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Advantage Sania

May/12/2022 / by Swarnendu Biswas
Tennis player Sania Mirza prepares to return a serve during Round 2 of the PTT Pattaya Open 2012 on February 9, 2012 at Dusit Thani Hotel in Pattaya, Thailand

“‘Game, set, match,’ the chair umpire called. The match was over. They have won but that is not all…She saw her partner Martina Hingis running towards her to congratulate the new number one women’s doubles player in the world. Martina was smiling radiantly with her right forefinger up showing the No. 1 sign. Martina came and hugged her.

“Her entire tennis career flashed before her. She struggled to come to terms with the momentous reality. Injuries and surgeries; autorickshaw rides in the early mornings to reach the court…thrill of winning, disappointment of losing…all swam before her eyes. As if she was seeing her own movie in the court.”

(Courtesy: Ace Against Odds by Imran Mirza, Sania Mirza and Shivani Gupta).

She went on to become the most successful woman tennis player in India. The inspiring story of Sania Mirza could encourage generations of aspiring tennis players in cricket-obsessed India.

India’s Tennis Superstar

She has won six Grand Slam titles in her career – three in the doubles and three in mixed doubles. No other female India tennis player has won even one. The highest-ranked tennis player from India in the singles (she became world No. 27 in mid-2007) and of the former doubles world No.1 in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings, is legacy to her talent, years of sacrifice, uncommon determination, and perseverance.

Sweats and Tears

“When I began my journey in tennis in 1992, there were very few hard courts in Hyderabad and I played on cow-dung courts, which were unique to India. Financing my career for almost a decade- and-a-half until I was able to earn a living from prize money was perhaps the biggest challenge for my family,” Sania said. On top of that she had to bear the murmurs from extended family and friends about how Sania would get too dark playing in the sun, which would make her difficult to get her married off.

Her family’s unwavering support helped Sania to deal with the impediments. 

Imran Mirza, Sania’s father, mentor and her coach (he used to play tennis in his young days), said, “Almost 30 years ago, my wife and I devoted our efforts towards helping Sania become an international level tennis player. Over the years, I have worked as her coach, trainer, mentor, guide, philosopher, financial controller, travel agent, advertising agent. Together with my wife, we have gone on to do everything that was ever needed to help Sania achieve success at the highest level of the game.”

Early Promise

Sania Mirza playing in the first round of the Qatar Open ATP tournament, February 26, 2007.

Born on November 15, 1986 in Mumbai, Sania, the elder of two sisters, began playing tennis at the age of six. 

“I think she was about 7 years old when I realized that Sania has a special talent for tennis,” Imran said. “We encouraged her and she kept improving. When she first played Junior Wimbledon in 2001, we thought she had a chance to become a professional tennis player and decided to focus on that.”

Imran still coaches Sania, though over the years she has had stints with international coaches like Bob Brett, Tony Roche and Sven Groeneveld from whom Imran also learned.

According to Sania, her first major international triumph was when she won the Girls’ Doubles title at Wimbledon in 2003. However, in 2002, she shared a bronze in the Asian Games in mixed doubles, where she partnered with Leander Paes.

Motivation and Grooming

“When Sania broke onto the international scene on the strength of a world-class forehand, she had several technical weaknesses,” Imran said. “Her backhand was ‘iffy,’ her first serve was inconsistent, her second serve was weak, her volleys were poor, and her physical fitness needed work. These were all the areas we needed to work on and quickly, in the full glare of the spotlight.”

Imran motivated Sania by not being carried away by wins or losses.

“Giving her best shot has been my focus,” he said. “I always wore dark glasses when I was on court during her matches so that my eyes never gave away even if I felt disappointed. I was positive and wins and losses were treated on par. I would use losses to help her learn from them and never treated them as major setbacks. This took away the pressure of winning from her and she always stayed calm during the critical moments in matches.”

Highs and Lows

I asked Sania what were the three most momentous occasions in her long career. She had trouble pinpointing them.

Then she said: “Becoming Doubles World No.1 in WTA rankings in 2015, winning the Wimbledon Women’s Doubles title in 2015, triumphing at the prestigious Year end Championships in 2014 and 2015, winning 14 medals for India in Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and Afro-Asian Games and representing India at four Olympic Games would be high on my list of glorious moments of my career,” she conveyed.

As for the nadir, Sania said, “The lowest point was when Rohan Bopanna and I lost narrowly to the US team and missed the opportunity to win a medal for India in the Rio Olympics.”

Doubles and Singles

From her success in the doubles, which outshines her run in the singles in terms of statistics, a casual observer could conclude her strength lay in the doubles. But that would not be accurate.

She played singles and doubles for 10 years as a professional, starting off in 2002, and went on to become World No. 27 in the singles in mid-2007. 

Sania explained: “I had beaten several Grand Slam champions, like Martina Hingis (twice), Marion Bartoli (twice), Svetlana Kuznetsova, Viktoriya Azarenka, Li Na, etc. However, I suffered major injuries and needed three surgeries – on both my knees and my right wrist – because of which I had to give up singles in 2012 and focus on doubles to extend my career.” 

Favorite Partners

It was no surprise that Sania named Martina Hingis as her most favorite women’s doubles partner.

Sania Mirza reacts after losing a point during Round 2 of the PTT Pattaya Open 2012 on February 9, 2012 at Dusit Thani Hotel in Pattaya, Thailand

“Mahesh (Bhupathi) is my favorite mixed doubles partner.” Cara Black, with whom Sania had some great women’s doubles wins, is another favorite.

In August 2016, Sania and Martina Hingis announced their decision to split as a team while citing their last few under-par performances.

Asked the reason for the split, Sania observed, “Every doubles’ combination in tennis has a shelf life. We dominated women’s doubles in the world for a year-and-a-half as a team (San-Tina), and when we were unable to maintain the high standards we had set for ourselves, we mutually decided to play with different partners.”

The Academy of Potential

Sania recently announced her retirement, stating that 2022 would be her last season in competitive tennis. 

“I hope to complete the year and try to get to the best possible ranking I can before I call it quits on my career,” she said. However, she will continue to prepare future tennis players for India at the Sania Mirza Tennis Academy, which was founded in 2014.

“The goal of Sania Mirza Tennis Academy is obviously to provide world class facility and guidance for the next generation of tennis players from our country,” she said. Recently, Prarthana Thombare from SMTA became the 22nd tennis player to represent India at the Olympics. SMTA has also produced several other junior boys and girls who earned national rankings.

Sania tempers her high hopes for tennis in India with pragmatism. 

“I have been around for around two decades but we have still not managed to produce another women’s player who can represent India regularly at the Grand Slams,” she said “We have a few talented girls but tennis is very competitive and a truly global sport. It is not going to be easy for us to produce a top-level women’s tennis player in the near future.”

An Abundance of Awards

Some prestigious awards Sania has won:

  • Arjuna Award (2004)
    Officially known as Arjuna Awards for Outstanding Performance in Sports and Games, it is the second-highest sporting honor of India.
  • Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award (2015)
    Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award, formerly known as the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award in Sports and Games, it is the highest sporting honor of India.
  • Padma Shri (2006)
    Padma Shri is India’s fourth-highest civilian award.
  • Padma Bhushan (2016)
    Padma Bhushan is India’s third-highest civilian award.

Grand Slam Winnings

Sania’s six Grand Slam titles includes the Women’s Doubles in Wimbledon and the US Open in 2015; the Women’s Doubles in the Australian Open in 2016 (all three with Martina Hingis); the Mixed Doubles in the Australian Open in 2009 (with Mahesh Bhupathi);  the Mixed Doubles in the French Open in 2012 (again with Bhupathi); and the Mixed Doubles in the US Open in 2014 (with Bruno Soares). In all, she reached Grand Slam finals four times in the women’s doubles and seven times in the mixed doubles.

Triumphs at the Asian Games

  • Bronze in the Mixed Doubles (with Leander Paes) at the 2002 Asian Games, in Busan, South Korea.
  • Gold in the Mixed Doubles (again with Leander Paes) at the 2006 Asian Games, held in Doha, Qatar.
  • Silver in the Singles at the 2006 Asian Games, held in Doha, Qatar.
  • Silver in the Team Event at the 2006 Asian Games, held in Doha, Qatar.
  • Silver in the Mixed Doubles (pairing with Vishnu Vardhan) at the 2010 Asian Games, held in Guangzhou, China.
  • Bronze in the Singles at the 2010 Asian Games, held in Guangzhou, China.
  • Gold in the Mixed Doubles (pairing with Saketh Myneni) at the 2014 Asian Games, held in Incheon, South Korea.
  • Bronze in the Women’s Doubles (pairing with Prarthana Thombare) at the 2014 Asian Games, held in Incheon, South Korea.

Success Stories with WTA

  • Won the WTA Doubles Finals in 2014 along with Cara Black)
  • Won the WTA Doubles Finals in 2015 along with Martina Hingis)
  • Reigned for 91 weeks as the top-ranked player in the WTA doubles rankings.She is among the two Indian female tennis players to win a WTA title (the other being Ankita Rana), and the only female Indian tennis player to reach the top 100 in the singles rankings.

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