Sania Mirza, the World No. 1 in women’s doubles, hopes to continue her dream run on the circuit as she sets out to defend her title – with a different partner though – in the prestigious WTA Tour doubles final in Singapore on Saturday. In an exclusive interview, the Indian ace, who will be teaming up with the Swiss great, Martina Hingis, shares her thoughts on her performance in 2015 and other aspects of her game and life from Singapore.
Question: How has been the run-up to the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore?
Answer: Martina and I have had an unbelievable year so far, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open apart from seven other WTA titles. The confidence is obviously high. We are the No. 1 combination in the world and will be the team to beat.
How different will it be this time when compared with last year when you won the doubles title in the company of Cara Black?
Last year was the first time that I had qualified for the WTA Tour Finals, and that itself was a huge achievement for me. This time we are expected to win as the No. 1 team, so obviously there will be pressure. But then, that is part and parcel of being at the top and is not a bad problem to have!
What is the biggest challenge you would face this time in Singapore?
Our strengths have been out in the open the whole year, so obviously the other teams will be scheming to negate some of these.
Is there any combination that really scares you, given the kind of form you are in right now?
In professional tennis, each day is a new day, and one has to play at one’s peak to win consistently. If we play our best, we feel we are capable of beating any team in the world and we have proved it many times during the course of the season.
If you are asked to point out three features that make you and Hingis such a formidable team, what would they be?
Well, obviously, my forehand is my biggest strength, and Martina closes out the points at the net as I create the openings from the baseline. Secondly, Martina’s backhand is ever reliable and is a perfect foil to my game. We both also return well and are capable of breaking down the opponents’ serves. But apart from all this I think the most important ingredient that works for us is that we get along really well off the court, too, and have a lot of faith in each other’s abilities, which helps us get out of tight situations on the court.
I think that being No. 1 in the world in any field is awesome, and I feel very privileged and fortunate to have achieved it in a global sport like tennis. But I should add that the ranking does not give you any advantages once you are out there on the court because one has to perform consistently on a daily basis to win matches and stay on top.
Many big names in world tennis have a full team of professional – from coach to manager to trainer. But you seem to be pretty comfortable and highly successful with your father Imran being there on the circuit. What sort of role does he play when you are out there on the court?
My father probably understands my game better than anyone else in the world and has had the advantage of having been hands-on with some of the world’s best coaches, including Tony Roche, Bob Brett and Sven Groeneveld while I was training with them. He has an eagle eye to spot quickly minute technical flaws that creep into my game; he scouts for weaknesses in my opponents’ game and helps in devising strategy to exploit them. He is a calming influence on me whenever we are trailing in a match. He has a feel for the game and his incisive on-court tips have worked well for me as well as Martina.
For any tennis player winning a Grand Slam or becoming the World No. 1 is the primary goal. Having achieved both, what is that you are still looking for?
We sportsmen are greedy people and are never satisfied with our achievements. I am blessed to have achieved all this in my career, but when I get on to the court for any match, I am still looking to win every time!
Is there anything that you feel you should have achieved – on court or off it?
I am very satisfied with the way my career has gone, but perhaps, if I had not had all those injuries and surgeries, I may have broken into the top-10 of singles as well!
Is there anything that really scares you before a major event?
I fear injuries because of my past experiences and I know that if I stay healthy I have a chance to beat any opponent.
Is there anything that you badly miss despite being a phenomenon of sorts in Indian women’s tennis?
I miss spending enough time at home with my family and close friends. I also miss home-cooked food when I am on tour.
Are you sentimental about things such as using the same racket and so on?
Yes, there are a few rackets that are my favourite and I like to use those whenever possible.
How do you shut yourself off from all the non-tennis related issues to stay fully focussed on the game?
This is something that I have learnt to do over a period of time. Initially it used to upset me but I soon realised that this is all part of being in the limelight and goes with the territory and unless one learns to handle these petty issues, one cannot be successful in a profession like ours.
What message do you have for your huge fan following?
Your support is extremely important to us and is a source of inspiration whenever we are playing in the far corners of the world. But we also expect understanding from you when we are struggling with our form despite our best efforts.
With Shoaib (Mohammad) reminding us what quality cricketer he is with his double century in the Test against England, what is your take on his career and what sort of thoughts you share on the sport?
I think he has shown the world what can be achieved if one stays positive and works hard. He is now possibly at the peak of his career.
How do you sum up the year 2015 until now?
I think it has been an unbelievable year for me without doubt. I have not only achieved my goal of becoming the No. 1 player in the world in women’s doubles but have also won back-to-back Grand Slams apart from the seven WTA Tour events. I feel well and truly blessed.
Sania has made us very proud: Imran Mirza
Question: How do you define your role and what sort of pressures you face on the circuit?
Imran Mirza: I think it is a multi-dimensional role that I need to play on the circuit: as a coach, mentor, psychologist and manager amidst a host of other jobs. Keeping the girls in high spirits, ensuring that they remain comfortable in various situations and doing everything that it takes to ensure that they perform at their optimum level are some of the challenges that one faces on the Tour.
What are the major challenges you face as father-cum-coach to Sania?
I think one needs to compartmentalise the two roles in order to be successful on the circuit. Once I am on court, I prefer to blank out emotions and view Sania’s game purely as a critic in order to identify the areas to be worked on. One also needs to ensure that she is at ease on the tour, sleeps well, eats the right food adequately and is well prepared for the matches etc. Helping the girls bounce back from losses is important and one needs to be extremely sensitive when dealing with female tennis players as they tend to be very emotional. Also, timing is critical to ensure that the girls accept criticism positively.
As parents, do you and Nasima feel that Sania has already achieved what you were actually dreaming of in the formative stages of her career?
Of course, Sania has achieved everything we had ever dreamt for her and has made us very proud of her achievements.
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