Sania Mirza ahead of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park, January 15, 2023 (Photo: Getty Images)
FOR 18 LONG YEARS Sania Mirza has defied the odds. She has broken stereotypes and inspired generations. How does she look back at a career that’s unrivalled?
We can’t come to terms with the fact that we won’t see you again on the court after this tournament. Why did you retire? Someone who has just played the final of a slam clearly has the game? Why give up?
You know me well enough to know that I am headstrong. For me, it is always about people asking me ‘Why did you retire?’ rather than ‘When are you retiring?’ I will give up when I know I can still win big matches. I absolutely have the game. I have just made a Grand Slam final, so clearly, I can compete. I belong to that level still. However, the process that I have to follow to belong to that level is getting tougher and tougher. The effort that is required to stay at the top isn’t easy. That’s where I am not convinced I can keep making that effort day in and day out. That’s where things have become difficult. And it is always better to give up rather than hold on or try to push things. That’s what explains the decision.
To finish on your own terms and to get it right is a real rarity in sport. It is one of the toughest decisions to call it quits when you are still playing well. How difficult was it?
I am deeply grateful to be able to do it on my own terms. That I could take the call at the right time. Trust me, there is a lot of gratitude. I know how difficult it is. If someone came up to me and said I could play on but the process of getting ready for every game won’t be as difficult, I would have thought about it. But emotionally and physically, it was getting tougher and my body and mind weren’t up for it anymore.
How do you look back at the journey? Surreal isn’t it? Six Slams, 41 straight doubles wins. World No 1. No 27 in singles. It has been an incredible career. And given where you came from, with very few facilities, that made it even more special.
If someone came up to me and my family some 30 years ago and said this was what would happen, I’d have laughed out loud and said ‘Don’t be mad.’ So yes, it is very satisfying. Having said that, I would have loved to win more slams, make the six go up to 12, play more finals and keep winning. That’s why you play sport. That’s what keeps you going. What is more important is what tennis has given me. It has allowed me to make change. Help people in the process. Inspire and make a difference to people’s lives. That’s far more important in the long run. If I can continue doing so, I’ll say my career was immensely satisfying for it is because of my tennis that I am today in this position of privilege. I can help make the world a slightly better place.
When you shed the 26 kg of pregnancy fat you inspired a legion of women. You weren’t a sportsperson. You were an inspiration. A symbol of self-respect and belief. You did not need to do so. You had nothing to prove to anyone.
I always wanted to win an Olympic medal for India. We had come the closest to winning the medal in Rio. Missing that medal hurt. But that’s how sport is. If I had the opportunity to change something and maybe take another shot, it would be at that Rio medal
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I did it because I wanted to. I did for every woman out there who felt that with motherhood their careers came to an end. They needed to know they could carry on. Each one of us can. Motherhood isn’t the end of the road for anyone. In fact, it is the start of a new journey. You can continue with your life in the exact same way even after you’ve had a child. That’s what I wanted to prove. In Melbourne, when my son ran onto the court and was in my arms, I think the message was conveyed. I got millions of messages after that. Each mother felt inspired. That’s what gives me joy. I am not just here to play tennis or win or lose. There is much more to life than tennis and these things are far more important. That’s why I played the sport and if I have been able to influence even a single woman, I consider that to be an achievement.
So many memories, so many wins, so many memorable performances. Can you single one out?
It is impossible to do so but if I am forced I will single out the 2015 Wimbledon win. It meant the world to me. Winning at Wimbledon was always something I wanted to do and winning my first women’s doubles slam at Wimbledon was a dream come true. And for Indian tennis, it was a milestone.
Down a set, we won a really hard-fought tie-break to level the contest a set apiece. However, within minutes in the third set we were a break down. And then in an Elena Vesnina service game, we had three break points but failed to convert them. That’s when many thought that the match might well have slipped out of our hands. Ekaterina Makarova was dominating the nets and Vesnina was all pumped up. That’s when we needed to dig deep, show unprecedented resolve and determination and, most importantly, show nerves of steel. By then I had started to take the lead. I did not want to give up. And then, just minutes before the Chair Umpire stopped play to bring in the roof at 9PM local time, we had equalised at 5-5. This was after we were down 2-5 and were a game away from losing the title.
Is there anything you would like to change in what has been a fantastic career?
I am not someone like that. But if I have to single something out, I’d say Rio 2016. I always wanted to win an Olympic medal for India and played at four Olympic Games for my country. We had come the closest to winning the medal in Rio. You were there and you had seen how close we were. Missing that medal hurt. But that’s how sport is. If I had the opportunity to change something and maybe take another shot, it would be at that Rio medal. We played well as a pair and Rohan [Bopanna] and I were playing some real good tennis. The medal would have been the perfect ending.