Sania Mirza is one of India's most decorated tennis champions. The 34-year-old has claimed six Grand Slam doubles titles (at least one at each of the four Slams). She has won the season-ending WTA Finals doubles event twice and has 1 WTA singles title to her credit. Mirza has also led India to their best-ever showing in the Billie Jean King Cup, women's tennis' premier team event.
Her cabinet is stacked with 43 WTA titles plus numerous ITF, national and other titles. The one thing missing from her trophy cabinet is an Olympic medal.
For many athletes, an Olympic medal is considered the pinnacle of their sporting career. While tennis has historically placed more weightage on the Grand Slams (the sport has been a medal event at the Olympics regularly only since 1988), the Olympic tennis medal remains one of the top goals for many players in today's times.
India's only tennis medal thus far has come via Leander Paes. The 47-year-old won the singles bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games and remains hopeful of competing in a record-extending eighth Olympics in Tokyo.
Now back from her maternity break, Sania Mirza has also placed the Olympics as one of her biggest priorities in the coming months. With that, let's take a look at Mirza's previous performances at the Olympics and her chances at the Tokyo Games.
Sania Mirza's past performances at the Olympics
Sania Mirza has competed in three Olympic editions so far. In her first Olympic Games in 2008, Mirza retired in her first-round singles match in Beijing against Iveta Benesova due to a wrist injury. In the women's doubles, Mirza and Sunitha Rao received a walkover in the first round and then went down to the Russian pair of Svetlana Kuznetsova and Dinara Safina in the second (Note - mixed doubles was not part of the 2008 Games).
At the 2012 London Olympics, Sania Mirza and partner Rushmi Chakravarthy lost in the first round of the women's doubles event to the Chinese Taipei pair of Chuang Chia-jung/ Su-Wei Hsieh.
Meanwhile, in the mixed doubles, Mirza and Paes went down in the quarter-finals to Belarus' Victoria Azarenka and Max Mirnyi after politics over the selection of teams gathered major headlines in the lead-up to the tournament.
At the most recent 2016 Games in Rio, Mirza and partner Prarthana Thombare went down to the Chinese duo of Peng Shuai and Zhang Shuai in the first round. But it was in the mixed doubles that Mirza, partnering with Rohan Bopanna this time, came closest to achieving her dream of an Olympic medal.
Mirza and Bopanna reached the semifinals, losing to the American duo of Venus Williams/ Rajeev Ram in a super tie break; and then to the Czech duo of Lucie Hradecka/ Radek Stepanek in the bronze medal play-off.
“Losing in the match to go into the final at the Olympics and then losing out for the medal in the semis when we played for bronze (is my biggest disappointment). Two days in a row,” Mirza said when she appeared on Purav Raja's chat show Chai with Raja last year.
Sania Mirza's comeback in 2020 after giving birth to her son
When Sania Mirza began her comeback last year in January, competing in her fourth Olympic Games and aiming for a medal were one of her major priorities.
Mirza kicked off her comeback by winning her first tournament back in Hobart, but an injury forced her to retire during the early rounds of the 2020 Australian Open. Sania Mirza played two more events before the pandemic brought the tour to a halt.
The Indian, now a mother to a young child, chose not to travel when the tour resumed in August due to concerns around the pandemic. And earlier this year, she tested positive for COVID-19 herself.
Sania Mirza finally returned to the tour earlier this month by competing in Doha (semi-finals) and Dubai (round of 16). She was also due to play the ongoing Miami Open with Kim Clijsters, but the Belgian's injury-related withdrawal put another spanner in her plans.
Sania Mirza's protected ranking : How it works and what it means for her Tokyo Olympic qualification
As it stands, Sania Mirza is ranked 157th in the current WTA rankings. However, Mirza also has a protected ranking since she was away from the game for more than two years due to her maternity break. The protected ranking is a facility where players returning from a maternity break can enter tournaments using the ranking they held before the break to enter a specified number of events, or for a certain period of time.
Sania Mirza's protected ranking currently stands at No. 9 and as per the WTA Tour, the Indian will hold that protected ranking until December 27, 2021.
The protected ranking enables Mirza to enter 12 events. Mirza has used that protected ranking to enter 3 events so far since her comeback last January (for the others, she would have used her actual ranking or a wild card entry).
That means Sania Mirza has another 9 events which she can enter using her protected ranking (there are some limits on the number of Slams etc. that can be entered with that ranking - for more details refer to the WTA Rulebook for 2021). The good news for Mirza and Indian fans is that she can also use her protected ranking to enter the Tokyo Olympics.
With her protected ranking, Sania Mirza has assured herself of a spot in the Tokyo women's doubles draw as long as she does not exhaust her tournament limit for the protected ranking; and she has a partner ranked within the Top 300 in singles or doubles.
Ankita Raina's singles ranking currently stands at No. 169 followed by Riya Bhatia at No. 361 while in doubles, Raina is ranked No. 101 followed by Rutuja Bhosale at No. 203).
Things look a bit more uncertain on the mixed doubles front. Only players on-site for the singles or doubles event from the same nation can join up to play in the mixed doubles. With Rohan Bopanna at No. 42, Divij Sharan at No. 66, Ramkumar Ramanathan at No. 115, Purav Raja at No. 130, and Paes at No. 139, it remains to be seen whether an Indian team will qualify as per the cut-off for the Tokyo men's doubles draw.
So for now, it seems likely that barring any injury to the top Indian women or other variables that may come into play at a later date, the Tokyo women's doubles draw will feature an Indian pair. And Sania Mirza should be there flying the flag high for Indian tennis at the Olympic Games once again.