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The ultimate Indian sportswoman

Indian tennis sensation Sania Mirza talks about her journey to being World No. 1 and the obstacles that Indian sportspersons face.

Sania Mirza
India's tennis sensation Sania Mirza

In a city that's thousands of miles away from Hyderabad, hearing Sania Mirza's name being spoken in hushed tones by everyone comes as a bit of a surreal experience. Her matches draw huge crowds in Melbourne, and she's got a legion of supporters who chant "Let's go Sania!” with almost the same enthusiasm as they do "Let's go Nick!” or “Let's go Bernie!”. 

All that comes with the territory of being World No. 1, of course. For years she was known as the postergirl of tennis in India, but now she is known as the postergirl of doubles tennis all over the world. And she plays the part to perfection.

One half of the most dominant doubles pair in recent history, Sania has come a long way from being a talented youngster with an explosive forehand who couldn't stay injury-free long enough to maintain her more-than-decent singles ranking. After getting her priorities right and taking the difficult but necessary decision to forego singles, Sania has blossomed in a way that few could have imagined, to the extent that many now consider her to be the greatest Indian tennis player of all time.

Naturally, it's not easy to get hold of her for an interview. After a series of cancellations and postponements, I finally manage to get an appointment an hour after her practice session on Day 7 of the 2016 Australian Open (she's got no matches scheduled for the day). But I arrive at the venue half an hour early, and the wait becomes interminable.

Finally, after what seems like a millennium, the woman of the moment strolls in, looking as fresh as a daisy. Dressed in black tracks with a peach top, Sania eyes me with an inquisitive glance, and for a moment I forget what I'm supposed to say. All kinds of disastrous situations immediately flood my head, the least mortifying of which was that I'd be too tongue-tied to ask her anything, and she'd walk away thinking I was mute.

But thankfully the moment passes quickly, and I introduce myself. Sania, now convinced that I wasn't some crazy fan who had travelled all the way to Melbourne to stalk her, settles into her chair and says that she's ready for the questions.

Is she happy with the state of her game right now?

“Well you're always working on things to improve,” Sania says, in a very matter-of-fact way. “As a tennis player, till the day you retire, you're always improving. So I feel like I've been playing very good and improving as the tournament is getting along. I've played four matches now – one in the doubles and one in the mixed, and the point is to peak in the second week of the Slam, and hopefully that will happen.”

For a sports website based in India, Sania is an icon beyond comprehension. Every time Sportskeeda gets a retweet from her Twitter account, we start celebrating – sporting heroes are few and far between in the country. Does she enjoy being put on a pedestal like that, or does she think it adds to the pressure she already faces while competing in the ultra intense tennis world?

Sania gives a knowing smile while I'm mid-way through my question, and when I finish she gives a look that suggests she completely understands what I'm trying to say. “I don't really remember a time when there was no pressure on me. I've always had to deal with that because I never really had any predecessors or someone who was playing at this level. For me pressure goes with my territory and who I am, but you have to enjoy that pressure as well. As hard as it is to believe, you have to, because if you don't, you'll succumb to it.

“That's something that I've learned to deal with and live with, and it's something that drives me to do better. I kind of take that as an inspiration and as a source of positive energy because so many people, you know, millions of people, want you to do well.”

I am a little taken aback at how forthright and measured she is about being put on a pedestal. But I quickly remind myself how many years she's been at this; after a decade of being in the spotlight, it's understandable that she'd have learned to use the hero-worshipping tendencies of us Indians as a source of motivation rather than fear.

I suddenly hear a woman with a thick Australian accent making an announcement, and I'm reminded of which country we are in. How does she like playing in Melbourne? Is it her favourite Slam, or does she like playing at all the Slams equally?

Sania surprises me with her quick and unequivocal answer. “It IS my favourite Slam,” she says emphatically. “It's sort of the Australasian Slam, so for us it's closer to home, and I always enjoy coming back here.

“I've had special memories here. I won my first Slam here, I played in my first third round match here in singles, it was the first Slam that I ever played in the main draw. So there are many things, many emotions attached to the Australian Open for me.”

Sania and Martina Hingis had at the time won two Majors on the trot, and are on track for the – let's call it the ‘Santina Slam' (edit: they went on to win the Australian Open but faltered at the final hurdle, the French). Does she think about that at all, or does she think that that's looking too far ahead?

Sania seems eager to answer this before I've even finished the question. “No not at all, actually,” she goes. “I'd be lying if I said it hasn't crossed our minds, but at the end of the day it's not an easy thing to win back-to-back and again back-to-back. We're here, we have a really tough match in the next round (Note: this conversation took place before Hingis-Mirza's third round match against Svetlana Kuznetsova and Roberta Vinci). We play against a couple of people who've won a bunch of Slams, and one of them is even a former World No. 1.

“We couldn't possibly have asked for a tougher match in the third round. So we just take it match by match and hopefully we can come through tomorrow, and if we do come through, we'll look at the quarterfinals. But yeah, of course the goal is try and win every tournament you play, which luckily enough we've been able to do over the last five months. At some point we will lose; it will happen, you know. It's not going to remain this way-”

“Hopefully it happens at one of the smaller tournaments,” I offer, and Sania readily agrees. “Yeah, of course, that's the hope, right? But we will try and do everything we can to not lose. We give our best every time we play, and we don't really think too much in advance.”

Right, so that's clearly a question that she's has been asked a lot of times. I frantically search for a question that would sound more intelligent, and I zero in upon a slightly technical one. She's been really good at the net lately, and seems to be getting better at volleying with each passing year. Is it her extensive doubles play that has contributed to that?

Fortunately, her expression this time suggests it's not something that she's talked about too frequently. “No, there are a lot of things at play in that. Volleying doesn't come naturally to kids as they are growing up because, first of all, as tennis players we don't practise volleying that much. We always hit from the baseline; that's how practice sessions are done. 

“I remember as kids, when we used to try and come to the net, the coaches used to say, ‘Stop fooling around’. So obviously if you're not practising something as a child, you're not going to be very good at it. That's why people get better at volleying as they grow older, because they keep doing it more and more. For me, that's one reason why my volleys have consistently improved over the years.

Sania Mirza Martina Hingis
Sania Mirza in action at the 2016 Australian Open with her doubles partner Martina Hingis

“The other reason is that my priority is to play doubles and I've got to try to improve in doubles. Not playing singles for a couple of years now has given me the opportunity to practise specific things that are just for doubles which I probably wouldn't have done if I was still playing singles. It was a conscious decision, because I felt like I needed to improve my volleys in order to be the best doubles player in the world, and I did that.

“Does that mean I don't have more room for improvement? Of course I do. Volleying is still not my strength; my strength is from the back of the court. But hopefully as we keep playing I'll get better and better, and we'll keep winning.”

I must confess that the way Sania talks about knowing what she needed to do to become the ‘best player in the world’, and then affirming that she had actually gone ahead and done it, gives me goosebumps. Can you teach anyone that kind of confidence, that kind of self-belief?

Incidentally, 'self-belief’ turns out to play a major role in her answer to my next question. Indian women have traditionally struggled to break into the top level of sports, but she has bucked that trend big time and has become a pioneer for tennis in the country. What did she and her parents do differently that helped turn her tennis dreams into reality?

“Believed in ourselves,” Sania answers immediately. “On that side of the world we are scared to take risks in things that people haven't done before, and that's what we were venturing into. We were told multiple times how silly it was to think that we could actually produce an international tennis player in Hyderabad, where it's never happened before. But the belief kept us going – the belief in ourselves, the belief in my talent, the belief that all the sacrifices would pay off. And at the end of the day, they did pay off.

“We still made mistakes, because we didn't really have anyone to guide us. We'd never had anyone play at this level before, you know. The last time anyone from India had reached the top 30 in singles was in the era of Ramesh Krishnan and Vijay Amritraj. It hadn't happened in 40 years.

“So for me to aim to be a top-ranked singles player was unheard of at that point. But we learned from our mistakes, and we kept moving forward – those were the only things that we did differently.”

I can't help but think how powerful those words are, and how they can be a real source of inspiration for anyone struggling to make it in any field. But I am still fuzzy about one part of Sania's journey to the top. How much of this insistence on aiming for the top was down to her parents? In India every child's parents have a big influence on what he or she grows up to do. Was becoming a tennis player – despite all the odds being stacked against her – her decision, or her parents’?

“I think it was a bit of both,” Sania says. “They were the ones who enrolled me into the sport, but it wasn't that I was specifically playing tennis. I used to swim, I used to skate, I used to do many things. But the decision to stay in tennis was mine. I enjoyed it more than the other sports – it was as basic as that.

“My parents guided me to learn what I was better at; that's what parents do. But I have been lucky enough to have parents who never really put any pressure on me; they never told me what I should or should not do. I was allowed to make my own decision even when I was 12 years old – whether I wanted to go to school or play tennis and travel. I think there's a fine line that parents have to understand; it's good to push your child but it's not good to put pressure on them. And I am lucky enough to have parents who understand that.

“Of course, I wouldn't have been able to achieve anything without them. They were the ones who stayed with me through all the ups and downs, and are still with me 29 years later. That's what family is about – being together regardless of anything that happens.”

I fall silent for a moment; as cliched as that last line sounds, I can sense how genuine Sania is being at the moment. I'm sure she's been asked about her parents a lot of times, but I never imagined she would be so heartfelt with her answer every time. And that makes me all the more hesitant to move on to the next set of my questions, which come dangerously close to being offensive.

But I tell myself that it's important to cover all my bases, so I soldier on; I HAVE to talk about the controversies that have constantly surrounded her name. All of them have been completely needless and stupid, but has she looked at a controversy and laughed about it because of its sheer ridiculousness? Or does any of it upset her in any way?

I can tell that Sania was expecting this kind of question, and she seems thoroughly prepared to bat away any hint of unpleasantness. “I've laughed at most of those controversies. But there are some that have upset me as well. We are humans; we might be stars and we might be on TV, but that doesn't mean we don't have emotions and feelings, whether good, bad, angry, sad, ugly – whatever it is. 

“I have laughed, yes, and I have also felt other emotions towards those things. But the bottom line is that it doesn't matter. At the end of the day I'm here to play tennis and to be true to myself. That's how I've been brought up; my parents have always taught me to hold my ground. But sometimes holding your ground doesn't go well with people, so that's just how it is.

“I can sleep well at night, and that's what's important to me. As long as I know that I'm honest to what I believe, I'm alright. That's how I live my life. I know that controversies come in automatically when you become famous, especially in that part of the world. Negativity sells; it becomes boring sometimes to talk about forehands and backhands, and I guess the newspapers have to do their job.”

Sania's face takes on a hardened, defiant look as she finishes that answer, and I know I'm in slippery territory. But I plod on, “Any particular controversy that upset you a lot? Any-”

“I really can't think of one right now,” Sania interrupts before I can finish. I take my cue and hurriedly say, “Yeah, there are probably too many of them.” She agrees, and we move on.

I can think of no better topic to lighten the mood than Sania's celebrated if short stint as a top singles player. What advice would she give to Indian players who have big ambitions in singles? Players from the country have been traditionally better at doubles than at singles, and nothing much has changed even after Sania burst on to the scene. Was there anything that she did purely as a singles player that the youngsters can try and emulate?

“Physically I worked a lot, but I didn't start early enough,” Sania says earnestly, and I can almost see the years of hard work and toil reflected in her eyes. "Because I didn't know better, I started working on my fitness when I was 14 years old, which was already very late. You have to start when you're six or seven years old. That's a mistake I made; if I had started earlier, maybe I wouldn't have ended up with so many injuries, and maybe I would have still been playing singles today.

“As Indians we aren't as strong and physically agile as the Europeans or Russians or Americans. So we have to put in a lot more effort. I myself had to work a lot; I have always had a condition with my joints, which is a higher form of arthritis. So for me it just got impossible to play singles any more, which is why I had to make that decision at that point.

“So all the aspiring Indian singles players need to start working as much as possible on fitness, and they need to do that right from six or seven years of age. That's the only way; tennis is too physical today to achieve anything just on raw talent.”

Spoken like a true veteran. Sania's advice makes perfect sense, and it's also an accurate if harsh assessment of her own struggles which she tried so hard to overcome. But she seems to think there's hope for the future, so I pose my next question. Has she been following the Indian juniors? Is there any player who she thinks can achieve Slam success?

“Well I think-” Sania begins, but suddenly stops. “Slam success? What – in singles?” she asks.

“In singles OR doubles,” I quickly reply, wondering what I had done to prompt such a retort. 

“You know, I don't think you realize how tough it is to win a Slam, whether it's singles or doubles. But-”

Relieved that it was only a case of misunderstanding, I swoop in to clarify. “No, I didn't mean winning Slams; I just meant getting there and maybe advancing a few rounds.”

“Oh alright,” Sania says. “I think Karman (Kaur Thandi) is pretty good. She hits the ball well; I've hit with her a few times. She's obviously tall and she's got everything in place. Now what she does with the raw talent that she has is up to her. She has to move better and get stronger; it's not like when you're 17 you're that young. She needs to make that jump soon, and hopefully it will happen in the near future. 

“She won her match yesterday, and I know Pranjala (Yadlapalli) won yesterday as well. So I do follow the juniors, and I do keep an eye out for these kids. I always tell them that I'm always there if they need to talk to me or ask me something. They all have my number; I'm, like, friends with them. But I do think that Karman is probably the best talent that we have.”

Karman went on to reach the third round of the Australian Open juniors, so clearly Sania knows what she's talking about.

Her personal life has always been under scrutiny, not least because of her high-profile marriage to Shoaib Malik. But what I'm more interested in how she manages to find balance in such a hectic shchedule. Travelling is a big part of Sania's job description, and she spends almost her entire life on the go. How much time does she get to spend with her family? With her cricketer husband travelling a lot too, does that put a strain on their relationship?

“Yeah it's very tough,” says Sania. “We live very high pressure lives, and have very high pressure jobs. A lot of people have one deadline to meet in a month and they end up pulling their hair out. But we have deadlines to meet every single day, and in our country it is considered to be a national crisis when we lose a match. Put that into two and make it a relationship, a couple, and it becomes very difficult.

“We both understand our priorities though. As long as we're both playing, we know what needs to be done. That's something that we were very clear on even when we were seeing each other, before we got married, and it's remained that way.

He's in New Zealand right now; it's funny because we are so close and yet, he's there and I'm here. But that's how it is; duty calls and you have to make those sacrifices if you want to become the best in the world.”

There's that emphasis on being the best in the world again. It's scary to think just how important that is to Sania; to have such a clear goal in your mind, and then work tirelessly to achieve that goal, takes a special kind of conviction. And conviction is something that Sania has never lacked.

Sania Mirza forehand
The Sania Mirza forehand, one of the biggest weapons in women's doubles

But surely she had loads of obstacles on her way to the top? What is the single biggest obstacle a budding Indian sportsperson has to face? Sania immediately shoots back, “For a male sportsperson or a female one?”

I guess that partly answers my question, but I procced anyway. “A female one,” I say pointedly.

“Well,” Sania replies, “the first thing is to convince people that you don't want to learn how to cook, and that you actually want to go out and play. We fight a certain cultural battle everyday. I still fight it,” she sighs. “I win Wimbledon, and two days later I am asked when I'm going to have a child. Women are only expected to take care of a family, and produce, and cook, and wait for their husbands to come back from work. To be a sportsperson you have to fight against those expectations from society.

“The second battle is to try and make people understand that becoming dark (tanned) is not the biggest issue in the world.” Sania can't suppress a bitter laugh at this point. “There are many things like that we as women face. At the end of the day, to succeed in a man's world is not easy. And then when you pick a sport like tennis, which is played in about 200 countries, it's competitive to a level that you can't even comprehend. Put in no coaching, no facilities and all the other shortages when I started playing, and you're basically dealing with a million odds against yourself.

“Guys, on the other hand, have their own issues I'm sure. They need to work on the physical aspects, and they need the right guidance too. That's enough problems for both guys and girls, isn't it?”

The picture does look bleak as Sania finishes her answer. But if she could overcome all those obstacles, surely it's not impossible? I guess the reason why she brings all of this up is so that someone does something to make the path easier for the next generation of athletes. Hopefully, that will happen sooner rather than later.

I look again for a question that can lighten the mood, and I go with the 'favourite pastime’ one. What does Sania like to do when she's not playing, practising or watching tennis?

“I actually hate watching tennis,” she says with a laugh. “If I'm out of a tournament I have no idea what's happening with the rest of the players. That's just how I am; I like to disconnect.”

“I'm actually a pretty basic and lazy person,” she continues. “I'm not too fond of going out, but I'm more about sleeping, or getting a massage, or having a quiet dinner. I watch Bollywood movies, and also a lot of TV shows; I'm watching ‘How to get away with murder’ right now. I'm hooked on to that; it's the last episode today!” she finishes, with a glint of excitement in her eyes.

Sounds pleasant enough. What about the food that she enjoys eating the most? “I prefer Indian food but I don't eat Indian the night before I play, since it's quite heavy,” Sania answers. “I'm allergic to gluten, so that limits the food that I can eat. Indian food is fine in that regard; for a gluten-free diet it's easy with the rice and stuff. I have dal and rice when I want to keep things light. But my favourite food is biryani; I mean, I'm from Hyderabad, so...”

Why am I not surprised? But to be fair Hyderabadi biryani is pretty much the favourite food of anyone who's ever tasted it, so...

It's time for a couple of cliched questions now. Which sportsperson inspires Sania the most? “I've always been inspired by Steffi Graf. She's been someone that I've looked up to all my life. I still do, in a lot of ways.”

“I'm sure she'll be proud of your forehand,” I offer, and fortunately she sees the genuineness of my comment and replies with a laugh, “Hopefully!”

Any Indian sportsperson she's been inspired by? “If I have to pick a woman,” Sania says, “it would have to be P.T. Usha. She is someone who really brought women's sports into the limelight, even when the media and stuff wasn't so big. Even as a child, I knew who P.T. Usha was; I didn't know a lot, but I knew about her. She's a true legend.

“Even today she's trying to give back to her sport, and that's truly inspiring.”

I'm down to my last couple of questions now. Well not really, but the media coordinator has been giving me death stares for the last 10 minutes, trying to get me to wrap things up quickly, so I choose two with which to end the interview. Which format does she enjoy playing more – singles or doubles? She made a difficult decision to give up singles and focus on doubles, but perhaps she's started enjoying this format even more?

The question seems a little strange to Sania. “Enjoy? I don't know what that means. We are not here for enjoyment; we are here because it is our profession, we are here to win. And we do try to enjoy it while we're at it, like we all try to enjoy our work. Do I enjoy playing tennis? No, I enjoy winning at tennis.

As for singles or doubles, I loved playing singles and I still do. I still practise singles when I can, actually, but my body just won't allow me to play it day after day. If I had a choice I would still want to play singles, yes. But at the end of the day I enjoy winning, so whether that's singles, doubles or mixed doubles I really don't care. As long as I'm winning I feel like I'm okay.”

I don't know whether Sania says all that because she's in a rush to wrap things up, but her comment comes as a bit of an eye-opener. How many professional athletes do we know who will admit that winning matters more to them than the game itself? It's no wonder she's the best in the world.

My last question is tied to her previous answer. We always see Sania smiling on the court between points, irrespective of whether she's won it or not. Does she do that deliberately to take the pressure off, or does it come naturally to her because she sees humour in a lot of things?

“I feel that when you're on the tennis court you can't really act,” Sania says, a little sternly. “You're kind of naked in front of a lot of people, and there's nothing to hide. Sometimes when I laugh after losing a point I laugh at myself; I'm not really enjoying it. I'm laughing at the fact that I was so silly to miss a shot like that. I know it's not possible, but I want to put every ball inside the court. But that's how tennis players are; we are perfectionists, and we are very obsessive about things.

“I smile because, like I said, I love what I do and I enjoy what I do. I am very fortunate to be playing tennis and I feel very blessed. But that doesn't mean I'm smiling because it's a joke for me. I'm happy to be out there, but I want to win. That's what makes me the happiest.”

If ever there was a perfect way for a champion to sign off, that last line would be it. And just like that, Sania gets out of her chair, thanks me and the media coordinator, and walks away.

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