Following her decision to retire from the game today, it’s imperative to note that Sania Mirza is the gold standard against whom Indian women tennis stars can be judged in the future. (Images above courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Before Sania, only two Indian women had made their mark on the global tennis scene.
One was Nirupama Mankad, who had partnered with Anand Amritraj in the 1971 Wimbledon mixed doubles draw, and reached the second round. The other was Nirupama Vaidyanathan (later Sanjeev), who had reached the second round in the singles draw at the 1998 Australian Open. Sania would end up surpassing both Nirupamas before turning 26.
Sania reached the 3rd round in the 2005 Australian Open singles draw. She won the Mixed Doubles draw in the 2009 Australian Open and the 2012 French Open (in partnership with Mahesh Bhupathi). And her career-high Singles ranking of 27 in August 2007 remains third only to two fellow Indians – Vijay Amritraj (18) and Ramesh Krishnan (23).
She was also the first Indian woman to secure a Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Singles title, winning the event in her hometown of Hyderabad in 2005.
Her Singles career, which was cut short in 2012 by wrist and knee injuries, saw her beating the calibre of players like former World No 1 Martina Hingis, Svetlana Kuznetsova (former No 2) and Nadia Petrova (former No 3).
The last of her Mixed Doubles titles came in the 2014 US Open when she teamed up with Brazil’s Bruno Soares.
Then, just when people wrote her off, she teamed up with Swiss legend Martina Hingis in 2015. The Indio-Swiss duo, popularly called ‘Santina’, would go on a remarkable run – winning 14 titles together, including the 2015 Wimbledon, US Open and Australian Open.
They even set an incredible record of winning 44 matches in a row, one of the longest in history. In total, Sania won 43 titles and spent a remarkable 91 weeks as the World No.1 in Women’s Doubles.
Her playing style was also unlike any Indian woman in the sport. While many before her adopted a ‘moon-ball’ game, wherein players would play lobs from the baseline to break the momentum, Sania broke convention with her ripping forehands and powerful two-handed backhands from the baseline.
Even if she made unforced errors, she would never go into her shell and revert to safe lobs. Instead, she would continue hammering away. It’s a style that remained unchanged through her 21 years of the game, irrespective of injuries.
Sania is a self-made champion. With little support from the All India Tennis Association (AITA), Sania’s rise to the top has been largely down to her hard work, with support initially from her father Imran, a builder by profession, guidance from the likes of Mahesh Bhupathi and corporate sponsors like GVK Industries.
Her legacy, however, isn’t just limited to her performances on the court which won her national accolades like the Arjuna Award (2004), Padma Shri (2006), Padma Bhushan (2016) and Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna (2015).
She was outspoken in a way, unlike her contemporaries or successors. Challenging religious orthodoxy, patriarchy and narrow conceptions of nationalism even though she had so much to lose makes her stand apart from her contemporaries.
Sania was just 18 when an Islamic cleric issued a fatwa demanding that she, a practising Muslim, stop wearing ‘indecent’ clothes to play tennis.
“She will be stopped from playing if she doesn’t adhere to it,” said Siddiqullah Chowdhry, a cleric with a Kolkata-based Muslim group Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Hind, to Reuters.
Still finding her voice as a teenager under the intense glare of national fame, all the additional police security required for a Kolkata tournament following the ‘fatwa’ did mess with her game. But she made her feelings about such religious diktats clear by wearing T-shirts which read ‘Well-behaved Women Rarely Make History’ at the 2005 Wimbledon.
It would not be the last time that radical Muslim clerics would issue diktats against her on-court attire. They would also issue them because she spent time with her future husband and Pakistani cricketer, Shoaib Malik, before their marriage at her residence in Hyderabad. However, she would brush these diktats off with ease like a crosscourt forehand in a Grand Slam tournament.
And then there were her battles with narrow conceptions of nationalism. Her first brush came in 2008 when she was criticised for ‘insulting’ the national flag. She was pictured sitting with her feet resting on a table next to the Indian flag during a match at the Hopman Cup. Such was the fury of criticism she faced as a 21-year-old that she contemplated quitting the sport altogether, according to this BBC report.
Her response to the criticism was that it was accidental, and thankfully she didn’t quit the game.
However, she would be in for even more criticism following her decision to marry Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik in 2010. In the media, she was referred to as ‘Pakistan’s daughter-in-law’ and unfit to represent an Indian state after she was appointed the Telangana state’s brand ambassador.
But she remained dedicated to representing India without all the faux bluster that often comes with ‘showing’ commitment to one’s country.
In a 2018 interview with The Indian Express, she said, “A lot of people have this notion that Shoaib and I got married to unite the two countries. That is not true…Tags are a part of being a public figure. I play for my country, my family, for myself, and so does my husband. We are aware of the responsibilities we carry, but we do not take these tags seriously. They may make for a good headline, but don’t mean anything to us at home!”
Finally, she has never been shy of her advocacy for gender equality. Following a news report titled ‘No Respect For Women in India, Says Sania Mirza’ in 2014, she faced a barrage of criticism online. But, instead of merely ignoring it, she fought back.
In a long series of tweets (edited by Vice for clarity), she said, “Just to make a couple of things very clear: I did NOT say that there is no respect for women in India. I am the ambassador for the region, and I would never be where I am today if the country hadn’t given me all this love. But I am fortunate, very fortunate. There are millions of women who are less fortunate in this part of the world and have been victims of abuse, physical or sexual, and have not been allowed to follow their dreams because they were a girl! So whether you guys like to accept it or not, this is the truth. And yes, I do believe that if I was a man I would not have faced certain unnecessary controversies that I did!…I have made myself very clear, and will stand for what I believe in and address the issue of gender inequality.”
She has also spoken quite candidly on the issue of being a mother and a working professional as well. After giving birth to her son in 2018, she trained hard to get back into shape and returned to the game in 2020. She would win the first event she played in Hobart, Australia.
Speaking to the media after winning the tournament, she said, “The part of the world that I come from, having a baby is like the end of the world. The woman is just supposed to give up and take care of the child. I just feel that even if this inspires one woman to follow your dream and do something that she loves, I feel extremely privileged in this position.”
India’s No 1 in Women’s Tennis from 2003 to 2013 and the winner of six Grand Slam titles, the legacy she leaves behind is one of excellence on the court and fearlessness off it.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)