For Indian tennis superstar Sania Mirza, the final bow from the sport was on the expected lines, at least in her timing. She had announced at the Melbourne Australian Open in January that the Dubai WTA event in February would be her swan song. So it was. Only, it did not turn out to be a fairytale finish to add one more to the 43 doubles titles she had accumulated in her two decades on the international circuit. A first-round exit partnering the American Madison Keys seemed an anti-climax compared to the final-round finish she and partner Rohan Bopanna had achieved in the mixed doubles in the Australian Open. In a way that typified Sania’s two-decade life story in tennis, winning some and losing a few, but in the end, carving a name for herself in the tough grind of international competition! Remember, she had the distinction of being number one ranked in doubles for 91 weeks.
But that is just only one point really. That day in Dubai marked a mixed bag of emotions for tennis lovers, particularly in India. Sania’s final bow meant the exit of a proud Indian from the international tennis scene, and it also signified the end of an Indian presence at the higher levels of women’s tennis globally at least for the time being. As Sania was herself to submit, she does not see an Indian talent rising and getting counted among those in the top echelons of women’s tennis in the immediate future going by what she had seen in the rankings. The highest-ranked Indian women currently in singles are Ankita Raina at 245 and Karman Thandi at 265, and in doubles, there are just two women in the top 200. “To see someone who is going to dominate at the highest level, I don’t know if I see that in the immediate five to ten-year future. That’s the honest truth,” Sania was to tell the AFP news agency.
Sania knows what it is to struggle to reach a stage and get noticed. As a junior player, her participation in major tournaments in the country was a common sight for those who frequent tennis events. Her father, and coach Imran Mirza, used to accompany her everywhere. Dedicated, hard-working and focused, Sania was a bundle of energy and enthusiasm on the court. Who would have thought that at that stage this Hyderabad girl would scale heights as she eventually did in International tennis? Fighting against all odds was part of her struggle, and then there was this eagerness to get a foothold on the higher levels. Doubles lifted her even though she had earned the honour of being the highest-ranked Indian woman in singles (27). Six Grand Slam titles provided proof of her expertise in the doubles and what is more a place among the pantheon of greats in Indian sports. In every sense, Sania has been a trailblazing career something that will remain recorded in golden letters in the annals of Indian sports history.
For a long has Indian tennis centred on the performances of the men. Ramanathan Krishnan, the Amritraj brothers, and Ramesh Krishnan, then followed by Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, and the rest all had done stellar roles in keeping the Indian tennis flag flying high in their own way. In this midst, the only note of interest on the women’s side came when Nirupama Sanjeev (nee Vaidyanathan), in the late 90s, became the first Indian to win a round at a Grand Slam event_ the Australian Open. She did not go far before retiring with a career-best ranking of 147. It was thereafter that focus shifted to this Hyderabadi girl, particularly when she took the bold step of turning pro in 2003 at age 17. For ten years, she ploughed on expressing her talent backed by fitness and grit to gain one WTA tour title, reaching a career-high of rank 27 and making it to the fourth round in the U S Open. The injuries came as a hurdle, but her itch for doubles play grew, and the rest, as they say, is history, as her subsequent achievements were to prove.
Not only did she sustain herself in the tough world of tennis, but grew in strength and reputation. The iron lady in Indian tennis had emerged and come through clean in these settings with an unmatched 43 doubles titles to show at the end, making a mark in Grand Slams partnering men and women of high standards. All these spoke of her determination, self-belief and single-minded goal and not to mention her strong court craft. Not that things were easy down the road. For, aside from the struggles on the court, she had to play down a variety of controversies ranging from her attire to her alleged remarks on topics not connected with tennis etc. However, nothing shook her countenance, nor the world saw, tarnished her image. Married to the Pakistan cricketer Shoaib Malik, she stood up to face the taunt of being “Pakistan’s daughter-in-law’!
When she finally took the bow in Dubai, what must have struck sports lovers the world over and particularly in India is the level of inspiration she must have been and continues to be for women in sports. If there is one important lesson her career showed then it had to be, to borrow Swamy Vivekananda’s words said on another context “awake, arise and sleep not until the goal is reached”! For someone who fell in love with tennis at age six, Sania has through her deeds endeared herself to the world of tennis in a spectacular way.