EXCLUSIVE - Sania Mirza: "Need to punch above our weight to make an impression in Tokyo Olympics!"
Eager to decorate her career with a maiden Olympic medal, 6-time Grand Slam champion Sania Mirza reveals her plans in an exclusive interaction with The Bridge, ahead of Tokyo.
Sania Mirza is one of the most revered sportswomen in India. The tennis star's achievements at the global stage continues to be an inspiration for budding tennis players in India. She became a professional tennis player in 2003. 18 years hence, she is all set to represent India at the Summer Olympics for the fourth time as she heads to Tokyo in July for the quadrennial Olympic Games. The Bridge got in touch with Mirza, who is currently practicing at the tennis courts of England.
The veteran and the young brigade
A veteran of the game now, Mirza's career has shown exemplary resilience and endurance. "Amazingly, it's been 29 years since I started my journey in tennis as a child. I have enjoyed every moment of it and continue to be passionate about the game, which is why I am still around," says the six-time doubles slam champion. Earlier this year, Mirza accompanied a young women's team at Latvia for their away tie at the Billie Jean King Cup (formerly: Fed Cup). Sania herself did not play any of the matches in the tie where the visitors fell 3-1. Despite a fighting performance from Ankita Raina and Karman Kaur Thandi in the singles matches, they were unable to cross the finish line. However, Rutuja Bhosale partnered Zeel Desai to win the doubles encounter. "We do have some talent in our country but I believe that it needs to be properly nurtured and that is the key to producing world-class players," says Mirza as she reflects on their performance.
Earlier in an interview with The Bridge, Ankita Raina, who is selected to partner Mirza at the Tokyo Olympics this year, said that their pairing is very compatible. Raina said that while Sania is one of the best players from the deuce court, she herself has played her best doubles tennis from the ad side. The Mirza-Raina team has an impressive 5-0 record at the Billie Jean King Cup. But they are going to face far more tougher challenges as they plot their strategies for Tokyo.
"Ankita is a very hard-working girl and we have done well together as a team in BJK Cup." But Raina is only debuting at the Olympics compared to the vast experience of Mirza. Being wary of it, Mirza added, "However, she is inexperienced at the highest level of the game and the standard of players at the Olympics will be considerably and consistently higher to the level that we have faced so far. We will need to punch above our weight to make an impression in Tokyo," Sania Mirza revealed.
Super-mom in the making
Sania Mirza gave birth to her son Izhaan in 2018. Following her maternity leave, Mirza partnered Ukraine's Nadiia Kichenok at the 2020 Hobart International. The duo won the event, defeating the Chinese pairing of Zheng Shuai and Peng Shuai in straight sets. The pandemic disrupted the tennis tour's schedule, but not the will of Mirza. Off-court, she vigorously trained to get back in the best shape once competitive tennis kicked off. Earlier in 2021, she was denied the visa for the United Kingdom due to COVID-19 restrictions. But some help from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs resulted in Mirza's son and her caretaker to eventually acquire the visas.
In the forthcoming weeks, she plans to play at a few tune-up events on grass ahead of Wimbledon, after which she would prepare for the Olympics. At 34, Mirza is optimistic of making a smooth transition from the change in surface. "The bounce on hard courts tends to be more consistent and it's possible to take the ball on the rise. It's, perhaps, easier to get back on hard courts from grass rather than vice versa as on grass the ball stays low, skids through and the bounce is uneven," said Mirza.
A doubles legend
Sania Mirza's illustrious career has seen her lift 42 doubles titles. She enjoyed the status of a World No.1 in the doubles rankings for 91 weeks. Apart from having a win-rate of nearly 70% in doubles matches, she won the year-ending championships twice in her career – 2014 (partnering Cara Black) and 2015 (partnering Martina Hingis). The Olympics will be held at the Ariake Tennis Park, a venue that Mirza is well acclimatized with. She won the Toray Pan Pacific title (held at Ariake Tennis Park) with Cara Black in 2013 and 2014, and later with Barbora Strycova in 2016.
"Yes, I have had a long career in tennis and I have some great memories in all corners of the world for which I am extremely grateful. But my partners, Cara Black and Barbora Strycova were both World No. 1's and winners of Grand Slams at some point as I was too, and that makes a huge difference."
She further adds, "I don't expect the going to be easy at the Olympics and Ankita is fully aware of this." When asked about the limited attendance and if it would have any impact on their game, Sania says, "The crowds are an important part of sport but as professionals, we learn to switch off from what's happening outside the court while we compete and less spectators should not have any impact on my game."
A long wait
Before a wrist injury put curtains to her singles career, Sania Mirza had a promising singles career. She was among the Top 30 players globally, having reached four tour level finals. She won one of these finals at the Hyderabad Open in 2005, making her the first Indian to win a tour level title. Mirza has recorded singles wins against slam winners like Martina Hingis, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Marion Bartoli and Dinara Safina. Ever since the halt of Sania's singles career, no epoch-making event has been produced from India's singles players. While this has often drawn criticism after every slam, Sania feels that of the many reasons for this setback is that there haven't been any right efforts in this direction. "It's difficult to enumerate the reasons for this in an interview but I do try to guide the kids at my Academy and whenever I get an opportunity, I try and advise the upcoming players of the country," says Mirza.
Mental health, Tokyo Olympics and Future Goals
Mental health has been in the spotlight in the tennis world, ever since Naomi Osaka withdrew from the 2021 Roland Garros after criticising the press about bringing down the athletes' morale. Mirza herself had battled depression after the 2008 Olympics. But she valiantly brushed past a relatively long battle by winning two medals at the Commonwealth Games. Better yet, the year is 2021, and she still represents India at the Olympics. "Life is about overcoming challenges and giving up is not an option," says Sania when she was asked to give a word of advice to the ones in a tug of war with depression.
Sania Mirza has found her name etched in distinguished lists like the 50 Heroes of Asia (2005), 33 Women who made India Proud (The Economic Times, 2010), BBC List of 100 inspiring women (2015) and Time's Magazine 100 Most Influential People (2016). A brand ambassador of the Indian state of Telangana, Mirza became the first South Asian woman to be announced as the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador in 2014. The list doesn't end here.
In her long list of accolades - 14 medals (6 gold), Six Grand Slams, Arjuna Award, Khel Ratna and Padma Bhushan shine brightly. What does Sania Mirza aim for now, and where does her career go from here?
"I am very satisfied with what I have achieved over the years but would love to win an Olympic medal in Tokyo," replied Sania. "We came very close to doing that in Rio. I believe in destiny and while I will do everything in my power to win, as long as I've tried my best, it will not be the end of the world if I don't achieve it." Furthermore, she reminds us of an incredible feat that she is about to achieve when she will carry the Indian flag at the Tokyo Olympics. "I am already proud to be in a position where I will be joining athlete Shiny Abraham as the only Indian woman ever, across all sports, to have represented India in 4 Olympics!"
Finally, when asked about her favourite Olympic moment, Mirza's reply is honest and filled with ebullience - "Marching at the Opening Ceremony of the Games, proudly representing my country."
Mirza came extremely close to winning a medal in the mixed doubles event at the Rio Olympics partnering Rohan Bopanna. They lost the bronze medal match to the Czech pairing of Lucie Hradecka and Radek Stepanek. In women's doubles, Mirza is yet to get past the second round and will certainly hope for a change of fortune. She is likely to play at Eastbourne ahead of Wimbledon and the Olympics. Regardless of the results, Mirza will certainly be regarded as one of the most persistent Olympians of her nation.