For Sania Mirza, a tennis journey spanning 30 years that began on courts prepared from cow dung in south India is set to conclude in a tennis stadium nestled among the glitzy skyscrapers of Dubai this week.
Last month’s Australian Open was her final grand slam. On the famous Margaret Court Arena, as the sun set on a hot Melbourne day, Mirza recorded her final grand slam win – a mixed doubles semifinal along with her Indian compatriot Rohan Bopanna.
Once the high fives and handshakes were over, Mirza turned her attention towards her four-year-old son Izhaan, who gleefully jumped and skipped across the court and ran into his beaming mother’s arms.
It was a moment of unadulterated love that moved tennis fans across the world. The six-time grand slam champion had recently announced her retirement from the game. She was on her way to one last grand slam final, this time, with her son in tow.
Mirza and Bopanna lost the final but the image of a 36-year-old mother reaching the decider at a grand slam and celebrating with her child left an indelible mark.
“If, by returning to the top level of the game after having a child, I was able to inspire even one mother to go back and pursue her dreams, then I have done my job,” Mirza told Al Jazeera before the Dubai Tennis Championships.
Mirza’s journey began at the age of six at a sports club in her hometown Hyderabad where, at the time, the courts were made of cow dung which was flattened into a smooth surface and painted upon.
“When I started off 30 years ago, no one could picture an Indian girl pursuing tennis as a profession, let alone competing with the best in the world,” Mirza said.
What started as a casual attempt at yet another sport – Mirza was a standout swimmer and skater – soon turned into a passion.
“I started improving at tennis rapidly and that prompted my parents and coach into thinking I might have a talent for it, and they began to take it seriously,” she recalled. “Soon, I was winning tournaments. By the time I was eight, I had won an under-16 state championship by beating a girl twice my age.
“I never heard anyone say I wasn’t talented,” she said matter-of-factly.
Her rise may have been quick but it did not come without stutters and bumps.
“There was no system in place for young Indian tennis players, especially girls. There was no path that I could follow in order to become a top international player so we just figured things out as we went along our way.”
By we, Mirza refers to her parents and younger sister, all of whom became invested in making her a champion.
“We made mistakes but we took pride in everything. We had fun along the way, and most importantly, did it together.”
Mirza’s father Imran and mother Nasima took turns chaperoning her at international tournaments and performing the duties of her mentor.
“We realised early on that the tennis circuit was not a place for a girl to grow up on, and decided that one of us would always be by her side when she travelled,” Imran told Al Jazeera before Mirza’s final tournament.
Her big international break came at the 2005 Australian Open where she reached the third round as a singles player, only to be defeated by eventual champion Serena Williams.
The same year, she reached the second round of Wimbledon and became the first Indian woman to reach the fourth round of the US Open, where she lost to top-seed Maria Sharapova.
“The reaction was incredible and made me a star overnight,” she said, remembering how she felt as an 18-year-old who finally received “acknowledgement and acceptance” as an athlete from the Indian subcontinent.
Imran has successfully coached his daughter for the past 30 years, despite not being trained professionally. He puts it down to a natural acumen for nurturing young athletes, and his love for tennis.
From a lack of training facilities and courts, to the struggle of finding sponsors, and the inability of local media to deal with a confident and articulate female athlete were some of the problems that Imran said his family had to face.
“There were only two courts in Hyderabad. One of them was inside a gentleman’s house, so we had to request him and wait for hours to get access,” Imran said.
Where the family struggled in financing her daughter’s journey, it made up with an all-round passion for sports.
Imran played cricket and tennis, published a sports magazine, and both parents were sports fans. It helped the young star settle into a routine where she could focus on tennis, while her parents shielded her from the outside world.
“Our background helped Sania overcome social pressures that she would have been exposed to early on,” Imran said.
“Of course, there were some aunts and uncles [who] would say ‘she will get tanned and have dark skin by playing in the sun’ or would ‘struggle to get married’, but we never took them seriously,” he scoffed.
Mirza agreed. “As women, we are given a long list of things that we can’t do, as opposed to being encouraged to go and follow our dreams,” she said.
She has been a notable advocate for equality for women, especially in sports. In an earlier interview, she recalled how, until she gave birth to her son, she was repeatedly asked when she would have a child.
“I’ve had journalists ask me this question in a post-match press conference right after winning a grand slam final, and with the trophy by my side,” she had said. “It’s as if I would not be a complete woman until I became a mother, no matter what I achieved as an athlete.”
Mirza has not shied away from speaking her mind, or “doing things my way”, as she always says. There have been instances when her religion and cultural background has been used to stir controversies.
When Mirza shot to stardom in 2005, a group of Muslim scholars issued a fatwa, calling her choice of on-court clothing of short-sleeved T-shirt and skirt to be “un-Islamic” and “corrupting”.
In her 2016 autobiography Ace Against Odds, Mirza recalled how the news was “blown well out of proportion by an agency report, spread like wildfire and, within hours, became the talk of the country”.
A subcontinent icon
Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, Pakistan’s biggest name on the tennis court, has played against Mirza in mixed doubles.
He told Al Jazeera that Mirza, despite the obstacles, opened the door for young girls from South Asia to take up international sports.
“Being a Muslim girl in India, it must have been incredibly hard for her to continue playing at the top level despite all the allegations and controversies that kept coming her way,” Qureshi said.
“Sania has been an inspiration for so many young girls from India, Pakistan, and the entire region by showing them that if they put in the hard work, they too can become international athletes.
“I’ve seen the sacrifices she has had to make, the struggle she went through to become a champion,” Qureshi said, adding that he is very proud of his friend from across the border.
Mirza has won 43 major career titles, including three grand slam titles.
Her most prolific run came in the 2015-16 season when she paired with former world number one Martina Hingis. The pair won 16 titles, including the three grand slams, topped the women’s doubles rankings and were often termed one of the greatest women’s doubles teams of all time.
Since announcing her plans to retire, she has repeatedly been asked why she decided to quit tennis despite ranking among the best in the world.
“It is very important for me that people ask me why I’m quitting rather than when,” Mirza said with a smile.
“Staying at this level [of tennis] is taking a lot out of me mentally, emotionally and physically. I don’t have the will to push all the way to maintain this level.”
Despite hanging up her boots, Mirza will not be walking away from the sport entirely.
She has been running a tennis academy in Hyderabad for 10 years and has opened two in her adopted home, Dubai. More importantly, she said, she would like to be around for her son as he grows up.
“I want to spend more time with my son, do the school runs and not travel as much as I did in the past 20 years.
“It’s been really nice to know that I have been able to make a difference in young girls’ lives, especially those from the subcontinent,” she said.
“Girls from our part of the world have to overcome cultural and religious barriers to be the best at whatever they choose to do in life, and if I have been able to inspire a few girls to fight for their dreams, I will feel like my journey has been fulfilled.”
Source: Al Jazeera