T he 31-year-old Sania Mirza, the face of women’s tennis in India, is forced to take it easy these days because of a bone spur along with a jumper’s knee. The spur needs surgery and she has been advised three months rest for the knee. She will thus be missing the 2018 Australian Open.
This break will enable Sania to spend time with her family and friends, something which she has not been able to do for quite some years.
It is indisputable that the quest for excellence hasn’t diminished one bit as the six-time Grand Slam winner is waiting for the earliest opportunity to prove a point or two, if needed, about her stature as one of the top players in the women’s tennis circuit.
Remember, she has the phenomenal distinction of being the World No. 1 (in women’s doubles) for 91 weeks — only Martina Navratilova, Cara Black and Liezel Huber have had longer reigns at the top.
In this interview with Sportstar, she shares her thoughts on the game and her life in general.
How do you look back at your life and tennis in general till now?
Frankly, life hasn’t changed much. Definitely, sometimes you might be tempted to think of doing something else. But, again, the passion for the sport and the intense desire to regain the top slot are what keep me going.
It is pretty obvious that nothing else in this world gives me more joy than hitting the tennis ball all over the court. This helps actually to sustain my unbridled, youthful exuberance and passion for the sport.
To be specific, how has the journey been so far?
In sport, as in life, the journey has to go on. You have to keep resetting your goals to be motivated and most importantly enjoy whatever you love. Yes, sometimes, it might be just that difficult as this means a lot of sacrifices.
What is it that you have missed the most?
For instance, I can count on my fingers the number of days my entire family has had dinner at the same time. Looks pretty simple, but these, again, are some of those precious moments and experiences which I miss. But, at the end of day, I have the satisfaction and glory of representing India at the highest level.
It is said that you don’t love travelling too much...
Yes, ironically, for someone who is on the tennis circuit and going across the world, I am averse to travelling and often get bored. I am also not sure whether I would have both lunch and dinner in the same country. But, again, where are the options? That’s why there are many aspects of life, which we, the sportspersons, miss in daily life. For, the path we have chosen means we have to be different from the others.
Even in daily life you are forced to be extra conscious about certain things...
First, we have to watch our diet to stay fit. I love cakes. I taste them, too. But, again, I have to be within my limits as the objective is to burn the extra calories. I also love to have Chinese food occasionally.
Does this mean a different kind of challenge other than facing the opponents on the court?
Yes, it is a huge challenge to be so careful. I have to be extremely cautious even when it comes to taking medicines. I cannot just walk into any medical store and have a tablet or a syrup for say cough or fever. I have to ensure that the medicine is not in the list of banned substances. It is always a challenge to be on the move across the world.
How do your parents come into play and what has been their influence on your career?
I owe a lot to my caring parents. Both are very knowledgeable about the sport too and often double up as coach-cum-mentor on the circuit. I never travel on the circuit without either of them accompanying me. I always believe that my parents are perfect role models, for they never put any kind of pressure on me. They always make me comfortable and are spot on in giving the right kind of advice. Most importantly, they also ensure that I am in the comfort zone before any match. This, I feel, is an essential ingredient for any athlete to bank on.
This was one factor which actually helped you overcome so many struggles, in sport and in life?
Only these people know it better than anyone else, the kind of struggles they had to go through for me to scale the summit. There are so many challenges on different fronts. But for the amazing support I got from these people, I would not have achieved whatever I could.
How important are rankings for any athlete?
I look at them as a reminder of my achievements. Not the end in itself. So, if you slip from No. 1 to No. 2, does it mean you are a bad player? Given the intense competition in any discipline, it is never easy to hang on at the top. Still, I take pride for being there for so long as No. 1 and you should know it is never easy, especially for an Indian girl, to achieve this feat.
I wish injuries had not hampered my singles career, which ended abruptly in 2013. Remember, I was ranked World No. 27 in 2007. But, again, these are things which are not in your hands.
What makes you competitive even now despite achieving what no other Indian women’s tennis player has done?
I repeat, it is the spirit to keep improving and winning laurels. I think there can be no better joy than representing your country in Inter-Continental championships, win medals and stand on the podium when the National Anthem is played.
How many know that I preferred to play in the Asian Games once at the risk of losing a chance to play in the year-ending WTA Tour Finals by missing out some major events? These are things which drive you to set fresh goals.
What do you believe to be the high points of your career?
Quite honestly, there are many. But, some of them stand out like winning the first Grand Slam title in 2009 (Australian Open mixed doubles), being the World No. 1, winning the prestigious WTA Tour Doubles final partnering Cara Black, winning Wimbledon and the mixed doubles gold in the Asian Games (2002). They are all great moments which many players can only dream of.
Who are your idols?
I am a big fan of Steffi Graf and Usain Bolt not only for their mind-boggling achievements, but also for the way in which they have conducted themselves despite name and fame.
(And her father, Imran, chips in to remind us how he and his wife — Sania’s mother, Nasima — dreamt of Sania — she was just five years old then — playing in a Grand Slam when they were actually watching the German great Steffi Graf in the Wimbledon final!)
You have many firsts for an Indian woman tennis player. Is there still anything you would have loved to win?
Well, my journey began in 2003 when I became the first Indian girl to win a Grand Slam (Junior Wimbledon doubles title) and also be the first Indian woman player ever to win a WTA title, in front of my home crowd in Hyderabad, partnering Liezel Huber.
Yes, losing a huge opportunity of an Olympic medal in the 2016 Rio edition (lost in the semifinals) was a big disappointment. I couldn’t overcome that for a long time. But, again, I have to move on.
On the personal front, you are pretty happy?
Of course, yes. Though I miss family life because of my tennis and Shoaib’s cricket. But, again, we are aware of these things and would love to carry on with our respective disciplines as long as we enjoy it and then think of other things. The important thing is we both care for each other. We also understand the pressures, demands and the intricacies involved in pursuing our goals in the world of sport.
There was a traumatic phase in 2010...
Yes. But, I take pride in the fact that I am back in the circuit after that agonising phase in 2010 when serious injuries threatened my career and even forced me to think of quitting. But, again, thanks to my family, especially parents, I fought adversity on many fronts. Or else you would not be speaking to me now.
How does it feel to come from a City which has produced women World No.1s in sport — Mithali Raj and Saina Nehwal — and champions like P. V. Sindhu and Dronavalli Harika?
It is a huge honour and I salute all these wonderfully gifted athletes for providing so much of joy to millions of Indians. They are all great examples of commitment in pursuing their passion despite all odds. Honestly, I am honoured to be a contemporary of such gifted athletes.
How long will you keep playing?
I have still a lot more to give on the tennis court. I will think of quitting only when I stop enjoying the sport.
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