Athletes are judged at roughly four stages in their lives. The first, when young, to decide whether they are fit enough to go through the rigours of professional sport; the second during their playing careers, in comparison to their peers; the third at retirement, evaluated to locate their place in history; and finally a few decades down the line to settle the legacy they will leave behind.
In many cases, with the passage of time, the stories of sportspersons who traverse these phases progressively detach themselves from reality. So much so that, at the end of it all, there is just unconscious agreement on how they need to be remembered. Like Julian Barnes writes in The Sense of an Ending, “history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
The truly great athletes’ careers militates against this, and Sania Mirza, who recently called it quits at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, is one such sportsperson. When young, and during her heyday, her quality and status as one of India’s very best were seldom in doubt. In retirement and going forward, the halo is sure to glow brighter. There will be agreement, but none of it arrived at unthinkingly, full of facts and very little fiction.
‘Ready to take on the world’
Since she started playing tennis as a six-year-old, Sania emitted promise. She went on to make her debut on the ITF Circuit when she was as young as 15 and won her first three titles before turning 16. “Back then we had something called the Asian Junior Team,” recollects Nandan Bal, a former coach of India’s Davis Cup and erstwhile Fed Cup teams. “I was the coach of the boys’ team. There was Sania and others who travelled with another coach.”
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“Though I was with the boys’ team, the girls were there too, and we all played the same tournaments. We were always there for each others’ matches. Over those 10 to 12 weeks I saw her, the first thing that came to my mind was: this is a girl who is not afraid of anything. She is ready to take on the world.”
For legions of Indian tennis fans, this was their first brush with Sania. Though power in tennis had taken a firm hold among men by the early to mid-1990s, it touched the women’s game only towards the turn of the millennium. Sania, who turned professional in 2003 as a 16-year-old, was trying to sail in waters that had proved choppy for most Indians, male or female. But with a fierce forehand and an incredibly big heart, she showed the way.
She reached the third round at the Australian Open in 2005 on her Slam singles debut and made it to the fourth round at the US Open the same year, which to this day is the best run by an Indian singles player since Ramesh Krishnan’s quarterfinal finish at the 1987 US Open.
For a large portion of a four-year period from 2005 to 2008, Sania was in the elite top-32 and her peak ranking of No. 27 is still the best for an Indian women’s singles player. Between February 2005 and September 2006, she clinched her lone WTA singles title (Hyderabad) and earned three top-10 wins (Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova and Martina Hingis).
“She had a very big forehand and a very attacking game,” recalls Ankita Bhambri, Sania’s peer and later a coach in the Fed Cup team. “It would have had success even now. She was very gutsy and the attitude with which she played on court made a huge difference. You are taking a chance irrespective of what the score is. Only then can you think of making it to the top.”
Even as a persistent wrist injury first hampered and then cut short her singles career, she found salvation in doubles, reaching the very top and staying there for 91 weeks, the eighth-best tally in the history of women’s tennis.
Alongside Hingis, with whom she won all three of her doubles Majors (2015 Wimbledon, 2015 US Open and 2016 Australian Open) and the WTA Finals in 2015, she went on a 41-match unbeaten streak, a stellar achievement in a hit-and-miss format where the super tie-break instead of a regular third set makes it like sweepstakes lottery.
“Athletes like Sania don’t worry about small losses, little setbacks,” says Bal. “They look at the bigger picture all the time. Two decades is a long time to be on the tour, especially given the fact that the tour is now very physical. She hung in there for the longest time... It’s going to be very hard for any other Indian girl [to emulate].”
For the slightly younger players like Ankita Raina, Sania radiated courage and belief. She didn’t shun the public eye nor did she scorn the trappings of fame. With that came the controversies, relating to her very many life-choices, including some that were very personal. There are tales of bolder champions being ambushed and speared, but not Sania. She embraced the modern celebrity culture but kept her stature intact. She was a rebel, with a cause.
“She made Indian women believe that the world could be conquered and sky was the limit for their dreams,” says Raina. “She’s had various challenges in her journey, on and off the court. But she always came back and performed at the highest level. Even when she was back after giving birth to Izhaan [Mirza Malik], it was so inspiring not just for me but for so many women in the country.”
That comeback would have ended in glory at the 2023 Australian Open, but for an agonising loss in the mixed doubles final partnering Rohan Bopanna. It was Sania’s last appearance on the Grand Slam stage, and would have provided the perfect epitaph for a truly outstanding career.
But when seen differently, it is one of the most vivid examples of an athlete practising until he or she dropped. In the years to come, when Sania’s reputation is inevitably reassessed, amidst newer champions and newer yardsticks, it is this quality that will eventually define her legacy.
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