‘I thrive under pressure’: Mirza, India’s empowering tennis icon, ready for Slam farewell

Indian tennis star Sania Mirza in action at the Australian Open in Melbourne. PHOTO: MIRZASANIAR/INSTAGRAM
Sania Mirza (right) and long-time partner Martina Hingis wave at the 2016 BNP Paribas WTA Finals in Singapore. PHOTO: LAGARDERE SPORTS

MELBOURNE - In a hallway at the Australian Open sits the history-writer, the conversation-changer, the dream-forger. Her calves are covered in tape, they are “fragile”, she says, but that is to be expected.

Not just because of the miles she has run over 18 years on tour but the doors and stereotypes and inequality she has kicked down. Sania Mirza has always met life head on.

Mirza, 36, mother of a four-year-old, is one match from a Grand Slam goodbye. For a woman of immaculate timing – at six, when she first held a racket, she made “ball to racket contact” –  of course her farewell is a final. It is Wednesday night and the Indian is running the gauntlet of interviews after reaching the mixed doubles final at the Australian Open and you can tell that lovely ache of competitiveness has not left her.

“The competition,” the six-time winner of Grand Slam titles tells The Straits Times, “I think that’s probably the only thing I will miss the most... Walking on and feeling the rush of adrenaline. I thrive under pressure. I love it. I like feeling nerves, where I feel like it’s depending on me.”

On Wednesday in the semi-final, in the 10-point deciding super tie-breaker, it is 8-6 to her and partner Rohan Bopanna and she hits an angled backhand which scorches the line. “In that moment, at 8-6, I feel I’m better than the other people. That’s how I feel, whether I am or not is a secondary issue.”

This raw, unfiltered honesty (brashness for some) is the beauty and power of Mirza. Retreat was not in her vocabulary, nor usually was subtlety. As a kid, she was deeply shy; as a woman, she spoke out the way she hit the ball. Forcefully and rousingly.

When an Indian TV anchor asked her about settling down, she replied: “You sound disappointed that I’m not choosing motherhood over being No. 1 in the world at this point of time.”

Very early, Mirza understood that her platform – she has 10.9 million Instagram followers, world No. 1 Iga Swiatek has one million, Naomi Osaka, 2.7 million – gave her a voice.

She was never speaking only for herself but for the great unheard of her gender. “I think,” she says, “that what I’m proudest of as a woman athlete is to stand up for what’s right.”

She spoke out against female foeticide, domestic violence and the stereotypes women encounter. She knew because she had faced them. “Oh, you’re going to wear shorts and play,” she remembers people saying. Girls were told to stay out of the sun. Mirza flowered beneath it. “I don’t know why they are so obsessed with the colour of your skin,” she sighs.

The New Yorker wrote on her, TIME put her on the cover and the UN made her the first South Asian woman to be appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador. As Prajwal Hegde of The Times of India, who has closely followed Mirza’s career, says: “Sania’s greatest contribution to Indian sport and women in general is her absolute fearlessness.”

Attention brings privileges but also the mean gaze of scrutiny. Women athletes, as it is, fight misogyny, unequal funding and impertinent questions over dress and body shape. Mirza, a young Muslim, had to deal with crude lectures about the length of her skirt and insidious insinuations about her disrespecting the national flag.

When she got to world No. 1, people were talking about how she looks. “That,” she says firmly, “is just not okay.” And yet this is how role models are born, by a young woman resisting trolls even as she became an irresistible force.

For 91 weeks, Mirza was No. 1 in women’s doubles. She won 43 doubles trophies (the most among active players) with 17 different partners. She won three Grand Slam doubles titles (Australian Open, Wimbledon, US Open), two WTA Finals doubles trophies and three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles (Australian Open, French Open, US Open). Not since the luminous Li Na, and later Naomi Osaka, has a female Asian tennis player so seized the imagination.

Her legacy is her titles, her forehand, which whistled like a right hook, and her influence. “There are parents who have come and said, ‘Oh, you know that my young girl wanted to do something out of the box and we want her to be like you’.”

In some part, it all began 26 years ago, when her father, Imran, took her across India. “Planes were not affordable then,” he says. So he got an old car from Mumbai, pulled out the engine, put in a diesel one and off they went.

“People used to laugh at us,” Imran remembers, “and say, what, you’re going to make her another Martina Hingis?“

In the loveliest of ironies, Mirza won 14 titles alongside Hingis. So many thousands of miles her family drove in those years. But how far that young girl has come is simply beyond measure.

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