And, like any girl of her age, Sania too loves to go to college. "In fact, I was keen that she skips studies for the next two years for this phase can well be the most crucial in her career. But she insisted and was confident of handling both tennis and studies with ease. So we let her join college," explains her mother Nasima.

Interestingly, the parents are in a dilemma now. For the champion daughter has caught them on the wrong foot seeking 18 presents to mark the 18th birthday celebrations on November 15. And one of them is to be presented with a Hyundai Accent car! To keep her spirit going, the parents will do anything. By all means, it is certain that Sania Mirza has ensured to take a smooth drive into the tough women's circuit at the highest level.